Making YouTube videos is no longer a hobby, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. As a unique platform for cultural production, YouTube has thrown up some novel forms of content since its birth in 2005. But no form is stranger, or more exciting, than ASMR: an online community of and for the anxious, stressed and insomniac.

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s a crypto-scientific description of a sensory phenomenon, where the subject experiences a pleasant “tingling” sensation around the head, neck and spine in response to stimulus. When I began exploring the ASMR community a decade ago, I recognised it instantly as the feeling I had while getting my eyes tested as a child. I was in the presence of a professional who, while focusing his attention upon me, was also curiously detached. As the optician leaned closer in the darkly lit room, he would switch the lenses on the clunky apparatus. “And which is clearer now?” he’d ask, “number one? Or number two?” Both relaxing and stimulating, it sent a slight effervescent shiver around the back of my head.

This is the experience which ASMR creators aim to induce in viewers. The first online discussions of the sensation began around 2007, when people started sharing their own experiences, often describing it as a form of orgasm. With the growth of YouTube and increased access to cheap digital recording equipment, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would try to intentionally create this response.

Over the following decade, the community has exploded. Just as with regular YouTube creators, novelty is king. The result is a huge array of different forms of ASMR, from roleplays and cooking videos to complex sci-fi and fantasy narrative monologues and even fishing videos, all performed in the softly spoken or whispered voice that triggers the response. Even amateur creators of ASMR content attract tens of thousands of subscribers, while the top 25 earners make an average salary of $1.2 million per year from their millions of dedicated fans.


Why is ASMR so popular, despite receiving very little mainstream traction? For most, the benefit seems to be a combination of relaxation, anxiety relief and sleep – more so than just experiencing the tingles for their own sake. There’s no single “trigger” that stimulates the response in every viewer, although they tend to cluster around a handful of similar experiences, often involving whispers or softly spoken words, or videos of people paying careful attention to a task. Eating and drinking videos, often with contact microphones on the skin to pick up the distinctive chewing and swallowing sounds, are also popular, intersecting with a similar YouTube subculture called “mukbang”, where hosts eat on camera. Some creators produce videos of “triggers” such as brushing, kissing, rubbing, writing and other ambient sounds. Often they use binaural microphones – a system of two microphones calibrated to simulate human ears, creating a sense of 3D sound for listeners.

Some creators use roleplay, sometimes directed at “you”, the viewer – for instance, a woman chatting away as she pretends to colour and shampoo “your” hair, replicating the experience I had at the optician as a child. One top creator, ASMR Angel, produces a series called “Biscuits of Britain”, where she dunks different biscuits into a cup of tea positioned near a microphone, tasting and rating them. One of my favourites, River ASMR, specialises in camp roleplays where he portrays a tailor or shop assistant in a high-class outfitters, “Meridians of Mayfair”. In one video, he appears in drag playing a pitch-perfect Princess Diana visiting “you” in hospital following a nasty accident. It’s only as the video draws to an end that you realise “you” are Camilla and the accident was far from it. The creativity is remarkable, as ASMR producers innovate.

All this production costs time and money, and with a growing audience, creators have followed wider trends within the YouTube industry. Some have introduced product placement and sponsored brands into their videos. Others earn money through fan subscription sites such as Patreon, offering exclusive material and specially commissioned videos.


The science behind ASMR is, as of yet, under-researched and inconclusive. A recent study by University of Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan University found that ASMR lowered the heart rate of those who experience “tingles” and appeared to have a physiological effect within the brain. Self-reported responses indicated increased feelings of social connection, which mirrors anecdotal reporting within the community that videos are being used to manage anxiety and depression.

Listeners often celebrate a creator’s ability to quickly induce sleep, or praise them for helping them through difficult times. Followers can become very loyal to their favoured creators, and the artists in turn share more and more aspects of their personal lives. Over a period of years, intense bonds are established, forging a seemingly intimate relationship between creator and viewer.

It is intimacy which ASMR appears to revolve around, and even the most professional producers still maintain a style pioneered in small bedrooms. It seems that for viewers to feel relaxed, they must experience the connection as real. The reassuring tone, whether it is a roleplay of a friend comforting you, or a doctor giving you a check-up, seems to rely upon a feeling of genuine closeness.

It’s that very desire for intimacy that, perhaps, led to the initial labelling of the experience as an “orgasm”. Most ASMR creators today seek to distance themselves from such sexualisation. But this association is hardly surprising: for many people, their first encounter with ASMR videos feels extremely weird, and many interpret them as having a definite sexual register.

While the majority of videos are produced with the genuine intention of relaxation and sleep, there is clearly a market for explicit sexualised content, as evidenced by the presence of ASMR videos on porn sites, where the integrated model of monetisation used by porn actors can be utilised. Some creators straddle both scenes, producing pornographic videos whilst also maintaining “vanilla”, YouTube-friendly output.


The larger framework of intimacy raises questions around gender and sex within the community. Successful ASMR artists tend to conform to a particular type: a large majority of the most popular channels are run by white, conventionally “attractive” young women. Representation of people of colour in particular is sparse, despite the presence of talented producers such as Latte ASMR and ASMR Power of Sound, and the popularity of “mukbang” videos, which originated in South Korea. To write off that gender and race disparity as solely an issue of taste or “tingles” is not enough. The pushing forward of young white women as unthreatening and uniquely attuned to providing care and intimacy is a reflection of wider depictions of women and people of colour in our society.

ASMR is a fascinating subculture, but its very existence and popularity highlight major faultlines – not just in representation, but also around material questions of mental health and work. Why is it that so many people can’t sleep properly, suffer from serious anxiety or high levels of stress? What leads them to seek affordable relief in free YouTube roleplays that work to approximate the feeling of healthcare, intimacy and personal attention?

As a cultural form, ASMR is still perceived as fringe, even as it attracts millions of viewers and listeners and expands its reach. In the midst of a global pandemic that is forcing people into ever more atomised living situations, with fewer opportunities for socialising and close bonding, this curious subculture reflects far more about entertainment, health and financial survival in today’s society than the label of “weird” might suggest.

This article is from the New Humanist winter 2020 edition. Subscribe today.