At first, Lucy assumed she was getting one of those spam PayPal emails from someone trying to gain access to her account. It said her funds had been blocked for 180 days.
“I thought at the time, this is insane. Surely a company cannot do this,” she said.
When Lucy called PayPal, they said the decision was final and there was nothing they could do. Panicked, she did a quick Google search and found forums full of people who were permanently locked out of their PayPal accounts for various reasons. Lucy wondered if she would ever see the money in that account again.
Getting nowhere with customer support, she tweeted about it. And it turned out Lucy wasn’t alone. At least three other women had the same thing happen at around the same time, and they all had one thing in common: They all make ASMR videos.
What was going on?
This is a story about who gets to make money from the internet.
For the people who create the millions of whispering, tapping, and role-playing relaxation videos on YouTube, it’s a story in which many feel directly targeted because the platforms they use don’t understand the content they’re making.
To the uninitiated, autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is the feeling of tingles that can be triggered by a number of things. Most people find that softly spoken words do it. Others are triggered by tapping or the sound of someone eating. These videos are enormously popular, with views in the millions because people watch them over and over again.
A lot of ASMR YouTubers get into it because they experience the sensation and want to help others relax. Those with the biggest audiences have been able to make entire careers out of it.
ASMR videos are growing in mainstream appeal. W Magazine makes a series where celebrities try ASMR; during a recent video with Cardi B, she admits listening to ASMR every night. Ikea made a series of ASMR videos showcasing its products. This year, Renault teamed with one YouTuber to make a 14-minute ASMR video featuring one of its new cars.
But speak to the creators, and they’ll tell you that despite this mainstream buy-in, they’re still struggling to shake off the assumption that ASMR is some kind of fetish. It’s an assumption that has followed the community from the start, fueled by misunderstanding and — given that many of ASMR’s biggest stars are young women — a touch of sexism.
Erotic ASMR does exist, of course — there’s a sexualized version of pretty much everything on the internet—but for the most part, mainstream ASMR isn’t sexual. There’s even academic evidence backing this up. In June 2018, Giulia Poerio of Sheffield University found that ASMR videos “significantly” lowered the heart rate of those who experience the tingling sensation. “If you don’t experience it, it can be difficult to understand,” she said.
“But the decrease in heart rate goes against this idea — we now have evidence to show it’s not sexual feeling.”
Despite this, for as long as people have been trying to make money from ASMR videos, the assumption that ASMR is sexual has affected their income. In September of this year, it reached a new level with the PayPal affair.
Lucy, who makes videos as Creative Calm ASMR, is tired of this assumption.
“My family and friends think what I do is really cool,” she said. “But my mum still thinks, well, when you dress up in a costume, is that sexual? And I’m like, well… no.”
She views what she does as ASMR virtual reality. “You’re putting that person in the scene. You’re trying to create that other world to try and take them there. But if you don’t get it and you turn on a video where I’m dressed as a flight attendant or something, you’re going to think, ‘What are you doing?’”
Before PayPal suspended her account, Lucy mostly experienced the dreaded D-word — demonetization.
Since last year, YouTubers across the board have faced problems with the site’s ad-friendly policies, as YouTube itself struggled to placate advertisers who didn’t want their brand names featured alongside more unsavory videos. As a result, lots of YouTubers are finding their channels no longer fit what YouTube deems “family friendly.” And that’s a problem for a community like ASMR.
Lucy doesn’t feel she’s entitled to money from YouTube. “But at the same time, you put in the work, then get a video demonetized and YouTube stops promoting it,” she said. “It’s because they want to push the videos with adverts.”
She’s not the only creator to have experienced this. The MP behind ASMR with MJ described how he returned from holiday to several emails notifying him that his videos “failed to meet [YouTube’s] community guidelines.” He describes himself as a “small-scale” YouTuber (he has around 1,500 subscribers), so he says it wasn’t about the money.
“Out of about 66 videos I’ve made, about 19 or 20 of them have been demonetized,” he said. “It just feels like a lack of respect. I do feel like the ASMR community is being targeted. It feels like sometimes YouTube’s moderators aren’t even watching the videos we make.”
YouTube, for its part, has always maintained that it doesn’t have any anti-ASMR policies and doesn’t demonetize the videos as a category. The systems may get it wrong, and channel owners can appeal for a human review. But creators still feel uncertain about what exactly it is in ASMR videos that keeps attracting the dreaded demonetization email.
“Videos gain the largest percentage of views within the first weeks,” says Matt, who posts videos as Articulate Design. “It depends on your audience size, but you can lose hundreds of dollars if your video isn’t monetized in those first few weeks. And then if you request a review, it sometimes takes time for it to be turned back on. It feels like a kick in the teeth.”
Those who make a big part of their income from ASMR have begun looking outside YouTube for revenue streams so they can continue making their videos, including getting donations directly from their fans via Patreon, making customized videos, or even accepting offers from sponsors to insert products into their content. The problem is that a lot of these revenue streams involve Paypal in some way or another.
Lucy makes custom videos, and because she doesn’t want to give out her bank details on the internet, all her payments go through PayPal. After she got nowhere with PayPal customer support, Lucy tweeted about her suspension — and Sharon, who makes videos as ASMR Glow, realized her PayPal issues were probably related.
Sharon also called PayPal as soon as she got the notification. “They told me that they weren’t legally forced to give me any reason,” she said. Sharon has also had her own battles with YouTube. “I’ve emailed them before and asked them to point out exactly what it is in my videos which is inappropriate, and they just keep pointing me to the guidelines.”
Rumors swirled about why. One creator claimed they were told ASMR didn’t fit with PayPal’s brand image — something PayPal later denied.
One theory is that these creators were targeted by trolls who mass reported their accounts until they were suspended. Engadget pointed toward 8chan, an anonymous message board that works in a similar way to 4chan. It’s uncertain whether this is why Lucy and Sharon’s accounts were taken down. A thread was posted celebrating the news and encouraging the mass reporting of other ASMR accounts, but it’s unclear whether PayPal banned any other accounts because of this tactic.
What is clear is that there is ill-will on the internet toward the women of ASMR — and they make up the bulk of the most popular creators. They’re prime targets for harassment of this nature, where coordinated teams of trolls mass report targeted accounts in the hope that a platform will close them down. It’s not clear whether trolls contributed to PayPal’s decision to close ASMR accounts.
PayPal didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. In a statement released to Engadget on September 14, the company said, “PayPal has no policy against autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) related content that does not otherwise violate PayPal Acceptable Use policy.”
Lucy and Sharon suspect the media coverage is what changed the situation. They said both of their accounts were reinstated within days of media reports covering the issue. “It felt a bit like, ‘We don’t want this bad press. Let’s just end this now,’” Lucy says. “Why no proper apology? It’s crazy to think they can hold someone’s funds for two or three weeks with no reason.”
Neither Lucy nor Sharon—or any of the others who were affected—have received an explanation from PayPal about why their accounts were suspended. Yet they are still using the service because there’s simply no straightforward alternative. PayPal has a stranglehold over online payments in much the same way YouTube does with online video.
And therein lies the problem with making money on the internet in 2018 and beyond: Your success usually lies in the hands of a big Silicon Valley company and at the mercy of the algorithms they deploy.