Listening to Whisperers: Perfomance, ASMR Community and Fetish on YouTube

Imagine this, only virtual. Image borrowed from Genista @Flickr.

Imagine this, only virtual. Image borrowed from Genista @Flickr.

PercussiveThoughts is giving me a facial. The voice tells me about the “little scrubbies” in the exfoliant, and I begin to hear their delicate sibilance on my temples. If I’m lucky, a pleasurable, tingling sensation might begin somewhere on the back of my head and travel down my spine, turning my facial into something closer to a massage. The sole caveat is that I’m not really being touched at all.

This is ASMR, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube. The term pulls together a range of physiological and affective states: goosebumps, chills, relaxation, melting, tingles, and so forth. PercussiveThoughts and her fellow vloggers (I call them “Whisperers” here and explain why below) aim to trigger these frissons through a cornucopia of techniques. Sound is paramount; Whisperers scratch rough surfaces with their fingernails and percuss everyday objects with fingertip drum-rolls. And, of course, they whisper, sometimes using lozenges or gum to increase the opportunities for swallowing and lip-smacking.

What’s interesting about these videos is how they manage to traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic. There is, of course, something familiar about this leap. Like the magician’s hat that produces rabbits and endless handkerchiefs, an audio speaker produces a volume and variety of sound out of proportion with its small, blank visage. In the case of Whispering, however, sound is transduced into touch, and the taut membranes of the listener’s headphones become coterminous with his own skin.

Apart from Steven Novella’s suggestion that ASMR might be a mild form of seizure, it does not yet appear to be a subject of scientific research. So Whisperers have taken on the role of amateur scientists themselves, with YouTube serving as a public petri dish. For this very reason, Novella has also cautioned against the assumption that ASMR is a real physiological phenomenon at all, since feedback loops of suggestion on the Internet might create “the cultural equivalent of pareidolia.”

Whisperers, however, have no doubts. And while the ASMR acronym is a recent development, many Whisperers say their first encounters with the phenomenon occurred sometime before their first exposure to the Internet and often before adulthood: during make-believe tea parties, while watching their classmates draw or braid each other’s hair, and, perhaps most commonly, while watching The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.

The audience for Whispering is anyone who can have this experience, which apparently isn’t everyone. Contrary to the soporific themes of their videos, Whisperers and their fans identify themselves as having awakened to a special form of pleasure. Some have even made videos recounting their first experiences. The downside of this ability is the anxiety about its social acceptance. Whisperers sometimes opt for anonymity in their videos, revealing their faces only after much encouragement from fans. Rarely do they they let their family and friends in on the secret.

That this familiar, tingly feeling has assumed a pseudo-medical acronym is hardly coincidental. ASMR isn’t just pleasurable, it’s therapeutic. Hundreds of YouTube comments attest to the power of ASMR to help relieve them of insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Nor has this dimension been overlooked by Whisperers themselves, who regularly perform as doctors or therapists in their roleplay videos. This is particularly interesting in light of recent scholarship on human/machine interactions. In Addiction By Design, Natasha Schüll shows how therapy for video-poker addiction can take the same format as the gambling itself, namely, “ongoing technological self-modulation to maintain equilibrium” (250).

Homemade Whisper videos, while habit-forming, are clearly not the sort of intricately-engineered machines that Schüll writes about. Nor do they wreack the same sort of havoc (depletion of one’s life-savings, deterioration of one’s physical health, etc.). And yet, both are arranged in problematic feedback loops of self-medication. The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTube’s advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos. That some of the more popular Whisperers earn money from their videos only complicates things further.

*

“No, we don’t get as many men here as women,” PercussiveThoughts says, as though responding to a question from me. Of course, I wouldn’t be so rude as to contradict her – I know better. To judge from the comments below, she gets plenty of male visitors. And her colleague ASMR Velous confided during an interview that around 70 percent of her viewers are men. For this reason, some Whisperers have made gender-neutral or male-oriented videos.

A man getting a facial. Borrowed from FoundryParkInn @Flickr.

A man getting a facial. Borrowed from FoundryParkInn @Flickr.

Gender is a major, and sometimes contentious, topic of discussion in the Whisper Community. In the YouWhisper web forum, the discussion topic “Gender Preference?,” has the greatest number of views (more than 170,000). In general, female Whisperers are more popular than their male counterparts. The three most popular male Whisperers that I could find–WhisperMister1, MaleSoothe, and TheLyricalWhispers–each have fewer than 5,000 subscribers and their per-video view-counts tend to peak around ten or twenty thousand.

