At a party in 2018, a friend showed me videos of YouTubers eating large quantities of food, a trend known as mukbang, or “eating broadcast” in Korean. I watched as influencers slurped, cracked and crunched on copious amounts of their chosen delicacy, enjoying the soothing sounds of some of the videos despite not usually being fond of the noises people make during meals. This was how I stumbled upon the ever growing ASMR community.
ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response”, is the the relaxing tingling sensation that some people feel from particular sounds and visual stimuli, and it’s since become a mainstream phenomenon since I first learnt about it almost half a decade ago. Several YouTubers make extremely profitable careers out of it: Naomi Grace MacRae, a 27-year old from Canada known as HunniBee ASMR has almost eight million followers and recently revealed she earns a million dollars a month for her videos.
In the most commonly watched videos, performers (known as ASMRtists) make relaxing sounds by tapping, blowing and scratching on everyday objects often with the intention of helping the viewer fall asleep. I also personally listen to these sorts of videos while working to reduce my stress levels, an approach backed by science – last year, researchers at Northumbria University found that when volunteers watched a five-minute ASMR video, those who experienced the autonomous responses reported feelings less anxious.
But, after four years of following ASMRtists online, the surprising sub-trend I have noticed within the ASMR community is the presence of online stalkers. While ASMR is seen as intimate and relaxing, many of the influencers who create these videos have used their social media platforms to detail the harassment they have also endured. “My entire life revolves around trying to protect myself and my privacy,” Gibi, an ASMRtist with 4 million subscribers on Youtube, tweeted in 2020. “I hate that it's ‘part of the job.’”
In 2021, another ASMRtist known as Sophie Michelle released a video explaining that a stalker had prompted her six month hiatus from YouTube. “For a long time I pushed it off but the last few weeks before I decided to stop making videos I really started to believe that this person wasn’t fully sound of mind,” she says in a 30 minute long recording addressed to her 611,000 subscribers on the streaming platform. Michelle went on to describe how the perpetrator falsely put her name on bank statements and even attempted to buy her a car. “I get emails from his bank asking me to verify my email address because he has put [my name on forms] but with his surname and no one seems to see that there’s anything wrong with that,” she explains in one video.
Gibi and Sophie Michelle are far from the only ones. Sarah Dishong, known as Karuna Satori in the ASMR world, recalls several instances of being hounded online. “I started my YouTube channel in 2015, but I never really dealt with any stalking or doxxing until 2017,” she says via Zoom. Doxxing is the term used for the – often malicious – revealing of a person’s private information online. For ASMRtists, this doxxing can be as simple as having their real name revealed publicly (if they perform under an alias), but can go further, including the sharing a person’s home address or place of work.
“I started getting these emails saying, ‘if you don't do a [sexual] video for me, I'm going to post photos of your house and where you live’.” Dishong was sceptical at first, not understanding why or how they would have acquired this information. “Then they sent me my address.”
In June 2020, a thread on 8kun (formerly 8chan) emerged where a group of internet users posted supposedly intimate photos of popular ASMRtists. At that time Dishong says she had around 300,000 to 350,000 subscribers on YouTube. “They were posting photos [of ASMRtists’ faces] on nude bodies and creating deep fakes,” she says, though she adds that for her specifically she previously had an OnlyFans page so they also shared images she had posted on that platform.
Lilliana Dee, known as Lily Whispers to her 312,000 subscribers on Youtube, remembers an incident from 2017 where a person claiming to have a fan page contacted her. “I was kind and reposted some of their fan artwork and then their messages became sinister and sexual,” she tells me. She blocked him, which prompted the man to make new social media accounts. “I have documentation of over 76 accounts across Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, that this individual created to reach me.”
Both ASMRtists say these situations eventually escalated. “[The trolls in the online groups] started discussing how they could kill me without my kids being present. Then they started pinpointing locations that I might go to in the area where I lived based on what I talked about in my videos,” Dishong says.
“He'd reach out via another account and tell me that his ‘twin brother’ sent those messages to me,” Dee says of her stalker. After receiving no response, his messages became more aggressive. “He said he would come find me and rape me.” Dee contacted the person’s family by finding him on Facebook and searching for his relatives. “He had left a bit of a paper trail of himself,” she explains. “I sent them all of the documentation that I kept over the course of three years and his harassment ended.”
