This article originally appeared on VICE UK
“When did you last shave?” whispers Amy with urgency. “Have you shaved in all the bits that needed to be shaved?”
I am at her electric pink beauty salon, somewhere in Essex, getting ready for my fake tan appointment. My holiday to Marbella is coming up fast, but Amy is annoyed because, once again, I haven’t exfoliated properly. She rolls her eyes and hisses at me to take off my clothes. Then she begins to scrub; her gloved hands loudly brushing, rubbing and stroking my legs.
I feel bad. She’s right: why do I always do this? I should have exfoliated. Amy is one of my best mates and I know she’s been stressed recently – she whispered as much to me when I first arrived.
Only I never did arrive. And Amy is not one of my best mates. I’m not in her electric pink salon, nor am I in Essex. I’m at home, alone in my room, watching everyday POV roleplay ASMR on YouTube.
ASMR – or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – is a very modern phenomenon. The term was coined back in 2010, and refers to the tingling sensation people feel in their scalp and spine when exposed to certain sounds. Often, these are exaggerated whispers, taps, hisses and scratches. Some listeners may feel the sensation more intensely, while others will experience nothing at all.
There’s been little scientific research into its appeal, but ASMR enthusiasts insist that it can help to soothe stress and anxiety symptoms, while also aiding with sleep problems. They’re also quick to point out that it’s definitely not a weird sex thing.
“Watching ASMR videos allows many people to enter a type of flow state that has some similarities to meditation,” explains Dr. Stephen D Smith, who has been researching the effects the sensation may have on the brain. “Many people with ASMR use the videos to relax or even as a sleep aid. Given that the videos elicit pleasurable and calming sensations, I can see how it might help people with mild anxiety disorders or people who are experiencing a lot of stress.”
It’s also becoming big business. Type ‘ASMR’ into YouTube and there are over 99,000,000 search results, with countless sound artists – or ‘ASMRtists’ – flocking to the site to offer their own take on the trend. Typically, these are videos of people recreating triggering noises, such as breathy whispers, lip-smacking, gentle taps and page flicking.
But there are also more original and extreme options. Overcrowding in the market means that ASMRtists have to stand out, and they’re creating increasingly niche content in the process. On the milder side, you can try out an ASMR dental appointment, a cranial nerve examination or have your head checked for lice. On the murkier, more demented side, you can experience your own autopsy or be softly stabbed to sleep.
The majority of content, though, is surprisingly mundane. Like getting a top-up tan in Amy’s salon, many of the videos focus on recreating the most basic of everyday, interpersonal experiences. The priority seems to be on building a sense of intimacy between the ASMRtist and the viewer, using an immersive POV experience that combines ASMR with simulated human interaction.
There are thousands of ASMRtists who have mastered and monetised this kind of content. Lucy Clout, who runs the Creative Calm YouTube channel responsible for Amy’s Essex Beauty Salon, is a prime example. The Dorset-based 27-year-old (who is not actually from Essex) has managed to make ASMR her full-time job. At the time of writing, she has 273,000 subscribers, and has uploaded over 300 videos. The majority of them are almost excessively personal in tone: from friendly suit fittings to ‘manicure and gossip’ appointments.
One of Lucy’s most popular videos, with over one million views, is the British Sweet Girlfriend. In it, she takes this imagined intimacy to the next level, whispering softly to the camera and encouraging the viewer (who plays the partner) to tell her about their day. The video’s most popular comment, with over 2,000 likes, is “shout out to all the lonely people.”
This palpable sense of closeness is something Lucy is aware of, and wants to continue to foster with her viewers. “Helping people is the best part of the job,” she tells me. “Getting messages from people who’ve been suffering for months from insomnia or have mental health problems, and them telling you how much your content has helped them is genuinely the best thing ever.”
Fred of Fred’s Voice ASMR makes similar content. (He asked us to withhold his last name.) Although his work is not nearly as intimate as Lucy’s, the 29-year-old ASMRtist recreates a range of everyday experiences: from a laptop cleaning appointment to ‘charming English’ shoe polishing experience. Based in Kent, he balances ASMR work with acting, and has over 500,000 subscribers.
“I certainly enjoy watching interesting ASMR role plays because you almost feel like you're in that scenario,” he says. “I also really enjoy doing the more out-there videos, because I think it offers people more variety and shows you can create a relaxing, peaceful environment in almost anything. I think that's quite comforting to a lot of people.”
There are plenty of reasons why people are flocking to this seemingly mundane content. Smith suggests that viewers might have favourite ASMRtists, and will want to habituate to their page no matter what content they produce. In turn, ASMRtists will feel pressured to keep viewers interested by producing a regular and heavy stream of content – which will undoubtedly fall into more routine territory. It’s also important to build an illusion of intimacy, as that’s what will keep viewers returning.
“The ASMR artist market is getting rather crowded,” Smith says. “When the phenomenon was first identified in 2010, there were a handful of people making whispering videos. There are now thousands. Given that people can monetise their YouTube presence if they are popular artists, there is an incentive for ASMR artists to stand out in some way. This might lead some of them to perform more peculiar forms of role-playing.”
For Fred, the reason people are flocking to his page is unclear, but it’s also irrelevant. Like Lucy, he is just happy his work appears to be helping viewers, and plans to continue building on the intimacy.
“People either tell me how much they love my channel or say they fall asleep to my videos every night – which, in the ASMR world, is a compliment,” he says. “You cannot help but have a warm glow inside knowing that these videos are really helping people and making a difference.”
“When you click that record button, you feel like you're instantly engaging with the viewers. I love that ASMR brings people together.”