Not long ago, GentleWhispering, one of the better-known names in the Whisper community, set off a series of heated back-and-forths with her ~FeminineGrace & Charmforsleep~ video. In it, she discusses universal traits of femininity while brushing her hair absent-mindedly. Whatever one might think of her opinions, the fact that GentleWhispering’s viewership dwarfs all other Whisperers to date suggests that something in her technique is working. My guess is that it has a great deal to do with her hands.

While giving Russian language lessons on a chalkboard, she points to a word with her middle, ring, and pinkie fingers while keeping the chalk poised delicately between her thumb and index finger. When she is about to touch the fabric of an armchair, her fingers arch back–rather than claw forward–as though to ensure that the contact is as light as possible. And, like so many other Whisperers, she takes any opportunity to tap hard objects with her well-kept fingernails.

The “femininity” of GentleWhispering’s hands is the performance of a soothing, caring touch, and her whispering voice is the transubstantiation of this touch through sound. Sometimes, she even short-circuits the analogy by massaging the microphone directly.

*

But even the performance of gendered touching does not quite explain how these sounds and images manage to reach through the speaker and screen. After a second glance at these videos, we might wonder if the preponderance of partial objects has something to do with it.

I’m talking about all of those disembodied hands stroking opposite hands or displaying objects detached from their collections. Often, for the sake of anonymity, the Whisperer’s eyes are kept out of frame, leaving only an expressive mouth, like CalmingEscapes, with its signature tics and swallows. If even the mouth is too revealing, the camera gazes down at covered breasts, ”objects,” in a Freudian panoply of sexual cathexis (is it a coincidence that some Whisperers even roleplay as the viewers doting mother?). One has to wonder what effect is achieved by this strange summation of partials.

In spite of widespread insistence that these videos are not sexual, the comparison with sexual fetish is too obvious not to make. Sticking with Freud for a moment, the hyper-presence of the Whisperer would seem to disavow the separation implicit in internet communication. Her mouth speaks individually into each of the listener’s ears while also hovering on screen. Her hands animate dead objects through rappings and close-ups. In her omnipotence, she can even tell us what to do.

Fetish or not, the word “whisper” is a perfect synecdoche for this fragmentary whole, and that’s why I’ve used it instead of ASMR. A whisper is, by definition, “unvoiced.” The cheeks, mouth, teeth, and tongue accomplish the acoustic filtering that gives words their shapes, but the larynx produces noise rather than tones. Lacking pitch, a whisper might be called only a “part of speech.” And yet it speaks volumes by shifting the register of communication. Whatever is said in a whisper gains the aura of genuineness, honesty, and intimacy.

Of course, in a YouTube video, these qualities are suspect from the moment one clicks the play button. But perhaps this is what makes Whispering work. One hears in these videos, above all, the effort of performance. It is the performance of gender, as discussed above, but more generally the performance of interaction, intimacy, and proximity. What every Whisper video whispers is “Let’s pretend!” And nothing proves this better than the fact
that some popular Whisper videos contain rather unpleasant sounds. Consider TheWhiteRabbitASMR’s dentist appointment video. If one is willing to grit one’s teeth through the long sections of abrasive drilling, it’s because she so adeptly crafts the intimate space of fantasy in which it takes places.

The pleasure of pretending was made clear to me when ASMR Velous recounted her childhood tactic for inducing ASMR. “I would constantly trick people into pretending to do things. I had this little play kitchen set, and I would cook up imaginary food for people and make them pretend-eat it really slowly and make those eating sounds like [chewing sounds], and I would just sit there and be all tingly. And I just loved it….I made up this game with my friends, where we would basically mime a profession and the other person would have to guess the profession you were miming. That was another way for me to trick my friends into pretending to do stuff.”

*

PercussiveThoughts is wrapping things up. “That completes your facial… So you can sit up. Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.”

I did enjoy it! But thank goodness it’s not really over; I can just hit the reload button. No matter how many times I do, I know that my pores won’t be any cleaner when I look in the mirror. But that’s not the point. Rather, Whisper fans take pleasure in the intimacy and complicity of pretending. That complicity applies even to the skin of the listener, a surface as vibrant as the skin of the speaker.

Joshua Hudelson is a Ph.D. student in the Music department at NYU.  He received his MA in Digital Musics from Dartmouth College, where he conducted ethnographic fieldwork on the Electronic Voice Phenomenon community.  He is currently writing about the Noiseless Typewriter.

