Why are whispering videos so popular? The quiet world of ASMR.
Does whispering make you feel funny inside? Take a look at the origins of ASMR and how it sparked a strange, soothing, and oddly popular internet trend.
A young, blonde woman whispers into the camera.
“Hey… it’s me.”
She shares that her channel has reached one million subscribers, and shakes her fists excitedly, but silently. Her voice never rises above a soft murmur. To celebrate her channel’s milestone, she performs almost five hours worth of seemingly mundane tasks: lighting matches, turning the pages of a book, writing on a whiteboard, drawing a picture using markers, tapping her nails on various objects, and eating snacks.
If you search for “ASMR” on YouTube, this video by ASMR Darling is one of the first results. Posted two months ago, it now has over five million views.
So, what is ASMR?
YouTube is the go-to social media platform for many obscure internet trends. There are channels devoted to crushing various items with hydraulic presses, rating the knobs on electronic devices and mixing paint, just to name a few. Like those listed above, ASMR is one such niche community that has found its home on YouTube. So, what is ASMR?
The acronym stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” which refers to a pleasant tingling sensation accompanied by positive and sometimes euphoric feelings. ASMR occurs when a person is triggered by certain auditory or visual stimuli, like those performed by ASMR Darling. People who experience ASMR are known as ASMRers, and their reactions can vary, as well as the triggers that cause them.
People who make videos to elicit this response from ASMRers are known as ASMRtists, and they are mostly young women. ASMRtists create videos of themselves whispering, roleplaying while whispering, reading manuals, tapping, and making a variety of sounds using props.
When I watch these videos, sometimes I feel calm, often I feel uncomfortable, but mostly I feel nothing. Judging by the sheer volume of videos I’ve watched in order to research this article, I suspect I never will.
Some believe that everyone is capable of experiencing ASMR, granted they can find their unique trigger, while others assert that either you feel it or you don’t. Or perhaps ASMR sensitivity isn’t a dichotomous “either/or,” but rather a spectrum. Because there is currently very little published research on ASMR, debates like these do not have definitive resolutions, and questions like: “What actually is ASMR?” will have to go unanswered… for now.
In order to understand the phenomenon better, I spoke with a longtime ASMRer named Emily. For her, ASMR is unique like sexual sensations are, but it does not connect to sex — rather, it feels extra-sensory. Emily has been feeling this for as long as she can remember, but only heard the term ASMR a few years ago.
She can vividly recall experiencing ASMR during roll-call in elementary school many years ago, and says that “it’s something about the softness of their voices, how mundane it was, the repetitive nature” that prompted the response. She can find triggers in all kinds of places, such as excel tutorials on YouTube.
ASMR: A History of the Term
The online consensus is that the acronym ASMR was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen. According to this interview from last year, Allen first experienced ASMR before she had the vocabulary to describe the feeling, and had no idea if other people felt the sensation.
Allen needed verification that she wasn’t alone, and in 2009 her online sleuthing led her to two forum threads aptly titled “WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD”, where like minded people compared experiences and searched for answers. Many were using a term that never quite caught on: Attention Induced Head Orgasm (AIHO).
After corroborating her reactions with those of others and discovering the universality of the feeling, Allen named it Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. She chose the phrase partly because of its literalism and lack of sexual connotation. Allen wanted to avoid the word “orgasm,” choosing the word “meridian” instead, for fear that the community would be written off as fetishistic. (Of course this hasn’t stopped major publications like The Atlantic from calling it a “brain orgasm.”)
The Trend Explodes
In the seven years since Allen coined the term ASMR, the community has grown and the amount of videos on YouTube has exploded. So, how did ASMR go from an unknown phenomenon to a rapidly expanding community?
In naming a previously enigmatic feeling, Allen gave people a language with which to discuss ASMR. This language validated people who felt that they were “strange” or “weird” for having these sensations, and brought something previously private out into the open. Instead of creating “whispering” videos like the one above, which are easily lost in the shuffle, YouTubers began labeling their recordings “ASMR”, making it easier for people to find them.
Allen went on to create the original ASMR Facebook group and lobbied Wikipedia to keep the ASMR entry, which initially didn’t meet the community standards. Both of these helped legitimize ASMR, as the Facebook group allowed ASMRers to connect and communicate, and the Wikipedia article provided validation that this was a real phenomenon.
As the term gained traction online, media outlets began to take notice. This 2012 Vice profile on the popular ASMRtist GentleWhispering is one of the first to explore the phenomenon in depth. In the years since, many others like The Atlantic and The Washington Post have covered the topic, pushing the fringe community further out of the shadows. For a sense of how much ASMR has grown, when Vice profiled GentleWhispering in 2012, her channel had 34 thousand subscribers and nearly 12 million views. Now she has over a million subscribers and almost half a billion views.
