Listening to the videos, I wrote in 2013, “feels like a pretty weird and lonely thing to do.”
Maybe it still is; I can no longer tell. The videos have become a normal part of my life. I’ve listened to them not every day, but certainly every week since I wrote that article, first realizing that they made excellent white noise to work to, then that they calmed me down and helped me sleep. (I say “listen to” because I rarely watch them—I typically have them playing in my headphones in the background while I do other things, or while I lie quietly with my eyes closed, waiting for sleep.)
As for the tingling sensation, I wasn’t able to feel it when I reported that story—two and a half years later, I do sometimes feel it, or if not “it,” then “something,” although I suppose it could be psychosomatic. But the (mostly) women and (some) men who make ASMR videos are providing a service beyond triggering the tingles. They are doing emotional labor. The videos are expertly crafted to relax and to soothe (and indeed the tingles themselves are often described as “relaxing.”) Alongside tapping their nails on things, ASMR-tists (as video-makers are sometimes called) whisper earnest messages of emotional support: “I am here to listen to your concerns and to help relax you,” or even a straight-up “I love you so, so, so much.”
Plenty of people find this creepy, and I guess I understand why—I thought it was weird at first, too. A whispered performance of kindness and nurturing mediated through online video—could anything be more embarrassing? Many ASMR-tists use 3D microphones, which make things sound like they’re happening in the room with you, and all the videos are crafted to create an intimacy that could tip over into unsettling. “Creepy” is a feeling that crawls down the back of your neck and so, after all, is ASMR.
But on the spectrum of emotions, “creeped out” is very close to “uncomfortable.” Much of American culture is not known for its comfort with emotional need, and so it seems logical that some might be uncomfortable with a product designed to fill it. People write comments on the videos calling them weird or creepy, but people also write comments about being lonely, about being anxious, about being scared after watching a horror movie and watching an ASMR video so they could sleep.
There is a sort of relationship, a mutual trust between the creator and the viewer. The ASMR-tist holds your emotional state in their hands, and by clicking on a video, you give them your trust—trust that they’re not going to suddenly scream after 30 minutes of whispering, that they’re only going to say nice things, even after you’ve fallen asleep. (There is a subgenre of ASMR videos called “horror ASMR” designed to creep you out—I will be steering clear of those.) It is, of course, a performance, but I think it’s an earnest, pure-intentioned one. In one of her videos, Maria (GentleWhispering as she’s known on YouTube) says, “I always strive to be that support system, that neutral positive presence in your life, that’s just here just to hold your hand, just [to] be with you.” When I interviewed her in 2013, she said:
“When you watch ASMR videos, you’re completely vulnerable, the viewer is. It’s almost uncomfortable for you to be that close to another person, but if you feel how much they care about you at that moment, it just puts you in that state of euphoria.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the messages that American culture sends us that you are supposed to be enough for yourself: That you can soothe yourself through self-care, that a life spent single can be completely fulfilling, that you alone are responsible for your happiness. It’s not that these things aren’t true (to some degree), it’s more that a focus on self-improvement and self-reliance suggests that individuals should harvest only their own islands for emotional resources.