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18 responses to “Listening to Whisperers: Perfomance, ASMR Community and Fetish on YouTube”

  1. kale says :

    Just piping in to corroborate, for readers unfamiliar with the phenomenon, that ASMR is *not* dependent on the Internet at all and certainly predates it. For me, it has also never been remotely sexual. I’m a 22 year old man who has experienced this since as early as I can remember: when folks at a shoe store gently placed my foot into the metal size-scale, when my teacher with a particular speech style wrote on the blackboard, when people call and ask me to do phone surveys, and, yes, from a young young age, when my father and I watched Bob Ross. When I mentioned this to my father, he told me he experienced the same, all his life; finding this article, my mother confirmed that it had been mentioned early in their relationship. She has never experienced something similar.

  2. Dalena says :

    I have always felt sexual arousal with what is termed AMSR triggers… mostly when it is soft spoken voices of the opposite sex. Though watching a couple of the videos of AMSR I felt sexual arousal with the soft female voice, but not to such a degree as I do with a male voice

  3. Flat Dog says :

    For something that is intended to be relaxing, ASMR sure makes a lot of people upset. Like elsewhere on YouTube and the internet in general, the amount of vitriol and seething aggression on the part of (some not all) commenters on ASMR videos is an alarming reflection of how much society needs help to reduce tension and anxiety. I do not experience ASMR as described but if others do, wonderful; I applaud the young women and men who post these videos. Regardless of their motivations, they are helping others to relax and apparently the need is great.

  4. Maureen says :

    The author clearly does not understand what ASMR is; there is nothing sexual about it. The vagus and sciatic nerves are stimulated, not the sexual organs. Whispering is just a small fraction of the ASMR community. Personally I get ASMR from sounds such as typing on a keyboard, I find whispering annoying.

    • mrgamma says :

      Totally depends, what might start as a hand fixation, may turn into mindless drooling followed by a nice or so of pure trance-like bliss… You’re right though, it’s more like Sensual than Sexual. Who knows… might be different for everyone. Sensory attention overload!

  5. MrGamma says :

    Some people claim that holophonic sound, probably why all the asmr artists use those 3d microphones stimulates ASMR. Some say it was pioneered in the 70s. Doesn’t explain the goosebumps I get walking through spaces though, or the synesthesia effect I get feeling warm and fuzzy from some images.

  6. Aaron Trammell says :

    Justin, I think that Joshua’s points regarding fetish in this article are well put. Although, Josh does not talk much about his personal experience with the medium here, he does observe the representational qualities of the videos in a particularly interesting way. Fetish isn’t a negative thing in and of itself and a traditional Freudian reading would imply that the disembodied representation of body parts (and, perhaps also sounds) might play into a particular definition of fetish. Perhaps a more constructive set of questions would inquire as to the validity of Freud’s construction of fetish and which intellectual discourses its application is most relevant to.

    My main question about this article relates to the fetishization of sound and its connection to phone sex practitioners and commoditization.

  7. Justin Kinser says :

    It’s really obvious that you have no idea what ASMR is. The dismissive and condescending tone dripping from this article aside, you didn’t even seem to bother learning about the sensation itself.

    It is similar to Frisson (cold chills), however Frisson tends to occur in your lower back and down your arms. The consecutive chain of tingles that make up ASMR start at the top of your scalp and work their way down the back of your head and neck. For some, this continues into Frisson, but this is rare.

    And despite the rather judgmental tone with which you attempt to sexualize ASMR into some sort of fetish, it does not generally result in sexual arousal. For a small subset, yes, but for the vast majority of people in ASMR communities, it’s simply relaxing.

    • john says :

      @justin: so you’re dictating what the word frisson means now? by capitalizing the word? be constructive.

    • mary says :

      For me, it causes a goose-bumpy euphoria. I think that it causes a profound effect on the Ventral Vagus Nerve. It relieves anxiety. I get similar “head tingles” from meditation(crown chakra tingles).

      You can hear Dr. Stephan Porges talk about the vagus nerve on this video (go to 28 minutes): http://vimeo.com/44146020

      He does not talk about ASMR; it is my observation. The vagus nerve is a primary component of the autonomic nervous system. it is associated with the regulation of sympathetic “fight or flight” behaviors, including self-soothing and calming. The VVN also exerts important influence on the heart. It goes to the heart and middle ear. I think that the soft sounds soothe our vagal nerve.

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