Inside Voice

Amid housing affordability crises, domesticity vlogs offer consolation by turning home into a feeling

The warmth of a flickering candle as part of a nighttime routine. Freshly washed towels, dried and stacked, bask in sunlight. Bright red tomatoes sit atop a counter, ready to be used. If you’ve watched any form of home-oriented YouTube videos — from apartment tours to cottagecore to “day in my life” videos — these sorts of images may sound familiar. While some videos about homes make a spectacle of lavish real estate (e.g., Erik Conover’s channel), “home vlogs” — a more quotidian and subdued genre — document and aestheticize what might otherwise appear as domestic mundanity: waking up early, watering plants, vacuuming, cooking dinner. Utterly entrancing at times, home vlogs revel in not just indoor activities but in the senses of comfort, coziness, and even beauty that the ideal home and its rituals bring. Not concerned with architecture or property values, they instead fixate on what happens inside, on objects and practices that generate moods, vibes, feelings.

A reoccurring comment across home vlogs is how relaxing and inspired the videos make the viewer feel

Unlike shows such as MTV Cribs or those on Home & Garden TV, home vlogs make domestic mundanity slow and exquisite through alluring cinematic visuals often reminiscent of still-life paintings. Even in more “chatty,” personality-based home vlogs by influencers with large followings, there will almost always be a montage of some domestic task — making a smoothie, say — backed up by a low-key soundtrack. Though such sequences are not explicitly meant to be how-tos, they are instructive in that they exemplify what vitality and refreshment at home should look like. As you watch a close-up of the smoothie being poured into a glass, then a shot of the vlogger at a window, looking out at their morning view with smoothie in hand, before raising the cup to their mouth, you are being shown and taught how to feel. In these kinds of distillations of domestic moments, home vlogs depict not so much a place and its occupants than they extract a particular sensation: home not as place but an amalgam of affects.

A reoccurring comment across various home vlogs is how relaxing, peaceful, and inspired the videos make the viewer feel. In this sense, home vlogs are akin to other affect-based media such as ASMR videos or ambience channels that stream lo-fi beats and immersive sound effects. Home vlogs also reflect the tradition of marketing products by evoking domesticity (these 1990s commercials for Folgers coffee, for instance, associate at-home coffee consumption with family and morning sunshine, as if domestic feelings can be imbibed). But as much as they rely on affect, home vlogs additionally draw upon the aesthetics of longstanding shelter magazines like Architectural Digest that have likewise inspired homey feelings in readers since their first issues in the early 20th century, and online formats in the 21st.

Image: Still from “A day at home. Make jam for toast,” by Sueddu.

Now, however, platforms like YouTube and TikTok nurture this perennial cultural fixation on living spaces. To begin with, video as a medium maximizes the affective potential of images of home. Music, camerawork, montage, and oftentimes whimsical captions and narration intensify the experience of home as feeling, something text cannot fully stimulate. The social media aspect of independent, user-generated content means a much wider and more modest range of homes becomes viewable, a selection not limited to celebrity mansions or producers’ curation, and as with ASMR and ambience rooms, viewing is on demand, ready to foster or be matched with a mood. 

At the same time, home vlogs are markedly situated within our current milieu of housing affordability crises. Recent news of bunk-bed-style “pods” rented out at $800 per month in Palo Alto brings once-distant (and oft-Orientalized) images of Tokyo’s capsule apartments or Hong Kong’s micro-apartments to the Bay Area doorstep. Notably, in Japan and South Korea, the home vlog genre is described as “healing,” especially for young audiences worn out by hypercompetitive society. In 2021, Korea’s real estate prices saw the biggest increase in 15 years. According to anthropologist Jesook Song, single women in Korea specifically link spatial autonomy to an assertion of selfhood, as they face a gendered monitoring from parents or roommates that is typically not felt by men. This may in part account for why so many home vloggers around the world are single women as well.

Issues like these speak to a need to experience “home” in a different way, as something to consume rather than occupy. Home vlogs offer one such alternative. They are not merely escapist but a potentially reparative media, giving solace to those encumbered by anything from rising rent to familial pressures, providing or inspiring feelings of spatial autonomy and refuge when they may be materially absent. If various scenes, like relishing a freshly brewed cup of coffee in the morning or lighting incense before bedtime, can be staged to signify home, then they might seem to make “home” more manageable and affordable. Home vlogs don’t dangle an enticing fantasy of homeownership beyond reach but present a different conception of home entirely, of home defined as feelings, not property.

Reconceptualized in this way, “home” is untethered from land, family, and lineage. It is siphoned off from the liberal fetish of homeownership — that quintessential image, derived from a short-lived American postwar prosperity, of a picket-fenced house with parents, kids, car, dog. Of course, the feeling of home is not a substitute for actual shelter, but it demonstrates that the need for shelter can be detached from the need for homey-ness or domesticity. “Home” becomes conducive to a more makeshift life, possible potentially anywhere. 

Experiencing home as feeling creates new kinds of tension in the concept of home. In the shift from actual space to affective image, home is subject to different kinds of expectations and imaginative possibilities. In 2016, PiroPito, a Japanese artist and experimental filmmaker, uploaded a video whose title, “My house walk-through,” evokes the expected look and vibe of a typical home vlog. But as the handheld camera lumbers through endlessly repeating hallways of a dark and dilapidated house, whose rotting walls are splotched with flesh-colored stains, lined with creepy wartime portraits, and whose rooms contain what look like decaying corpses of the narrator’s grandparents, it articulates in jarring reverse the normative nature of a certain style of photographable living and the burden of its demands. 

