The cult of unboxing

July 11, 2013, 9:00 AM UTC

FORTUNE — About six months ago, I bought an iPad through the online Apple Store. Some three or four business days later, a DHL guy appeared at my door and presented me with a rectangular package. I signed for it and carried it into the kitchen, where I selected from the cutlery drawer a knife sufficiently sharp and sturdy for the job of slicing open the formidable carapace of packaging. I removed the white plastic DHL bag, then made my way through the outer husk of plain cardboard to the compact tabernacle of the Apple packaging proper. As I did so, I became aware of a voice in my head. This voice was briskly self-assured, astringently American; it spoke not to me, but through me, and the words it spoke were these: “OK, let’s go ahead and unbox this sucker.”

I wasn’t unsettled by the sudden interjection of this cockily demotic voice, because I knew where it came from. Before purchasing the iPad, I had done quite a bit of research: the usual perusal of user-reviews and product specs undertaken to persuade yourself that you’re not throwing your money away. At some point during this period of consumer research, I had discovered a curious category of YouTube (GOOG) video that occupies a generic no-man’s-land between the user-generated product review and the shopping channel talk-through. The “unboxing” video offers the viewer the vicarious experience of removing a newly purchased product (usually an electronic device of some sort) from its packaging. It is a visual document of the consummation of the purchaser-product relationship, that apex of possibility and anticipation right before the start of the slow, inevitable decline into disappointment and neglect.

I couldn’t really begin to say why, but in the process of working myself up to buying an iPad, I became slightly addicted to these strange, homemade videos, with their mildly intoxicating mixture of smugness and exhilaration. I started off watching iPad unboxings, and then worked my way haphazardly outward toward the fringes of the technological orbit: to webcam footage of people unboxing leatherette iPhone cases, Kindle reading lights, limited-edition Nintendo (NTDOY) DS replacement styluses. I saw a well-heeled New Jerseyite named Lance Linton unbox a Dualit brushed-steel toaster; I saw a nervous and bespectacled Irish schoolboy unbox a Russell Hobbs Glass Touch cordless kettle; I saw a tracksuited and baseball-capped East Londoner unbox a Gamucci Micro V2 Electronic Cigarette starter kit; I saw a pallid old Texan unbox something called a Medtronic Carelink Monitor, a modem-linked device whereby cardiac patients can send data from their pacemakers to their doctors; I saw a young American kid loquaciously unpacking first a stapler (“contoured for handheld use”), then, in a companion-piece video, the separately-sold staples with which he intended to load it. I saw every conceivable consumer durable unsheathed and admired, I saw the broken labyrinth of the Internet itself, and I saw the face of the free market, saw my face and my viscera reflected back in it, saw your face, and I felt dizzy. Mostly, though, I just saw a lot of Apple (AAPL) products and Sony (SNE) games consoles being taken out of their boxes and exhaustively talked about by young American men.

MORE: How Lenovo became No. 1 in PCs

To those who have never seen an unboxing video, it is easy to describe what they’re like, but difficult to account for their appeal. On some level, they’re all essentially the same: a guy telling you he’s bought some gizmo online (or, more rarely, spent hours queueing at a midnight launch down at the local Apple store) and that he’s going to do a quick unboxing for the folks at home. Next, he’ll provide a fetishistically painstaking exegesis of the process of removing the gizmo from its packaging and then, usually, of the physical properties of the gizmo itself (its array of buttons, its control pads, its as-standard allotment of USB ports and SD slots). The thing itself — and this is an important feature of the genre — is rarely actually turned on. Unboxing is mainly about packaging and its removal. It focuses on the first sensuous encounter with the object of desire.

These videos first began to appear online with the advent of video sharing sites like YouTube and Dailymotion in the mid 2000s. They began to attract the notice of non-tech-specific media in 2008, by which point there were tens of thousands of individual unboxings on YouTube alone; some videos are produced by dedicated operations like, but the majority are created by enthusiastic amateurs. The earliest known example of the form — the ur-unboxing — was uploaded to YouTube in 2006. It’s the work of a small online video production company called Aradius Media Network. It lasts just under a minute and a half, and it’s basically just a guy taking a Nokia (NOK) phone out of its box, holding it up to the camera while noting its thinness, and then inventorying the various manuals, installation CDs, and chargers included with it. The video is entitled “Unboxing Ceremony of Nokia E61,” and although there’s nothing particularly ceremonial about it — in fact it borders on the perfunctory — the use of the term is revealing. These videos are rituals without gods — unless, of course, the object itself is a god. (In which case it might be worth thinking here about Walter Benjamin’s definition of capitalism as a “purely cultic religion” in which “there is no ‘weekday,’ no day that would not be a holiday in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us.”) The unboxer acts as a kind of priest in the polytheistic faith of merchandise, a mediator between the congregation of consumer subjects and the numinous object itself. The task that he sets himself (and, as with priests generally, it’s almost always a he) is the task of revelation.

