Dirt: Drop, squish and chill

Turn your brain off watching Sandtagious videos

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Caryn Rose on the comforting sands of time

Squares and orbs of colored kinetic sand fall out of the sky from an unseen hand into a glass vessel. Then an implement descends, usually a cocktail muddler of some sort, wooden or metal or acrylic, to squish and tamp and compress the sand out of its initial shapes into a uniform glob. Then more squares and orbs, more tamping, more sand, and more compression until the container is full. 

This activity, labelled by the account as “drop and squish,” is one of the main themes you’ll find in the social media account known as Sandtagious. I stumbled on Sandtagious during the pandemic, late one night when I couldn’t fucking stop thinking long enough to have a chance to fall asleep. I picked up my phone and opened Instagram and clicked on a square in the hopes that maybe this is the thing that will calm me down or amuse me momentarily. I watched it, and then I watched it again. Then I clicked over to the account to see what else was there. 15 minutes later I realized my shoulders had unclenched and I put down the phone and fell asleep.

You may have seen their videos elsewhere on the internet, repackaged by vultures trying to get in on their success, but Sandtagious is the OG. They’ve got There’s always a perfectly placed watermark on their videos, in a location where it can’t be edited out but also so carefully crafted it doesn’t detract from the action. And the action is a consistent list of greatest hits: drop-and-squish, cutting or slicing (cutting molded sand with a variety of knives), scooping (scooping molded sand with a variety of scooping implements), cut-and-level (slicing just the protruding top of molded sand in a container, finished by a quick horizontal slice to clear the top), smoosh (which is just what it sounds like, something smooshing a vertical sand shape). Others combine one more more actions or enhanced versions of the actions: crunchy cutting, poke and cut, “double smoosh,” “smoosh and cut, drop & squish noodles, wavy knife slicing. 

But it’s not just the sand, the actions, the colors, or the shapes, it’s also that the account has impeccable presentation. Every square of sand is perfect. Every squish or cut is on target. The knives are usually colorful and they’ve absolutely worked out the precise positioning of the microphone to obtain full-dimensional sound. They also have selected, from what must have been exhaustive trial-and-error, a wide range of tools, from the aforementioned cocktail muddlers to onion slicers, wavy vegetable cutters, meat choppers, cake slicers and other implements whose main purpose I have not been creative enough to unearth that will both make the slicing or squishing or cutting sound viewers crave and will also look good. Everything appears to be everyday kitchen implements, but they’re chosen and employed in an impeccable and seamless manner. It’s slick as hell. 

When I started watching, the videos weren’t actively promoted as ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), an involuntary autonomic response some humans get in response to an incredibly widely ranging variety of stimuli: crinkling paper, hair brushing, whispering — that became a thing in about 2019, prompting the creation of literally thousands of ASMR YouTube accounts. I don’t personally have the tingly experience most ASMR fans recall having in response to ASMR stimuli, but I completely believe that it’s legit; I just think it’s like, I dunno, asparagus pee. Not everyone has it.

The way Sandtagious differs in my mind from the legions of ASMR channels out there is because it is completely gender neutral. You never see a hand or a reflection and the creator (or creators, who knows) definitely works to not tip their hand or reveal anything about themselves. This is definitely the opposite of much of the rest of ASMR-creator-space, where it’s evolved from vaguely anonymous women whispering through a pop filter to channels run by women with screen names such as “HunniBee ASMR” or “Gentle Whispering ASMR.” There’s definitely a bit of a cult of personality behind the biggest accounts, and most of them are women and aimed at men. Even if I thought ASMR sleep videos might help me, there was a definite ick factor involved with the way these accounts sell themselves. That’s okay, it’s not for me, and if you can monetize this? Go for it.

But the other thing with Sandtagious is that the conversation in the comments is blissfully squick and attention-getting-free. People make requests: “Could you do a longer cutting video,” “Do your knives get dull?,” “How long does it take you to make these videos” (Answer: “Prep and editing takes the longest, dropping and squishing is probably 15 minutes.”), lots of questions about the sand used (yes, the account has a store you can buy from). But most of it is wholesome thanks or sighs of relief: “You make my days better,” “You never disappoint when it comes to satisfactory cuts,” “Your posts soothe me right to sleep.” This is probably because within the “ASMR community” there have been arguments about whether sand cutting is real ASMR or not. The millions of us watching the damn things to turn our brains off do not care, and will happily continue watching cubes and balls and noodles drop with shimmering tinks into perfect containers for as long as the account exists.—Caryn Rose

The Dirt: Comforting like a knife through sand