The strange appeal of absurdly long YouTube videos that purposely play nothing

The title of the video, for once on YouTube, is pretty straightforward: “24 hours + pure black screen in HD!Aside from the questions about the difference between standard and high definition pure black screens, the video does what it says on the tin. Press play and you get over 24 hours – 24 hours, one minute and 27 seconds to be exact – black screen and silence. It’s like turning off your computer without turning off your computer.

This video has been viewed 40.2 million times.

The first time I looked at it I assumed there was a joke or a Rick Roll or something in there somewhere and I looked disturbingly long to find it. Nothing. So I thought it was a little bit. Nice meta-comment about the bullshit people love to watch! Most commentators seemed to agree and love the concept. “How is this not in theaters?” commentator Orbital wrote. “The story, the characters, the acting is a masterpiece! especially at 1:23:53, where dark acted as the void, is just so beautiful. Uinthlees YT called it “a complete masterpiece” with “many wonderful, heart-wrenching moments”. And Buzzcut Boy wrote that they watch it every night before going to bed: “I’ve watched this video so many times I even see it when I close my eyes, like my eyelids are a little screen playing this masterpiece.”

But now, after spending too many hours watching too long videos, just like “24 hours + pure black screen in HD!” I think I discovered their true purpose. Not only are they no joke, but they’re some of the most useful and easy-to-use stuff on YouTube.

The ultra-long video has, of course, been a staple of YouTube for a very long time. The first one I remember was watching 10 hours of bleating goats the chorus of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”, but I think my all-time favorite is when Nathan Graham from the gaming channel Unspeakable uploaded a video called “PLAY MINECRAFT FOR 24 HOURS RIGHT!‘, which turned out to be a few minutes of gaming and about 23 hours of looped footage of Graham sleeping. The result: 14 million views. It’s a good joke.

There are also more useful genres of mega-long YouTube. You can get A roaring fire for 24 hours, which is a good background view in winter. There’s an amazing amount of content geared towards dogs, which usually adds up to over 20 hours of soothing music and wildlife photos. (The “most repeated” bit of such a movie is a sweeping overhead shot of a lush island, right down to the beach, and I like to imagine my dogs scrubbing back over and over to soak up the island vibe.) There’s plenty of super long Cat TV, too, but that seems less popular. I found one that only spins a seal in the water for 20 hours titled “No need to be Upset 20 HOURS LONG!!” It has 644,000 views, some of which are me.

The most sensible long videos are those with music. Twenty hours of spa music, 12 hours of jazz, 14 hours of loungey covers of popular hits. I’ve come to like these even more than the always-streaming channels like Lofi Girl because they’re so predictable. I played a 24 hour video called “Starbucks Jazz Music Collection 2021 – 24 Hours Smooth Jazz for studying, working, relaxing, sleeping“so often that my brain knows its ebb and flow, barely registering it as I go about my day.

And yet I still can’t explain why “24 hours + pure black screen in HD!” is such a huge hit. The owner of the channel, a man named Noah who calls himself “Black Screen Guy,” has 65,000 subscribers and over 150 million views on similar videos. The even longer44 hours of pure black screen in HD!” has 5.4 million views. Thirty-five hours, 2.2 million views. Thirty-two hours, 2.4 million. The channel’s most surprising success story? “24 hours pure white screen!‘ is exactly what it sounds like and has 44 million views. That is a lot more than the 7.2 million on “A red screen for 24 hours!

In this case, the scandalous length turns out to be the whole appeal. In all of these videos and many other silent blank videos, each viewer seems to have their own use case. By far the most common is to use these videos as a way to just leave your device on. “I’m letting this play overnight so my laptop doesn’t turn off while downloading games,” one commenter wrote. “Have to keep this open on my phone because it’s broken and won’t turn on when turned off,” said another.

There are also a surprisingly high number of times when you want your device on but the screen off. “I use this so I can open music in another tab at night and have it open so the screen with the music on it doesn’t shine so brightly in my room,” one commenter wrote on a two-day video of a blank black screen. “I use this every night, put on a podcast and q this to come next,” said another. “Unironically useful for preventing screen burn-in,” wrote another. “Big thanks <3.”

In the description of a video, a 10 hour story of pure black screen, the Black Screen Guy himself suggested even more possibilities. You can use a black screen to check your computer’s backlight or find dead pixels; to trick your parents into thinking the computer is off so you can play games without re-entering the password; to keep track of time by how long the video has been playing; to clean your screen without turning off the computer; and so much more. A black screen apparently works wonders, especially when nothing needs to be turned off.

My immediate reaction to this was, well, confusion. Just turn off your screen! You can change the settings on a Mac or PC to turn off your display without putting your computer to sleep, and smartphones and tablets have plenty of ways to play audio in the background even when the display is off.

But you know what’s actually easier than tweaking some settings, especially for younger users who are used to finding everything they need on YouTube? Just play a video. One commenter on a blank screen video called it “the perfect video to cast to your TV when you’re too tired to get up and turn it off,” which seems both ridiculous – when you’re going from your phone to you can cast your TV, you can probably use your phone to turn off your TV! – and tell. A blank screen video is both a dumb and a strangely elegant solution.

In a sense, I’m “24 hours + pure black screen in HD!” like a perfect microcosm of YouTube. YouTube is part entertainment platform, part information library… and part tool repository. It can give a soundtrack to your day, teach you how to beat a game or solve a problem, keep your pets entertained while you’re away, or take you to just about any place on earth. A blank screen video is a productivity tool, plain and simple.

I even understand why now a seven-day video, which is just a timer counting down 168 hours, has 3.7 million views. One commenter summed it up this way: “This is the timer you need if you need to stay active on your computer while working from home. No one will notice you were gone because this video keeps playing.” As long as the computer is awake, I can be wherever I want.