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Whispers for the weary

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ASMR. What is it? Where did it come from? Despite becoming such a rapidly growing community on YouTube, the word ASMR has been consistently misinterpreted, and labeled as “bizarre internet culture.” The true meaning of the concept is lost on most, so the key to understanding what ASMR does is to do a bit of your own research. Not much has been published on the subject in terms of scientific research, which is part of what makes the notion of people making videos of themselves whispering to help other people relax sound so strange. There are many different interpretations of what ASMR truly is. So, the simplest way to truly discover what all this hype is about is to get right to the heart of the matter, and ask someone involved. I got in contact with a local individual who creates and uploads their own ASMR content. For the purposes of the following Q&A, we will refer to this individual as the ASMRtist, a common nickname for ASMR creators on YouTube.

How would you define ASMR?

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. To describe it, some people use the word “tingles,” but I prefer the word “shiver.” It’s a sort of sensation you get on the back of your head or neck, or sometimes on your shoulders. It’s like the shivers you may get when listening to music. There are those moments when you get chills from music; I would describe it as a similar sensation to that. It makes you feel like you’re melting a little bit, and makes you feel nice and relaxed.

How long have you been watching ASMR?

A: I’ve been watching ASMR videos since early 2012. At that time, it was such a new concept that when searching for recently uploaded ASMR videos on YouTube, you wouldn’t even have to go back a full page to find stuff that had been uploaded a few days ago. That’s how new it was. There wasn’t a plethora of videos being released every couple of minutes. It was a very new thing with only a few select channels. So, quite a long time.

According the the website asmruniversity.com, a website that acts as a resource and news centre for individuals with ASMR, the term Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is commonly believed to have been invented in 2010 by Jennifer Allen. That year, Allen started a Facebook group focusing on ASMR with the intent on finding out more about the phenomena, and to connect with others who also experienced it. From there it took off, and its popularity has been growing exponentially ever since. It is believed that ASMR is something only certain people can experience. You either have it, or you don’t. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t enjoy the videos, or use them to help you relax. But not everyone reports feeling tingling sensations while watching ASMR content, and it is important to note that not everyone experiences it the same way.

Do you remember specifics about your first ASMR experience?

I know a lot of other people will talk about being in class in elementary school, when you’re working on assignments and the class is all quiet. Sometimes if you’re just in the zone, when you’re focused on your work and you have all the other sounds of pencils and pens in the background, that nice sort of environment that will give you that experience. I can think of a few times like that.

Another one for me, and for a lot of other people, is a few certain scenes in movies. One that a lot of people point to is a scene in Toy Story 2 where the toy collector gets a repairman in to fix Woody and repair his arm. During the scene, there are these nice little crisp sounds and a fluidity of movement. There’s this feeling of, “Ah, that’s really nice.”

Another one that a friend showed me, is a video of a virtual barber haircut where you listen to it on headphones. It’s been made with a 3D microphone, so you can hear sounds all around you in every direction, not just left or right but also up and down. All the different sounds, especially the sound of the guy cutting your hair, seems very real. That’s what gives you the shivers, moments like that where you don’t really realize it at the time, but there’s this nice little feeling that’s very relaxing.

Certain audio-visual tech providers caught onto the ASMR trend a few years ago, and 3D microphones became highly popular instruments that allowed YouTube creators to record sounds in a whole new way. These devices are remarkably sensitive. They produce recordings that, if listened to via headphones or earbuds, appear much more realistic. Some models of the microphones used consist of microphones placed within a model silicone ear, so that the audio sounds even more natural.

What would you consider is the difference between ASMR and oddly satisfying videos?

The only real difference is the title attached to it. You see these compilation videos of, say, machines pressing things, or different actions like that which have been categorized as “oddly satisfying.” I think to people who experience this sensation, it is ASMR, just maybe not to the same extent. I think they are two halves of a whole. It’s something that you could categorize as a form of ASMR, but not necessarily in the exact same way.

ASMR isn’t the only otherworldly movement gaining momentum on YouTube. A more recent trend in intriguing content is a whole new category of videos now coined as “Oddly Satisfying.” These videos often consist of video compilations of repetitive tasks such as chefs icing cakes with the utmost precision, or hydraulic presses crushing Barbie dolls. These videos have not been recognized by the ASMR community as existing under their umbrella. It’s a similar experience, but not quite the same thing.

How have you noticed people react when you tell them about ASMR?

I don’t normally bring up that I have a channel at first. Usually I just find a way to introduce the topic into conversation somehow. A common response that I hear is, “ASMR? Isn’t that like a weird fetishy-type thing where people get off to tongue clicking sounds or something?” No, that’s not the idea. A lot of people I know think of ASMR as this weird type of fetish community. There’s that general stigma about it.

There is unfortunately a misconception about ASMR, where people think it is a sexual thing. What do you have to say about rectifying those misunderstandings?

