The Search for Stillness: The Oddities of YouTube's ASMR Video Culture

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The Search for Stillness: The Oddities of YouTube's ASMR Video Culture

YouTube, as a platform, isn’t exactly known for quiet or calm. Its most popular personalities, at least in terms of subscriber counts, tend to be over-the-top loudmouths, exceedingly broad comedians or drama-chasing socialites. It may not be dominated by the likes of “Fred” anymore (remember those days?), but today’s crop of YouTube celebrities are the vast progeny of Lucas Cruikshank, and others like him. Fred’s brood, if you will.

That’s what initially makes the thriving ASMR community seem so unique. Unlike the irritating, in-your-face, hyperkinetic style typical of pop culture YouTube presentation, here’s an odd little corner of the internet devoted to quiet. To tranquility. To the search for inner peace and stillness. At least, that’s what the personalities say they’re devoted to. But more on that later.

ASMR, if you haven’t heard the term in recent years, is short for “autonomous sensory meridian response.” That’s a long, largely untested term that is more often described by practitioners simply as “tingles.” It’s a neurological, physical response to aural stimulation—a tingling, pleasurable sensation that advocates say they experience when listening to specific, aesthetically pleasing noises, typically while wearing headphones for best effect. The most common of these noises tend to be whispering human voices, which convey a sense of intimacy and safety, but the field of potential ASMR-triggering sounds is as wide as the internet itself. You’ll easily find ASMR videos dedicated to every activity and sound imaginable, from paper crinkling to tapping metal objects together. Some are set to gentle music, and some involve roleplaying and various characters, but all typically involve affirmations, familiarity and projecting the feeling that the listener is safe and cared-for.

Here’s a short explanation from GentleWhispering, a YouTuber who has been pioneering this style of video for more than five years, and today has more than 900,000 subscribers.

Let me make something clear: I don’t doubt the existence of ASMR as a phenomenon. I highly doubt that millions of people (and it is millions) would be watching hour-long videos of whispering and paper crinkling strictly for their entertainment value. There wouldn’t be an ASMR subreddit with 130,000 subscribers if this didn’t exist. There is a physiological response here that most of us don’t fully understand, but it’s clearly being experienced by many people. I’ve watched plenty of these videos out of curiosity, and don’t believe I’ve yet experienced it myself, but I do understand that deep, innate sense of calm that they can project. I’ve also come to understand that this sense of calm and relaxation can come from all sorts of sources, whether or not they’re labeled “ASMR.” I once wrote about Jeff Bridges’ Sleeping Tapes for Paste, and whether or not Bridges has heard of ASMR, the connection is unavoidable. Just listen to this 11-minute dream hike into Temescal Canyon and try not to get sucked in.

And yet at the same time, I can’t help but question the manner of presentation you see in many of these ASMR videos, as well as the presenters themselves, who go by the collective title of “ASMRtists.” For all the talk of providing some kind of public service, the attempts by some of these YouTubers to simply use a popular subculture to build their own personal brand are depressingly transparent. Others blur the line between “relaxation” and entertainment or stand-up comedy, begging the question of which experience they’re supposed to be primarily providing. Even international brands have co-opted the concept for the sake of advertisements—no, seriously, KFC did a few ASMR videos with George Hamilton as Colonel Sanders.

Gender and sexuality in ASMR culture

The first thing you’re likely to notice, when perusing ASMR videos, is that the majority of the performers are female. Sure, there are plenty of guys as well, but there are certainly more women than men, and most of the biggest accounts with the highest subscriber totals are women. Perhaps they just have those wonderfully mellifluous voices?

The second thing you’re likely to notice is that these women tend to be what we would call “conventionally attractive.” Yes, just as in almost every human endeavor, from business to classical music, it helps to be attractive. It’s an unfortunate reality of any YouTube subculture that people who are judged to be less conventionally attractive are less likely to present themselves in the public eye, and more likely to be dissuaded from doing so by the commentariat.

At the same time, the format of a “typical” ASMR video inherently tends to project a certain vibe of intimacy. It’s the experience of whispering and proximity—when else, in regular life, do you ever have someone whispering in your ear for an extended period, unless you’ve become physically intimate with them? On an aural level alone, ASMR videos evoke the sound of a conversation you might have post-coitus. There’s just no getting around that.

As such, it’s no surprise that female ASMRtists are often accused of trying to use sexuality as a hook to get people to watch their videos. With many, this is a fairly baseless accusation, despite their good looks and perfectly applied makeup and coiffed hair. Plenty are being falsely accused of this, when all they’re really trying to do is help people. But some of them? Yeah—that’s exactly what they’re doing. Observe:

Because nothing says “tranquility” like 8 straight minutes of peering voyeuristically down someone’s tube top, right? That’s from about 2 minutes in, by the way, if you didn’t make it that far.

There’s “it’s not my fault I’m an attractive person,” and there’s “I framed the camera directly on my breasts for 8 minutes while ostensibly making coffee, and invited the audience to leer.” If you go check out this particular ASMRtists’s YouTube page, you’ll see that this her standard modus operandi. Yes, she provides ASMR videos, but one glance at the YouTube comments (always a hazard) will show you that somehow, it’s not the coffee that any of her followers are talking about. Imagine that! Note also that she never acknowledges the obvious sexualization and voyeuristic aspect of her videos, because to do so, she would lose some level of credibility within the “ASMR community.” Instead, standard operating procedure is to simply ignore the fact that your following is built around plunging necklines and act like it isn’t.

