Some people swear by it and can’t sleep without it, while others think it’s just strange. In part one of Freelancers in the Fringes, we explore the world of the freelancers who make money off of ASMR.
How do you explain ASMR to the uninitiated? It depends on who you talk to. Unpacking the capital letters gets you to Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: the process that the dedicated online community around this phenomenon liken to ‘a series of tingles crossing over brain and body’.
You may already know some of the tropes from a growing crop of journalistic articles devoted to the subject. The YouTube videos showcasing practitioners whispering into the camera, brushing hair or folding towels: a series of banal everyday occurrences that stimulate a sense of calm, or “deep relaxation” in the viewer.
After a half-decade or so lurking in the online shadowlands, it’s recently hit something approaching mainstream recognition -, attached to memorable faces like the American, Gently Whispering ASMR (the closest the ASMR world comes to a fully fledged superstar, with 1.6 million subscribers). Though there’s a whole world of names that dedicated fans will proffer as their own personal favourites, and not just from the U.S.
Indeed, it seems like ASMR is growing into something approaching big business, even if the science bolstering it remains fairly opaque (though a recent University of Sheffield study showed the beneficial effects on heart rates and ‘positive’ emotions).
My search for understanding on an often incredulously received internet phenomenon takes me to the Scottish practitioner Bright Grey ASMR, who boasts over 47,000 subscribers. It’s not that she’s reticent to talk, just that she’s faintly irritated by some of the coverage that delves into the supposed weirdness, and the exclusion of its manifest benefits. Grey started watching ASMR around six years ago while studying at university. After stumbling on an article detailing the work of American YouTuber Gentle Whispering (real name Maria, though she withholds her surname for privacy purposes), Grey found herself “ just dissolving [at the videos]”.
“I’ve always struggled to fall asleep in less than a few hours, but discovering this little pocket of the internet dedicated to exploring the sounds and science of relaxation was a game-changer”, she tells me during our correspondence. Grey started making her own videos in 2017, after acknowledging just how much enjoyment she could derive from the process. “I’ve really enjoyed finding out what my own ASMR triggers are, from ear cupping to fizzing liquids and moving lights. And I love experimenting with sounds and visuals that have the potential to soothe somebody, or even let them sleep”, she adds.
It’s hard to gauge where the current boom will take the nascent discipline, particularly as the first flush of communal enthusiasm slowly gives way to economic realities and opportunities. It’s an inevitable part of the arc- initial word of mouth success, followed by growing mainstream awareness and coverage, followed by saturation.
That’s not to say it’s a bad thing in itself, or that harking back to a pure, hobbyistic origin story is a good, or healthy, stance to take.
“There are ads [on my videos], and I don’t see a problem with creators earning an income from their work”, Grey posits. But that isn’t to say there aren’t any adverse effects of ASMR’s burgeoning popularity and commercial viability: “It can sometimes be a different experience. Certainly, when I watch a video from a creator who clearly values maximising revenue at the expense of their viewers- by inserting loud adverts mid-roll, or at the end of a video for sleep- it ruins the experience and goes against the spirit of ASMR”.
Though it’s difficult, explaining exactly how this almost comically ‘online’ phenomenon came into being, its effects and consolations are a bit simpler to diagnose. I speak with the writer and mental health advocate Beth McColl, who found herself burrowing down into the ASMR rabbit hole, on the recommendation of her friend Dimitri, during a particularly rough patch in her own life. For Beth, ASMR is “crazy relaxing, [it’s that] feeling of focused attention without actually having to have another person there. It’s great for my anxiety and late night overthinking, though I find the more I listen to it the more specific my tastes get and the longer it takes me to find the ‘right’ video.
It’s no monoculture, she explains. After all, there are more subsections to ASMR than seems logical, each fitted to suit the vagaries of taste, no matter how obscure. Beth offers up a few names that she finds herself returning to, again and again. “I like Heather Feather and ASMR Magic because they seem very nice, and also really innovative. Like, they seem to plan very closely what they’re going to do. Although so many of the ‘roleplaying’ channels also seem really closely produced & planned, even if it isn’t isn’t my thing- though they’re very cool”.
Significantly, Beth tells me that she only listens to women. It’s not that it’s even a studied choice, she says, attributing it to tone more than anything else. Whatever it is, men just don’t provide those same crucial tingles. It’s an interesting point and one that speaks to one misapprehension that was dispelled in the writing of this piece. It says something about my own prejudices, that I had conceived of ASMR as a female-dominated activity sitting somewhere in the more obscure hinterlands of the seemingly infinite ‘lifestyle’ lodestar. The picture that emerges is clearly more complex, with men making up at least half of the enthusiastic interviewees I speak with.
26-year-old musician and artist, Jacob Read has always been sensitive to sound and relied on a gallery of unorthodox sounds to sleep, by his own admission. He tells me how he used to “literally crawl under the bath when I was a kid to hear the water pipes”, as well as how his first ever CD was a compilation named ‘Relax with Refreshing Cascades’, purely comprised of waterfall sounds. Read heard the term ASMR floating around the online ether a couple of years ago, but was initially dissuaded by how “cheesy it looked”, he tells me.
Even now, it’s tough to admit being a fully paid-up ASMR fan. But, just as with Beth, it’s impossible to deny its everyday therapeutic qualities. “There’s this one woman called Gentle Whispering who has a sort of soft Russian accent and I find her stuff so soothing. It’s sort of embarrassing confessing to this. My favourite is this guy called Dear Scooter who basically reads out plots of films and stuff in the most boring accent ever and he keeps mumbling and forgetting his words. I think that for me, it’s a way of distracting my brain when I’m trying to sleep”.
For Read, the idea that there’s some kind of sensual pleasure underpinning proceedings doesn’t really chime. “There’s a preconception that it’s really sexual, but that’s not really my take on it. It’s just a more specific kind of background noise. I have these things called ‘cozyphones’ which are a flat headphones/eyemask combo, which means I can sleep flat on a pillow and listen to stuff [though] I’m probably severely damaging my hearing because of it”.
It’s impossible to predict what the constantly shifting and novelty addicted online shadowlands will throw up next. However, it seems like ASMR is here to stay, as a diverse relaxation tool, if not a business proposition. But that there’s still the awareness that nothing is set in stone, let alone its continued success and zeitgeist appeal.
As Bright Grey ASMR had told me at the close of our conversation, it’s all about setting an equilibrium that works best, for you. “You can’t control how it develops, or dictate how people ought to make and consume it. I can only focus on my own work. My plan for my channel going forward is to maintain the balance that feels right”.