Unboxing Ceremony of Nokia E61.

It might be best to describe this ritual by way of detailing, unboxing-style, a typical (and more recent) example of the form. There’s a video on YouTube entitled “Playstation Vita Unboxing and Initial Impressions” — the work of a user calling himself skyghene22 — that seems usefully representative. It opens with a handheld camera panning across a selection of unopened boxes laid out across a table. The unboxer is invisible from his position behind the camera. This gives the video an added frisson of unmediated experience; in this sense, it’s like one of those first-person-shooter games in which all the player sees of his or her onscreen incarnation is a pair of hands gripping a weapon. (The tagline for the above-mentioned is the phrase “vicarious thrills from opening new gear.” The site’s chief executive, Andru Edwards, told The Independent that watching one of these videos is “similar to an experience you’d have in a strip club. It’s stuff that you’re lusting over — you can’t have it, but you want it.”) After some brief prefatory remarks (“What’s up, Internet?”), the unseen unboxer introduces us to his recent purchases in their fully boxed state. First, the brand-new Sony Playstation Vita handheld game console itself, then the Vita-brand protective film, then a 16BG Sony memory card (which, as he points out, is smaller than his thumbnail), then a newly released game called Lord of Apocalypse, and then, finally, a black leather case for toting the whole setup around (which sheath he describes as “pretty sexy”). We then move onto the unboxing proper. “Why don’t we get down to business here,” he drawls. “Let’s go ahead and unbox this sucker.”

One of the formal peculiarities of the genre is that the item being unboxed is usually spoken of in one of two ways: in either a mildly trash-talky register (“sucker,” “bad-boy”), or a quasi-eroticized one. The division between these registers is not always clear. Another, possibly related, idiomatic distinction is that unboxers tend to talk not of having “bought,” but of having “picked up” the product (“I went with the leather case with the strap here. Thought that was pretty sexy, so, yeah, I picked that up too.”) The use of a diluted, mistranslated rap argot is also very common. In one video, in which a guy unboxes a perfectly preserved 1980s Nintendo NES Deluxe Set — a so-called retro-unboxing — we get some fine examples of this. The console itself is announced as “coming at ya from 1985.” When he gets to the archaic coaxial cables included in the box, the guy indulges himself in a riff that seems to veer clumsily between MTV Cribs and PC World registers: “Here’s how you get it all connected to your television. Yeah, back inna day there was no HDMI. I’m schoolin’ all you youngsters here. It was strictly analogue coaxial style into the back of your tube television … ”

MORE: Are social shares a good metric for judging journalism?

Before going ahead and unboxing this sucker, our Playstation Vita unboxer examines the exterior of the box itself, dutifully pointing out warranty information and technical specifications. After some awkward one-handed clawing at a medial cardboard flap, the box is flipped open, and the user guide and various other booklets are displayed. Our attention is drawn to the way in which, when fully opened, the pages of these booklets “accordion out.” (Nabokov famously recommended that readers of fiction should “fondle details,” and there’s a similar commitment to aesthetic vigilance in the work of the more serious unboxers.) This bumf is deferentially removed, revealing a hatch beneath which sundry cords and adapters are stowed. Once these are in turn announced and set aside, the outline of the console can be glimpsed through its opaque plastic sleeve. Our unboxer then removes the impressively slender and widescreen object from the sleeve and sets it on the table with a respectful “wow.” “As you all know,” he announces of the console we are now seeing, “it’s sexy as hell.” We watch his non-camera-holding hand pick it up, and we hear him say — in a lower voice, as though to himself — “This thing is hot.” At this point, it’s as if he’s become momentarily distracted from the job at hand by the provocative loveliness of the object. “Uh, it’s pretty large for a handheld. I like that; some people don’t. I think it’s nice to have a large handheld.” We are now, by the way, at about the midway point in the video’s running time. It goes on in this fashion for a further five minutes or so, with various dimensions, weights, and specifications discussed and compared with those of other, similar, consoles which he also has to hand.

It isn’t easy to account for the attraction of these videos; or more specifically, I suppose, it isn’t easy for me to account for my attraction to them. There might, though — and I advance this theory somewhat hesitantly — be something about unboxing videos that stokes whatever vestigial embers remain of the childhood enthrallment of present-opening.