Please note: I’m talking here only about ASMRtists presenting themselves as non-sexualized in a deceptive way. There are countless accounts dedicated to straight-up “erotic ASMR” on YouTube, many of which are simply advertisements for their performer’s personal website where they can charge for sexual content. It’s lewd, but at least it’s transparent.

I suppose this isn’t something to get too riled up about, given that videos like the above one aren’t hurting anyone. They may put money in the pockets of YouTubers who are low-key charlatans, marketing themselves as providing an important “relaxation” service out of the goodness of their hearts while actually building a subscriber base via tawdry sexualization, but at least they’re not actively soliciting cash from the viewership.

The absurdist joy of ASMR videos

But the thing is, the sexualization aspect of ASMR is all too likely to obscure viewers to the genuine joy, enjoyment and weapons grade weirdness you find while perusing this particular internet culture. ASMR has attracted a stunningly diverse, multicultural, creative and downright fascinating group of people to it, and the more videos you watch, the more clear it becomes how unique these folks tend to be. Sure, the more creative and genuinely interesting creators tend to garner fewer viewers than the aforementioned plunging necklines, but they’re infinitely more fascinating to watch.

Here are some random activities you can find ASMR videos for:

- 10 hours of tapping and paper crinkling.
- “Aggressive, no-mercy tapping,” which seems sort of against the relaxation aesthetic?
- ASMR Craft beer tasting (What’s more Paste than that?)
- Hitting 37 objects with a hammer.
- Blowing up and rubbing balloons together.
- Paging through a catalog of porcelain figurines from 1992.
- A girl treating you like a Chia Pet. Once again, I’m not exaggerating this in any way.

Want to know how I found all of those? I just typed “ASMR” into YouTube, followed by different object names. It took about 30 seconds. That’s how many of these videos are out there, folks. I’ve yet to think of a potential ASMR video and then search for it, only to find that it doesn’t yet exist. It’s like the rule 34 of ASMR culture.

And that’s not even beginning to dip a toe into the especially zany realm of ASMR roleplaying videos, where the presenter is taking on a specific character and trying for a deeper type of immersion. Popular formats for these videos include hairdressing, manicures and makeup, which combines the already relaxing nature of YouTube makeup tutorials with storytelling designed to make it feel as if the listener is sitting in the chair of some fancy salon. Or meant to gently deride the viewer, because apparently some folks enjoy that? See below:

Hey, to each their own. If you achieve a zenlike state through a “rude British gentleman” snipping the wigged locks of a disembodied dummy head, then more power to you.

For just a moment, though, allow me to stump for my personal favorite of the ASMRtists I’ve come across. His channel is called Ephemeral Rift, and oh man, does this guy commit to each and every bit that he’s doing. He’s exceedingly relaxed and clearly comfortable with himself, which projects an easygoing vibe. His commitment to production values is unusual for the genre, but the most unique thing about the guy is his eclecticism and versatility. I mean, his videos are REALLY varied—some are seemingly meant strictly for entertainment value, featuring homemade costuming and props, while others are quite sober and serious. This dude has done more than 50 ASMR beer reviews, for God’s sake. I was struck in particular by his Sanctuary series, which is about imparting one single thought: “You are safe,” to those suffering from PTSD. Certainly a worthy cause, there.

Other Ephemeral Rift series include his bizarre Plague Doctor character, whose whispers you can barely hear through his leather mask, and his “manley” character, who delivers a fairly amusing critique of toxic masculinity while tearing through packaged peanuts and playing with power drills. You literally never know what you’re going to get from the guy. He even did a few ASMR videos where he’s expounding on the virtues of the various improvised weapons he’s selling from his zombie apocalypse supply store, “Zed Zombuys Ashopalypse.” No, seriously.

Once again, I’m having a rather difficult time imagining the person who is actually experiencing ASMR while watching this guy discuss the weaponized properties of an ice pick smashing through a zombie skull, but there’s a lot in this world that I clearly don’t understand.

Also solid is ASMR Darling, a very popular YouTuber who provides a variety of sleeping aid and general relaxation videos. Unlike some of the others, she doesn’t really need any gimmickry beyond her admittedly very soothing voice. I’ve yet to actually experience the phenomenon of ASMR, but I believe this young woman tapping on books might be as close as I’ve yet come to that particular neurological tipping point.

With that said: This video of her eating friggen’ Chick-fil-a in a “relaxing way” is so aggressively absurd that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I found it. If there’s one thing I can report with some certainty that I don’t find deeply relaxing, it’s the sound of someone chewing a chicken nugget right next to the microphone.

In the end, the ever-expanding world of ASMR on YouTube is just another reminder of the internet’s amazing power to formulate and strengthen subcultures. In a pre-internet era, it stands to reason that people all over the world had always experienced those “tingles” at times, but not until the sharing platform of YouTube came along were they able to articulate it and codify the sensation and its sources. For better or worse, communities like these are one of the biggest cultural developments since the advent of the search engine era. You can scratch your head in puzzlement, but they’re here to stay.

Coming soon to Paste’s online presence: ASMR videos where we tap on magazines and ruffle through issues of Paste Quarterly? Unlikely, but stranger things have happened on YouTube.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and video peruser. You can follow him on Twitter.