The Emotional Labor of ASMR

People who make videos designed to induce a tingling feeling are providing calm and support to a comfort-starved culture.

Johannes Kroemer / Getty

In one of my favorite ASMR videos, a calm woman with a kind smile and a flower in her hair whispers a soothing “Shhhh” into a plastic ear-shaped microphone, and through the magic of headphones, into yours as well. She scratches the top metal part of her microphone and it sounds so real you can almost imagine she is scratching your head.

In another, more recent video by the same woman (known as “Fairy Char” on YouTube), she whispers, “More people care about you more than you may believe. I’ve seen it here in our community… Your life is worth more than diamonds or gold or any amount of money. People care about you…You are loved.”

Call it cheesy, call it creepy, but imagine how many people don’t hear things like that nearly enough.

I first wrote about ASMR in 2013, when it was a new and unfamiliar concept to me. (And I think it remains unfamiliar to a lot of people.) The acronym stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” which is not a medical term, but refers to the tingling sensation in the head and spine that people say they feel when hearing certain sounds. Whispering voices, tapping, crinkling, scratching, and brushing are all common trigger noises. The internet, in its way, allowed people to connect with others who all felt the same thing, and a community sprung up on YouTube around videos designed to trigger the feeling. Some are simple, just tapping and random whispers with no kind of theme; others are more elaborate, with role play scenarios set at spas or doctors’ offices, or even in the future.

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.

A small bit of emotional support, of soothing murmurings, of meditative affirmations, that you can get on-demand, anytime, without feeling like you’re bothering anyone? That’s a service. That’s not trivial. How many ASMR-tists make money from their channels, I don’t know, but several of the more popular accounts have Patreon or PayPal accounts to take donations. (Full disclosure: I’ve donated money to a few of the accounts I listen to the most—I felt I should pay for the service.)

In her essay on emotional labor for The Toast, Jess Zimmerman wrote, “People are disturbed by the very notion that someone would charge, or pay, for friendly support.” ASMR videos are a quantifiable example of the value of emotional labor—they’ve been watched hundreds of thousands, even millions of times, for the friendly support and relaxation they provide. What is the value of the hours of extra sleep they’ve brought me, the level of stress reduction at work? Probably more than I paid.