Well first of all, for everything on the internet regardless of what it is, there will always be someone who perceives it as sexual in nature. That’s just the nature of the internet. But I do understand why there is more of that thought surrounding ASMR. Not to stereotype, but I would say a good 80 per cent of YouTubers who make ASMR videos are young, attractive women. Usually these videos are also filmed in their room, and there’s a lot of closeness and personal attention, because that is part of what is a good trigger for ASMR. This idea of someone who is caring for you. Which is why I think doctor roleplays for example, are pretty popular.

So then, the general breakdown is a young beautiful girl, who is close to the camera, in her bedroom, making videos. That is also the kind of formula where people would be quick to assume that this sort of thing has a lot of sexual connotation to it. But the importance is the difference between the intention and the interpretation. I would say that 99.9 per cent of ASMR videos are not made with the intention to be sexually arousing. I do know that unfortunately there are a few channels designed for that. But that ruins it for other people, that’s not what it’s really about. If people are going to watch ASMR and assume that there is that type of connotation to it, or at least get that idea from it, that is their decision. But I can safely say, while not having met every single other ASMRtist on YouTube, that they’ve never intended or desired to have their videos interpreted that way.  

Many ASMRtists have given up trying to explain why their practice isn’t sexual in nature. The horde of internet trolls who clearly aren’t invested in discovering the true nature of ASMR and what it’s all about, continue to harass its creators, and seem to hone in on the most suggestive content they can find. Sexually suggestive content does exist on YouTube, such as people licking ear-shaped 3D microphones in an overtly sexual manner. Many individuals in online ASMR forums describe these videos as distracting and even uncomfortable. It is an unfortunate situation, where as ASMR continues to attract more interest, it also attracts people looking to exploit it.

I also don’t think people understand how much bullying happens to people who are ASMRtists. I’ve seen far too many people delete their channels and quit YouTube entirely based on harassment. It’s not just people commenting on the “weirdness” of the videos. This harassment consists of individuals prying into ASMRtist’s lives and finding out personal information. I know of one case where people were making fake Photoshop nudes of someone, and trying to send those pictures to her family. It’s really terrible.

The thing with people who create ASMR videos, is that they’re just doing this because they want to find ways to help their viewers relax. I think it seems really weird that these people seem to get such brutal treatment in terms of online harassment.

Tell me about a negative and a positive reaction to your content online?

For the positive reaction, a lot of the ASMR videos I’ve done consist of reviews on hard rock or metal albums, or video games like Dead Space or Dark Souls. A lot of people have mentioned in comments that this is their perfect combination. There aren’t a lot of ASMR videos specifically designed to look at elements like that. So, people who like that will say “Oh this is great! I’ve been looking for something like this forever.”

The negative reactions are of course from people who find their way onto ASMR videos while not really understanding what it is. Those people will be like, “I just came here to see some Dark Souls footage! Why is there some guy whispering over everything?” and they’ll call it “cringy.” From the way I see it, those are just ignorant people who don’t understand, so I try not to take that to heart.

The internet as a whole can be described as a very deep rabbit hole. It is full of the strangest and the most bizarre materials known to humankind. ASMR is clearly not the strangest item to be found online. Yet, the intense scorn and mockery dished out by internet trolls can be felt every day by even the most loved ASMRtists. In April of last year, popular creator “Innocent Whispers” made the very difficult decision to delete her account. The decision was based off the brutal harassment she began to receive on her YouTube and Patreon channels. After a break from YouTube, she has since re-activated and re-branded her account under the name Creative Calm ASMR. The name change was meant to more accurately represent what the channel was meant for, in order to prevent any more unfortunate instances.

What is one more thing you wish people would understand more about ASMR?

That it’s very multi-use. I think the main thing that people use it for is a type of sleep aid. But it’s also used to help calm people down from anxiety. I know a lot of people whose videos are specifically meant to console you if you’ve had an anxiety attack or if you’re feeling depressed about stuff. Sometimes if I’ve had a bad day I like watching those because, even if it is pre-recorded, it’s nice to hear someone saying nice stuff to you.

ASMR is not a doctor-approved solution or type of therapy … Yet! But people will leave links in their descriptions on their channels to hotlines or websites, and other ways to seek professional help. Most ASMR videos are of course made by amateurs. But, it is important to know that this is essentially an army of YouTubers dedicating their time and their effort to finding ways to help people relax and de-stress. They’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.

Bizarre internet phenomena will no doubt continue to boggle the minds of even the most cultured internet aficionados. But, it is vital to understand when rumours surrounding various internet movements are or are not legitimate. Though at times misunderstood, ASMR creators on YouTube continue to thrive and grow. The best thing about ASMR is that because it has expanded into such a diverse and creative community, there is something out there for everyone. If you’re interested in giving ASMR a try, don’t stop at your first video if you don’t experience any certain feelings right away. A small list of popular ASMRrtists currently on YouTube include ASMR Darling, Gibi ASMR, FrivolousFox ASMR, and Gentle Whispering ASMR. Remember that everyone experiences ASMR differently. Ultimately, the point is to sit back, relax, and allow your mind to drift away.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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