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  • 08.11.17

ASMR, The Internet Subculture Of “Sounds That Feel Good,” Is Going Mainstream

ASMR once occupied a small corner of YouTube. Now, it’s appearing in art museums and ad spots.

ASMR, The Internet Subculture Of “Sounds That Feel Good,” Is Going Mainstream

On July 27, a 30-year-old Russian expat, known only to her followers as Maria, hit 1 million subscribers on her YouTube channel GentleWhispering–which features her doing just that.

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Maria is one of the more famous personalities within a booming online subculture called ASMR. Not everyone experiences Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, but those who do describe is as a tingling sensation in the back of their skull, triggered by soft sounds like whispering, page turning, or hair brushing. Maria and other so-called “ASMRtists” make work—mainly video, and mainly on YouTube—that induces this sensation. “It’s a huge milestone, not just for my channel, but for the whole ASMR community,” Maria whispers into the camera in her celebration video, before reflecting on the “different twists and turns . . . and media exposure, positive and negative” along the way.

For anyone following this particular internet subculture, the size of Maria’s follower base won’t be a surprise. After emerging on YouTube around 2008, ASMR is now one of the biggest trends on the internet. As of this writing, there are over 9 million ASMR videos on YouTube. According to Google’s internal data, ASMR grew over 200% in 2015 and continues to grow consistently.

The community’s influence is now expanding outside of YouTube, where it first found a home. ASMR-inducing video and audio can now be found in galleries and museums, exhibited as art. Its growth has led to interest from academia, and perhaps inevitably, brands like KFC and Ikea have also picked up on its appeal. In some ways, the attention has been good: People who do experience ASMR are validated by so many others who do as well. But the ASMR community is large and fragmented, and it is sometimes split on what moving toward mainstream could do to what was originally intended as a safe space for those who experience the same phenomenon.

ASMR no longer just inhabits the fringes of the internet—and you’re about to see a lot more of it.

[Photo: courtesy Julie Weitz]

A Group-Coping Mechanism

ASMR’s beginnings are a little murky, but several sources say the term was coined in chatrooms in 2010. Claire Tolan, a Berlin-based artist whose work often focuses on ASMR, puts the genesis closer to 2008, when people online were discovering others that experienced similar sensations and setting up online forums around it. “Kind of 2006/2008, people were talking about [ASMR], and YouTube was gaining more and more momentum as a social network,” Tolan says in an video interview for the art publication aqnb. “Out of these chatrooms, people started to create these videos, specifically to provoke this reaction.”

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The term ASMR is pseudo-scientific; there hasn’t been any major academic research yet on this subject. Early adopters of ASMR would compile clips of “tingling triggers”—the rustle of trees in nature documentaries, for example, or the sound of typing in a commercial. Bob Ross, the famously ‘fro’ed host of 1990s instructional painting videos, turned out to be a popular source of ASMR found footage. As the community grew online, people began making their own videos. Since ASMR triggers can be different person to person, DIY videos offer up a spectrum of different scenes and scenarios. Some are made of tightly cropped shots of hands popping bubble wrap, crinkling paper, or scratching rough surfaces. Others feature ASMRtists—mainly women—speaking directly into the camera, usually at a whisper (for some, intimate attention triggers ASMR). Still others feature role play and fantastical settings, giving narrative context to the sounds that provoke ASMR feelings.

Because of the role-play aspect—and because of the fact that it stimulates a physical sensation—ASMR has often been perceived as having an erotic connotation. Some sub-sects of the community do consider ASMR to be explicitly sexual, but, by and large, most people in the ASMR community consider it to be more about relaxation and self-care. Many watch the videos to ease anxiety, insomnia, or depression. Even people who don’t feel the tingling sensation can find the videos therapeutic.

[Image: courtesy Christina Gubala]
L.A.-based artist Christina Gubala started watching ASMR around 2011 when she was feeling deeply depressed. Remembering the things that would make her feel calm and safe in childhood—her mom flipping the pages of a magazine, a friend whispering during nap time—Gubala searched for those sounds on YouTube. “It’s a way to calm down from panic attacks and sooth anxiety,” she tells Co.Design. “I would say that a majority of consumers coming to it in 2013 or so—when the community was smaller—were coming at it from a place of anxiety and depression.”

Gubala began watching ASMR videos on YouTube nearly every night to unwind before going to sleep. Until recently, she also had a radio show on the L.A. artists-run radio station KCHUNG. The show was originally basketball talk radio, but at times it shape-shifted into an ASMR-program called “Soft Times.” Whenever basketball season ended, or something terrible happened in the news, Gubala would play the audio from her favorite ASMR videos on the air as a kind of group-coping mechanism through airwaves.

According to Tolan, many people who have experienced trauma, depression, or anxiety and find it comforting to watch ASMR videos often go on to making their own. Moving from viewer to producer, she writes in a piece for Technosphere magazine, provides a empowering agency, and an ability to give comfort back to a community that has offered it to you. The proliferation of videos and growth of the subculture hinges partly on that.

Fascinatingly, one of ASMR’s most crucial qualities is intimacy. The internet—as it tends to do—has given the community a way to perform that intimacy en masse.

