In a voice barely above a whisper, a blonde woman looks into my eyes and sweetly apologizes for dozing off. She's waking up now; laughing, smiling, and asking me what I want to do today. She's so close. I can hear her every tiny breath, but I can't answer her questions. I'm alone with my computer, just like the legions of others she's whispered to.
I experienced this moment of mass intimacy via YouTube—my first time doing so, I should mention—and I'm just one of hundreds of thousands of people hunting the spine-tingling thrill of autonomous sensory meridian response, ASMR, through the delicate intonations of intergalactic travel agents, fake girlfriends, plague doctors, and apothecaries online.
ASMR as an internet phenomenon that took off in 2010, when a Reddit thread asking if anyone else had ever experienced it went viral, and thousands of people realized they weren't the only ones who'd noticed the pleasant and foreign feeling.
An internet subculture of roleplay videos meant to evoke the sensation has since taken off. Tingle-seekers—lots of them—watch videos delivering agreed-upon triggers like soft whispers in order to feel what devotees vaguely describe as "brain orgasms" or pleasant tingles, though there really isn't any word in the English language to accurately describe the strange sensation.
Many people have started making these videos themselves—gaining hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers along the way—and often with a twist: elaborate roleplaying with a weirdly maternal bent.
"The most popular roleplay requests are the ones that involve a lot of what I call 'personal attention.' An example of that would be, if you go to the eye doctor, for instance, they're going to be very close to you," Ally Maque, an ASMR YouTube personality with over one hundred thousand subscribers told me.
Maque has been on the forefront of ASMR roleplaying for a couple years now, with some impressive productions to show for it. In her ongoing ASMR sci-fi web series Departure, for example, Maque plays a space-age travel agent who speaks softly as convincing CGI effects whiz across the screen.
Maque has elevated ASMR roleplaying to a level above most of her contemporaries, many of whom are content to stick by the old doctor's office or barber schticks. Still, she's subject to the weirder elements of ASMR culture looking for their fix of digital intimacy.
I stay away from videos that blur the lines too much between my relationship with my audience because I'm not their girlfriend; I'm not their mom.
"I get requests here and there for companionship-type roleplays or girlfriend roleplays," Maque said. "While I don't think there's anything wrong with people wanting to watch those videos or make them themselves, I stay away from videos that blur the lines too much between my relationship with my audience, because I'm not their girlfriend; I'm not their mom."
The question of where this obsession with artificial scenarios that evoke the sense of being cared for or, perhaps, even loved, comes from is a puzzling one that speaks to our relationship with digital technologies and each other. There's no shortage of academics that claim today's society is a fundamentally lonely, fragmented, and decidedly uncaring one, thanks to the popularity of devices that tear our attention away from everyone around us.
MIT's Sherry Turkle, in her 2011 book Alone Together, embarked on a 15-year-long process of interviews, literature surveys, and theorizing to suggest as much. In her estimation, the phones, tablets, and laptops that seem to connect us via text and video have resulted in a pervasive feeling of collective isolation.
You could argue that ASMR is salvaging human intimacy in the digital age. What was once lost, according to technological pessimists, is now being resurrected in simulation mode. But not everyone sees this in negative terms.
"I think the ASMR movement, demanding eye contact and prolonged attention, has sort of an undercurrent of optimism and care in the videos themselves that's really nice. It's hopeful," Nitin Ahuja, a doctor and academic who published a recent paper on the topic, told me. "That's really interesting to see against a backdrop of cynicism about technology wholesale."
Whether the popularity of ASMR videos that express caring and otherwise loving sentiments is a good or a bad thing, broadly speaking, is beside the point and probably a little unfair to the people who enjoy them, Ahuja said. "I think, even just reading comment threads, that most people would object to being pigeonholed in that way—as lonely. I think for most it helps as a way to relax, or as a sleeping aid. Although, there is a lot of sex in the comments threads, despite the fact that ASMR is defined as strictly nonsexual. It's super complicated, and I wouldn't pretend to understand it completely."
Ah yes, perversion—the internet's forte. Like anything else that makes its way onto the web, ASMR culture contains a good deal of creeps who have latched on to it. And, yes, pornographic ASMR is a thing. But these carnal aberrations are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the majority of ASMR enthusiasts' engagement with the subject.
Yes, pornographic ASMR is a thing. But these carnal aberrations are the exception.
Far more interesting than out-and-out fetishism is a cultural attitude wherein videos that impart oddly dissociative care, whether in a virtual doctor's office or a barber's chair, are popular and accepted. And, I began to wonder, who are the people that watch these videos, anyway? I've read their posts, and I know their screennames, I've talked to one of the most popular ASMR personalities on the internet. And as it turns out, a friend of mine is pretty into ASMR. His name is Christian.
Christian is, by all accounts, a normal dude. Sure, he's a Ph.D. candidate studying philosophy, a professional organist, and performs prog symphonies on vintage Moog synthesizers dressed in an orange velvet jumpsuit once in a while, but for all intents and purposes, he's just like you and I. So what does he get out of all this?"For me, the trigger videos provide stress relief and engender mindfulness. I suppose it's a bit like meditation, but more tactile," he told me. "The most enjoyable videos for me are the least conceptual. I will say that some of the roleplays disgust me, especially the medical ones."
Christian isn't into the kind of care-focused videos that many ASMR enthusiasts seem to like, but the link between intimacy and a familiar brain-tingling sensation isn't lost on him. It first became apparent in the throes of a short but meaningful relationship."We had a short but emotionally intense relationship; she speculated to me some time after we broke up that the amount of ASMR I triggered in her contributed to how crazy she felt about me," he said. "In a way, this made sense to me, so it's not like I don't think there's a connection between ASMR and feelings of intimacy and care."
Although not much research has been conducted on the topic, both Ahuja and Maque told me that their favourite speculative explanation is evolutionary. A commonly floated theory, they said, is that the connection between feelings of pleasure and intimate care stems from the practice of apes picking bugs out of each other's fur. It's pure conjecture, like much of the discourse surrounding ASMR, but it's a possible explanation that seems to have gained traction among those invested in the culture.
Whether or not ASMR is a physiological phenomenon or provable by science at all is somewhat irrelevant; the sheer number of video views and word-of-mouth testaments to their effectiveness speaks volumes without scientific validation. "A lot of its validity comes from the fact that a lot of people's narratives coincide with each other," Ahuja told me.
This is exactly what makes the popularity of ASMR videos with a focus on care so interesting: It's primarily a cultural experience. And, it follows, the question of where the obsession with experiencing the thrills of digitally mediated affection comes from is also a cultural one. And it's a slightly uncomfortable query at that. After all, what does it say about us when hordes of totally normal people are watching videos on the internet just to feel an electric shiver set off by intimate care?
Whatever the reason, human connection is an increasingly digitized or otherwise mediated experience today—that much we can all pretty much agree on. In light of this, the ascendence of ASMR roleplaying appears as a kind of weird cultural condensation that points to some as of yet hidden, but nonetheless felt, reality of our historical moment. Maybe in 20 years some French egghead with an important-sounding name will spin together a brilliant theoretical treatise on the meaning of it all, but for now, we're living it—and that's the most exciting part. Whoa, I think I just got the tingles.