I called Richard Ryan late on a Thursday evening. His voice through the phone was scratchy and you could hear these faint "pops" every so often. This wasn't the fault of some piss-poor cell reception. This was something else. "Sorry about the explosives going off in the background," he said.
Ryan is in the business of destroying things — smartphones, laptops, game consoles, and smartwatches, more recently, the Apple Watch. With explosives and heavy artillery he shreds motherboards, silicon chips, and pixel-dense displays into e-waste confetti, and posts the action on YouTube, where videos garner millions of views.
About 380 miles north of Ryan's LA home, Taras Maksimuk, better known as TechRax, dreams up similar shows of gadget destruction: an iPhone 6 boiled in Coca-Cola, run over a tank, screwed with a drill, engulfed with a torch, dropped in a lava lamp. Now TechRax is looking for a bigger challenge. His biggest challenge yet, in fact.
He's going to fuck up a $US10,000 Apple Watch Edition.
"This is one of the biggest risks I'm taking here," Maksimuk says. "But my top five videos helped me earn a lot. If this can reach out that far, it will be worth it."
Turns out blowing up gadgets on YouTube can be fairly lucrative, even after accounting for the cost of the obliterated device. A 12-minute drop test video with every generation iPhone racked up nearly 10 million views, having long since paid itself off. An iPhone 6 boiled in Coke was an unanticipated phenomenon at 13 million, and a $US4,000 24 karat gold-plated iPhone 6, hacked up with a knife, just financed itself as of last month, says Maksimuk.
The Apple Watch is an interesting opportunity. Not only do iDevice destruction videos do extremely well — most likely fuelled equally by animosity and curiosity — it's also not every day Apple launches into a new product category.
And though the Android vs. iOS debate may rage on forever, when it comes to clicks, obliterated iPhones are king.
"I've been first in line for every Apple device since the 3GS," Ryan told me.
But where most would brandish their tech wares after a display of near saintlike patience, Ryan marches out to shooting ranges in Nevada, Arizona, or his hometown of Jasper, Tennessee, to film the age-old physics of when a 50-calibre bullet meets nearly anything.
Ryan and Maksimuk are just two of a growing sect of YouTube personalities who entertain through destruction. The viral sensation began with Tom Dickson in 2006 (or maybe it was Peter Gibbons) who began the "Will It Blend?" series of infomercials for Blendtec blenders. Much like Michael Bay blowing up half a city block for delivering an explosive spectacle, Ryan and Taras see their video exploits as creatively and artistically similar — albeit on a much smaller budget.
They both achieve the same cathartic release only experienced when watching an iPhone 6 get completely torched, but through very different styles. Taras first-person POV makes it feel like you're complicit in the destruction at hand whereas Ryan lets you just sit back and watch the chaos.
"There are tech destruction videos out there with kids out in front of Best Buy who purchase a PlayStation and just slam it on the ground and then they put the videos up [like this one]," Ryan says. "I never wanted to be that. I wanted to provide a little more entertainment value."
An entertainer disillusioned with Hollywood, Ryan embraced YouTube, and started destroying tech in 2009 in a series called Tech Assassin. The formula looks simple: guns + tech x explosions = viral. But that doesn't mean it's easy to pull off. Some videos, like this explosive dismantling of an Xbox One, required careful timing to assure the 50-calibre bullet and a detonation cord would impact the console at the very same moment. Like so:
While Ryan is more versed in the explosive arts, Maksimuk takes a more subtle, DiY approach to obliterating technology. He treats his YouTube gadget destruction videos like any other job really, one that will hopefully help make enough money so he can go on to study business administration at a local college.
The 21-year-old native Ukrainian began as a more run-of-the-mill gadget vlogger years ago, posting your normal unboxing videos and reviews and those sort of things. But when he smashed an iPhone 5 three years back, he discovered an audience thirsty for smartphone carnage. He hasn't looked back since.
Every video he makes is a gamble, a guess if some secret YouTube payment algorithm involving ad clicks and views will be enough to make back his hardware deficits. In the beginning, things looked grim. Maksimuk admits that the first half dozen videos were complete losses, but since growing a subscriber base nearing 2 million, and increasing 5000 to 6000 subscribers per day, he's less worried.
So far, TechRax's current plans involve for that fancy golden Apple Watch involve a drop test and afterward what he describes as "extreme testing." The ambiguity means he isn't quite sure what special torture to inflict upon the wealthy wearable, but he knows it's got to be good if he hopes to at least break even.
Yeah, it's weird thing to blow up, shoot, maim, or otherwise destroy things you enjoy, but millions and millions of views don't lie. That's just entertainment.