However, this information doesn’t answer the question of why people create ASMR videos in the first place. Why is there such a vibrant and diverse community on YouTube that only seems to be growing? One explanation sticks out: ASMR videos don’t require much more than a recording device and a human to create.
Although ASMR videos have gotten more elaborate over the years, at their core the recordings are uncomplicated. The videos are easy to make, do not require any special skills, and are highly accessible. What better way to quickly and easily gain followers (and ad revenue) than to record yourself whispering or tapping?
Of course there are other possible reasons. GentleWhispering says in her interview with The Washington Post that “she’s not after exposure or money…videos by other ‘ASMRtists’ once helped her through a period of depression, and now she wants to pay it forward.”
In other words, ASMR videos can be comforting not just for consumers, but creators as well. A woman reading a list of names might remind someone like Emily of her childhood. A whispering video might provide a source of calm in an ever-busy world for the ASMRer and the ASMRtist. A four hour recording of various noises might help someone fall asleep.
Perhaps the growth of this community speaks to a collective human desire to connect, and nothing more.
Formats of ASMR Content
As the online ASMR community has grown in size, the content of the videos has also expanded. Now, someone who searches for “ASMR” on YouTube won’t just find recordings showing people tapping, whispering, or role playing, but also a wide variety of takes on ASMR. Some ASMRtists have taken the popular formats to their logical extremes.
Ally, who runs the channel ASMRrequests, makes elaborate role-play videos, as well as those depicting your average teacher and doctor scenarios. Her creations often incorporate special effects to create whimsical atmospheres and transport viewers to different worlds.
Similarly, the ASMRtist dani ASMR doesn’t just tap on objects to create that pleasant “heels-on-tile” sound, she uses her long natural nails to scratch and dig into objects like soap and zucchini.
Then there are the ASMR videos that skirt the mainstream entirely. Have a super specific, “weird” trigger? Chances are you can find it on YouTube. A whole subset of the ASMR community is dedicated to creating slime videos like the one below.
There are even videos of child YouTubers trying their hand at ASMRtistry. Evan’s ASMR, hosted by a boy who can’t be over 10 years old, has gained over 10,000 subscribers in the two months that his channel has been on YouTube. His most-watched video has over 70,000 views.
One can even find a breadth of channels devoted to creating eating sounds, for those whose ASMR is triggered by chewing noises. And then there are the videos so niche, so weird that they border on parody.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether videos like Kluna Tik’s to the left are honest contributions to the ASMR community, avant garde art productions, or simply mockeries. Although they can verge on disturbing, there’s no doubt that they’re popular. Kluna Tik has over a million subscribers and the channel’s most popular videos have over 10 million views.
The Future of ASMR
Certain trends and advancements in technology can give us an idea as to where the community is headed. In the early years of ASMR, the internet acted as a vehicle for the phenomenon’s popularization, as discussing and experiencing the feeling online allowed the community to flourish and grow. Now that ASMR has entered the mainstream, there is an effort to shift the mostly virtual, private experience out into the world.
In the past few years, for instance, 24/7 ASMR streams have risen in popularity. Videos like this have one clear purpose aside from provoking ASMR: to aid viewers in sleep. When even 4 or 5 hour pre-recorded ASMR videos won’t do the trick, livestreams can help. Viewers don’t have to stop and start the recordings; they just open the video and let it play.
ASMR videos have also been adapted for virtual reality. Some ASMRtists create 360 degree videos complete with binaural audio, which is recorded with two microphones to create 3 dimensional stereo sound. These YouTubers recommend investing in a VR headset to submerge yourself into the video and experience the full impact.
There have even been attempts to convert the online experience to real life, such as Whisperlodge, an immersive “ASMR spa for the senses”, which opened in 2016.
As for how the ASMR community will continue to evolve in the next few years — only time will tell.
Why does ASMR matter?
Although the term ASMR and the niche YouTube community are relatively new, the sensation itself is arguably not. There is no record of ASMR existing until a few years ago because people had no way of talking about it. The sheer volume of ASMR videos on YouTube is a testament to the thousands of people who feel these tingles, and who may not have realized that others do too until recently.
The ASMR community is a great example of how the rise of social media, online communities, and the internet in general has transformed human experience. What was previously private and personal is now public. Common experiences that were not discussable have been named and identified. People who were alone in their feelings now have spaces, both online and in real life, to share them. And that is pretty darn cool.
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