Christmas in our house was a ritual of deferred fulfilment. Every autumn, my grandmother used to sit me down at her kitchen table, drop the authoritative slab of the Argos catalogue in front of me, and hand me a biro to circle whichever high-concept board game, Transformers tie-in, or hinged-and-foldable He-Man castle most stirred my avaricious soul. The deal was always closed by early October, at which point my uncle was dispatched across the border with a fistful of sterling. (This was well before Argos stores appeared in the Republic; at this stage, selecting items from a full-colour glossy catalogue and getting your son-in-law to drive to Belfast and back was self-evidently the future of retail.) The intensity with which I watched the television ads for the chosen toy would then shift into a higher gear, driven by an increasingly proprietorial interest. I would look at the glossily American kid, my flaxen-haired proxy in the ad for Pop-Up Pirates (or whatever), and think: ‘That’s going to be me soon; the fun he’s having there is precisely the quality and quantity of fun I’m going to be having come Christmas morning.” The actual toy was usually a letdown, of course, a mere cave-wall shadow of the Platonic form of fun I had glimpsed in the ad. But that was, in some crucial and paradoxical sense, only ever a secondary concern. The tentative hefting of the gift-wrapped box, the careful ripping of the paper, the revelation of the gaudy packaging itself, the brief inventory of its contents, the swelling anxiety as to the potential non-inclusion of batteries — this was the point at which the whole experience converged, the moment where the long season of giddy anticipation gave way to the banality of possession.

Playstation Vita Unboxing and Initial Impressions.

Later, as a teenager, I developed an entry-level ironist’s fascination with the various shopping networks that were to be found in the upper registers of the satellite channels, the triple-figure badlands of afternoon programming. My older sister and I would come in from school and, if there was nothing else worth watching (which there never was), we’d go straight to QVC in order to pass the hour or so before Home and Away came on. The presenters, with their mint-condition hair and their prestige fingernails, were the main focus of our enjoyment. What most enthralled us, I think, was these people’s ability to deliver monologues of preposterous length and detail on the various features of whatever off-brand stereo system or garish costume necklace they happened to be trying to shift a few dozen units of. The heaping of such enthusiastic exposition on such transparently trivial items held a strange appeal for us both, and it wasn’t only to do with how funny we found it. I remember being especially transfixed by one presenter’s ability to make the opening and closing of a fifty-quid CD player’s loading tray seem a marvel of engineering: “Just look at the smoothness of the way it opens up when I depress the button here. Can we get in a little tighter with the camera on this, please? It’s a marvelous feature. I could do this all day.” I could have watched those guys all day, too.

MORE: Hulu owners face a ton of bad choices

My interest in unboxing videos is characterized by an uneasy compound of innocence and irony, of the ways in which I watched toy ads as a child and QVC as a teenager. Even as I relish the faux-street nerdisms of the unboxing patter, some underlying object-awe is being provoked. I see a clean-cut dude in a hotel room struggling to slice open the sealed box of his newly purchased Samsung Galaxy tablet using only the plastic collar stay from his dress shirt (“I’m using my mad cutting skills, yo.”) and I smirk at the cultural absurdity it reveals; but I know that I’m also watching because doing so simultaneously soothes and exacerbates some restless instinct for material acquisition, for newer and better things. I can write an essay on this minor Internet phenomenon, and nod passingly in the direction of Adorno and Benjamin while I’m at it, but on some barely cerebral level I get the same kind of kick out of it that I did out of seeing the Pop-Up Pirates ad on TV while slumped on the couch in my school uniform. The watchful irony of the intellect is often a front for something. Here, perhaps, it’s a front for the childish acquisitiveness of the consumer id.

Recently, my wife and I bought a magnolia white Kenwood KMix food processor. We got it home and were about to remove it from its box to make a couple of inaugural banana smoothies when an impulse asserted itself. “Wait,” I said, stepping back from the kitchen counter and opening up the video camera app on my phone. “Let’s do a quick unboxing.” My wife isn’t ordinarily in the habit of indulging my domestic whims, but for whatever reason — possibly the mild euphoria of new blender ownership — she seemed as amused by the idea as I was. She turned out to be a naturally gifted unboxer, with a fluent and largely instinctive grasp of the codes and gestures of the form. What was even more surprising was the swiftness with which the skittishly ironic tone she started out with gave way to an unaffected and functionally eloquent commentary on the KMix’s features, accessories and included appendages. We were doing a quick unboxing video, and we were having quite a lot of fun. It’s not on YouTube, though, so don’t waste your time looking.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.