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.
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 CalmingEscape’s, 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 viewer’s 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.