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“Connected Digitally And Alone Physically”

Artists who have come to ASMR from an art perspective describe its performative nature as part of the appeal. For Tolan, another intriguing aspect of ASMR is that the videos make use of everyday objects in unexpected ways bringing, curiosity back into a domestic landscape. Art is meant to inspire emotion in the viewer, and for reasons that are not yet understood by science, ASMR does that in a direct and almost compulsive way.

For L.A.-based artist Julie Weitz, it is the power of ASMR to “touch” someone through a screen—producing a physical reaction from digital content—that she finds most compelling. Weitz is interested in bridging the physical and digital realms in her work. Originally working as a painter, she has for the past few years been making video art that uses physical props and colorful, techno-centric aesthetic. A couple of years ago, while a resident at the Banff Centre in Montreal, Weitz met an art writer who told her that her work evoked the same powerful, visceral reaction in her as ASMR. She started researching the phenomenon, and in 2015-16, she showed an installation called Touch Museum, a seven-room video installation inspired by ASMR, at Young Projects in the Pacific Design Center in L.A.

Weitz doesn’t experience intense ASMR sensations herself, but she describes a finding a strong connection between it and her style of video-making. “One of the driving forces in my work is what it means to be connected digitally and alone physically,” she says. With Touch Museum, she wanted to re-contextualize ASMR for a gallery space, adding additional sensorial experiences you wouldn’t get through a laptop, like ethereal music and a pitch-black atmosphere. While many people in the ASMR community came out and supported this piece, Weitz also sees Touch Museum as a way to introduce the phenomenon to a new audience. 

Like Weitz, Gubala has also brought ASMR into a museum setting, though she does experience ASMR and has been an active participant in the community for years. For a performance piece at the Hammer Museum in L.A. entitled Whisper Report, Gubala walked around the main gallery, whispering into the microphone and recording those ASMR-inducing sounds. Her recording was broadcast from speakers in the museum so that visitors could listen to it while they looked at art.

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Gubala has also done similar performances at various galleries in L.A., including at an ASMR symposium organized by the L.A.-based creative art agency Paloma Powers, which Tolan also participated in. As a participant in both the more “traditional” art world and the world of ASMRtists on YouTube, Gubala feels somewhat conflicted about ASMR being used for art pieces, particularly by people who do not experience it themselves. On the one hand, she’s glad to see ASMR get exposure and validation in places it hasn’t before. But on the other, she’s wary of it being misunderstood, or the community diluted with imitators and commercial endeavors.

ASMR art can also feel like a shortcut to evoking a visceral response from the viewer, as opposed to letting the viewer respond on her own terms. “It’s difficult to situate it in the art world because there is an immediate, quantifiable end result,” Gubala says. “There is a physical reaction to it that is outside the control of the consumer. You can argue that sound and visual art do have these forces, but this is an A-B line you can draw [from video to physical response].” 

As Brands Take Notice, Appropriation Looms

One benefit to the increased exposure of ASMR, and it being thoughtfully used as a subject in the art world, is that it is leading to academic interest. Psychologists are starting to study the phenomenon, and studies examining the therapeutic aspects of ASMR have already been published in research journals. Having the scientific world take interest is exciting for the ASMR community. As Gubala puts it, people who thought they were alone in this experience found a community online—now the strength of that community is leading to wider validation of what they experience.

The flipside to ASMR’s popularity is that brands have begun to pick up on it. Google BrandLab, the company’s internal marketing research division for its advertising partners, has published a blog post about how to use ASMR trend data for commercial advantage. To them, the big advantage is that ASMR videos use everyday products, like hair brushes, food products, and candy wrappers. “We are not just talking about an enormous engaged audience to tap,” reads the blog post. “We are talking about an enormous engaged audience that is already using your brand.”

Big companies are already wise to ASMR’s popularity. KFC has created an ASMR-inspired video with a whispering Colonel Sanders eating fried chicken. Dove chocolates has ASMR ads running in China, and this week Ikea released a 25-minute long digital spot with a whispering narrator describing its new bedroom products. It’s titled “Oddly Ikea.” Though she declined to go into detail, Weitz says she has been commissioned to shoot an ASMR-inspired promotional film for an alcohol company this fall.

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Yet using ASMR for commercial gain feels like a different beast than using ASMR for artwork. Perhaps that’s because, for the most part, the artists who are working with ASMR thus far have been thoughtful in their research and execution. Their interest in ASMR comes from a place of wanting to understand it, not exploit it. Brands, on the other hand, either want to tap into a large community of potential consumers, or use the calming, relaxing sensation to sell comfort objects like bedding and fast food.

Meanwhile, ASRMtists like Maria are still holding down the community’s core, creating a space of shared coping. Maria does get paid, mostly from advertisements from Google that play at the beginning of the video, which allows her to make GentleWispering a full-time job. As ASMR becomes more commodified by brands, as it inevitably will, companies should at the very least hire ASMRtists to work on them—both to have the insights of people who actually experience the phenomenon, and to put money back into the community that gave rise to ASMR in the first place.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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