It isn’t uncommon for people to feel as if they know someone that they follow online. It’s so common in fact that there’s a term for it: ‘parasocial relationships’. “Parasocial relationships are defined as a one-sided relationship with a prominent person, social media influencer or a celebrity,” says Dr. Michele McDowell, an educational and child psychologist who specialises in gaming and screen time addiction. “This relationship is not reciprocal and usually the celebrity will have no knowledge of the individual.”
Parasocial relationships can be healthy. Most of my ASMR experience, for instance, has been me watching the same person, who posts a variety of videos each week ranging from her tapping on various objects, to whispering about her life or roleplaying as a hairdresser. I sometimes feel as if I know her and/or her personality as a result of listening to her every day. That being said, I’m easily able to differentiate between someone I know in real life and someone’s whose videos I watch – but for some the difference between the two is blurry. “Individuals may be extremely loyal and greatly admire the influencer or celebrity and as such feel that they should be recognised for their support and in some cases they believe the influencer owes them affection and love,” Dr. McDowell says.
ASMRtist ZombieLove, who uses the interactive live streaming service Twitch, can think of more than a few examples of when people have behaved inappropriately on the platform, on which she has 10,500 followers. “I believe a few did it because they wanted people to know they were close enough to me to know my name,” she says of doxxers specifically, adding that she believes it’s more common to receive harassment as an ASMRtist than as another sort of influencer. “Much of ASMR is about caring for the viewers and some triggers, [the visual and auditory techniques ASMRtists use to cause tingles] even mimic how a mother cares for their child. I believe some people can’t see the difference between someone caring for them for entertainment and someone actually caring for them in real life.”
Psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, Hilda Burke, watched a few ASMR videos for the purpose of this article and agrees with ZombieLove. “It's very much ‘I'm stroking your hair, I'm whispering to you’. They're very intimate acts that are done as if it were one-on-one to you,” Burke says. She also notes that many of the women in the videos have motherly qualities, and that maternal intimacy and a lover’s intimacy are similar in nature. “For one person it could be sexual, whereas for another person it could just feel like you're being mothered or soothed. What's being evoked depends on the listener.”
It could be that some of these stalkers are trying to make up for issues in their own lives, especially problems surrounding intimacy. “They are likely to lack social interactions in everyday life and become absorbed by wanting to get mentally and physically closer to the celebrity,” Dr. McDowell says. “It is not unusual for such individuals to be experiencing mental health issues.” Another contributing factor can be a need to exert dominance or power over someone as most popular ASMRtists are women. “A commonly referred to stalker profile suggests that they are generally men and most of the victims are women. They also tend to be unemployed at the time of the stalking.”
Popular ASMRtists often have their own personal safety measures which most I spoke to preferred not to give too much detail on, in order to stop people from searching for holes in their practice. “Till this day, when I leave the house, I feel an excessive amount of caution,” Dishong says. She now has several security cameras around her home, but, most drastically, she now carries a gun which is legal in Pennsylvania, where she lives. “I thought ‘I’m going die or get murdered, I really have to watch my back’,” she says, though she is aware that owning a gun may not be seen favourably by everyone. “I know that that's a taboo subject.”
“I used to feel weak, until I brought on a well-equipped attorney to help mitigate this type of harassment,” Dee adds. She also used to make candid videos talking about her friendships, relationship and school but found it gave some people ammunition. “For example, I say I went to Penn State [a public university in Pennsylvania]. Then people would flood my comments with messages about how Penn State sucks, incessantly. That's a small example, but it's over everything I do,” she says. So she stopped talking about personal matters: “It made me sad to do so because I like sharing bits and pieces of my life online and people have expressed that they feel less alone when I do so.”
For some ASMRtists it no longer seems worth the trouble. ZombieLove stopped creating ASMR content entirely and deleted all her personal information from the internet, including her private social media accounts. “I have stayed away from creating ASMR for about nine months, even though it was my full time job for over three years and is my passion.”
Most of all, all the ASMRtists I spoke to say being stalked and harassed sucked a lot of fun out of creating ASMR videos. “I think it's a one in a million chance to be a YouTuber with a large amount of subscribers. But my life has gone from private and safe to becoming everybody's free-for-all,” Dishong says. ASMR may reduce anxiety for its listeners, but in some cases, it’s clearly creating more stress for its creators.