If relishing a cup of coffee or lighting incense can be staged to signify home, they make “home” more manageable and affordable

Recast as feelings, the indistinct and amorphous location of “home” makes it susceptible to becoming a standardized, commodifiable experience, its reparative qualities distributed like vitamin supplements to deal with contemporary ailments. The home-vlog aesthetic of a neat, minimal kitchen space, coupled with cozy ASMR-like sounds of cooking, has been adopted by some of meal-kit company HelloFresh’s ads: “Dinner — it’s more than just a meal you make every night. It’s a chance to slow down … and catch your breath. To be fully present in the moment.” This places an onus on domestic work to be more than just a means of replenishing oneself; it also becomes a mode of self-therapy. “Home as feeling” becomes a technology of self-optimization rather than a respite. Where you actually live is no excuse not to make good vibes, for vibes will help you deal with both personal and collective precarity.

Around the same time as the first shelter magazines emerged in Europe and North America, Walter Benjamin ruminated in the Arcades Project on the changing role of middle-class homes as a by-product of industrial capitalism in France: “For the private citizen, for the first time the living-space became distinguished from the place of work … From this sprang the phantasmagorias of the interior.” With modernity comes a need to keep one’s home as a protective haven, even if an imaginary one, from insecurities felt outside. One’s home became synonymous to one’s identity, and everything in it — from “boxes” and “antimacassars” to artwork and furniture — would sustain a sense of self against the throes of modern life. Nonetheless, turning the interior into a showcase of the self was itself an aspect of that modern life, reproducing that self’s fragility.

Recent years have at once bolstered and tweaked this imperative. For many, working from home has attenuated the idea of home as a refuge. There have been countless “work-from-home desk setup tour” YouTube videos seeking to address this since 2020, promoting harmonies of productive and homey feelings. Stay-at-home parents are offered something similar in home vlogs with more of a family theme. All of these set up a standard for what home should feel like under the pressure of work’s encroachment and of society at large. Yet living up to these norms are costly. The videos themselves are acute evidence of how home can be turned from a refuge into a fully professionalized space, a work-studio-cum-display-commodity for others to consume online. 

Amid the pandemic, Swiss furniture and design company Vitra claimed that “with a hostile environment outside,” people would “want to live with softness, textiles, density, older, less shiny objects and a deeply personal touch. Comfort is the guiding principle … Objects that provide protection will find their way into homes, embracing and shielding the user from the outside world.” The emphasis here is on affects of home — the haptic sensations of “softness” and a “deeply personal touch” — as the source for feelings of “comfort.” Objects, that is, work the same way as home vlogs. If home vlogs can compensate for the unaffordability of housing by offering an affective alternative, Vitra co-opts that affect and returns it to the preserve of expensive furniture. The feeling of home would again be reserved only for those with access to, and the taste for, distinguished aesthetics. As in PiroPito’s “home tour,” home must first look right to feel right.

In Chantal Akerman’s experimental film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), the title character, a single mother and sex worker, is filmed at home in a manner similar to so many home vlog sequences. Static long takes record her going through her domestic tasks, like doing the dishes, knitting, bathing, peeling potatoes. Like other feminist films of the period, Jeanne Dielman eschewed the cumbersome and traditional methods of male-dominated filmmaking by using portable 16mm sync-sound cameras to portray and probe a woman’s interiority. Analogously, mobile camera technology and user-generated platforms have also enabled and inspired so many woman home vloggers to new expressions of their interior lives.

Home vlogs provide feelings of calm; they likewise instrumentalize those feelings as commodities and exclusionary aesthetics

In an essay about the film, theorist Laura Mulvey notes how the impeccable orderliness and cleanliness of Jeanne’s home, her housework, and her put-together appearance altogether constitute a “surface propriety.” This overall neatness, in the film’s captivating formal style — comparable to the home vlog style — exudes a sense of intriguing domestic calm and peace. However, it also prompts a feeling of insulation and encasement, of defense and denial, as if preventing the “intrusion” of Jeanne’s work into the domestic.

As the film slowly progresses, disruptions to Jeanne’s routines (at first small, then eventually big) betray the tenuousness of her home’s surface propriety, its “bourgeois respectability,” in Mulvey’s words. Crucially for Mulvey, what threatens to intrude is the city life just outside Jeanne’s apartment, an “other” hinted at by the neon signs flashing through the windows, incessantly but silently reflecting off the background walls in numerous interior shots. The careful aesthetics and compartmentalization of Jeanne’s home reflects a desire to keep up a classed decorum disassociated from her work, from unwanted others, even from a part of herself — creating a kind of parody of work-life balance in how this order tries to offset chaos. 

Similarly, home vlogs can be complicit in the imbalance they seek to repair. If they also provide feelings of calm, peace, home, they likewise instrumentalize those feelings as commodities and exclusionary aesthetics, as the Vitra and HelloFresh ads show. Like in Akerman’s film, the feeling of home — under threat by a general unaffordability, incursions of work, or whatever else deemed hostile from outside — seems to necessitate a self-voyeuristic exhibition of respectable living. An affective conception of home can’t simply be consumed but must be constantly staged and constructed with the right feelings and visuals.

Dissolving physical space into affective scenes, home vlogs rescue “home” from being just a matter of property. Against a backdrop of precarity, this can be experienced as a creative and freeing alternative beyond homeownership and assets. But when new conditions are attached to home as feeling, home is again fetishized and reified, enclosed into a predictable, rarefied aesthetic. Reparation, it turns out, is in need of its own repairs. Kept away are other styles of life and dwelling deemed less respectable. These are the “neon signs” flickering outside the frames.

Hyejoo Lee is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, where she researches and writes about film, digital media, gender, and Korean cinema more specifically.