Ilse Blansert rearranges her stick-straight brown hair so that it’s out of her face and puts on a couple dabs of makeup to even out her pale complexion. Satisfied after checking her appearance in her webcam’s display, she gingerly attaches her microphones to her blouse lapels, careful not to let her fingertips touch the sensitive inputs. She gauges the sound levels that the microphones are picking up with a nearly silent “Testing-one-two-three.” Then, a sphinx-like smile on her face, she begins to whisper.
Blansert, a Dutch-born Canadian student in her twenties, is speaking to no one in particular, nor is she saying anything revelatory. On this day she is showing off pieces from her jewelry collection—a silver bangle here, an intricate, thin glass butterfly necklace there—which hardly seems like something a complete stranger would wish to devote twenty minutes to hearing her stage-whisper about.
Yet her YouTube videos get thousands of views (her channel, titled thewaterwhispers, has 111,540 subscribers at press time), as do those made by dozens of other video bloggers who also speak in a soft voice about mundane things. Where does the appeal come from? In a word: Tingles.
The Roots of the Feeling
Blansert is part of a loose fraternity of people from around the world who have devoted themselves to setting off other people’s autonomous sensory meridian responses (ASMR). There are 4,350,000 videos tagged with “ASMR” on YouTube alone, up from a “mere” 2,000,000 last year.On average 11 new videos are posted with this tag every hour.
This dense term is a neologism, coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, a freelance web designer and healthcare tech support engineer from upstate New York who now heads the nonprofit group ASMR Research and Support. It refers to a scientifically unexplained, pleasurable tingling sensation reported by people from around the world that can occur anywhere in the body’s extremities but tends to happen in the head, face, scalp, and neck, set off by soft sounds like whispers.
In a pre-Internet era, people with such a quirk might have kept it to themselves. If they were curious or concerned, they may have discussed it with a doctor, who likely would have conceded that it was unidentifiable but harmless.
But this is the age of overshare, and a happy consequence of a generation of people documenting their lives online is that these people can find other like-minded individuals fairly easily. In the past, ASMR would have made people like Blansert minor eccentrics. Today, with a community formed online, it – coupled with a talent for setting it off, and good old-fashioned charisma – not only makes them famous, but makes them money. ASMR has created a micro-economy online.
Allen herself initially referred to ASMR as “a feeling up my spine, as if I’d been injected with something that woke up every nerve ending” in the SteadyHealth forum post where she began posting about her experiences with it online. Five years ago, no one had heard of this sensation.
Of course, people have probably felt it for a long time, and SteadyHealth users had sporadically posted about it under a variety of terms before Allen came along, but it was never widely discussed until Allen started a Facebook page for people who reported feeling brain tingles, using the acronym ASMR for the first time.
The Soft Sound of Money
Since then, interest in it online has exploded – witness those YouTube statistics that attest to a 250 percent growth in the number of ASMR videos posted in a single year, and the more than 70,000 subscribers of the ASMR subreddit, with hundreds actively online and browsing the page at any given time.
ASMR artists are able to make a profit from YouTube partnership, in which the site shares ad revenue with video makers, to the tune of $7 CPM, or payment per thousand clicks, as a low-end estimate. But the greater the total views a partner channel has, the better its pay rate tends to be.
The top ASMR channel on YouTube’s search results in terms of total views, gentlewhispering, has been around for three years and has about 56,000,000 total views. Assuming the channel only earns the minimum CPM share from YouTube, this means its owner – a Russian expat in Maryland named Maria – may have made about $392,000 in YouTube money. This translates to just over $130,000 a year on average.
The median salary for a lawyer in the United States is $114,330, or about 12 percent less than this estimate – and in order to practice law, you need to have a postgraduate degree and to have passed a bar examination, a process which typically takes three or four years beyond an undergraduate degree, while ASMR vlogging takes no special training beyond basic video shooting and editing.
Maria has related having had disputes with the Google Corporation over payment, as she felt she was being underpaid. She continues hosting her videos on the site nonetheless. Maria posted on howtomakeonline.org, a website that offers tips on earning money on the Internet, “If you have a family to feed [making ASMR videos] is a good way to earn something while you are helping others[…] The ONLY reason I had to turn on the ads on my videos was because I got a huge debt after my divorce and I literally would be living on the street today if not the earnings from here.”
Blansert, meanwhile, has been able to move from the Netherlands to Canada with her fiance (who is also a whisperer) and plans to purchase a real recording studio with the bounty of her YouTube earnings.
But even if the mononymous Maria wasn’t getting her due from YouTube, her grateful fans themselves may be filling the gap. ASMR vloggers have the extra avenue of income that’s common to everyone who posts free media online: The PayPal donate button.
Only their own private PayPal accounts tell the story of how much vloggers receive from viewers, but with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, even if just a small proportion of them are willing to toss a few bucks every year, it would add up.
If one percent of Maria’s 210,030 subscribers each donate $10 a year, that’s more than $20,000 added to her annual earnings. That’s not counting donation drives that have benefits for the donators themselves; vloggers may from time to time set up GoFundMe and other crowdfunding pages in order to afford better recording equipment, which, in turn, means a better viewing experience for their audience.
That’s not to say the material you need to make ASMR video content is costly. For the most part, it can be accomplished with a good camera with a monopod, tripod, or similar stand, and, critically, a good microphone.
Amazon.com lists a Samsung HD camcorder that includes a desktop tripod for $177.99, and a podcasting mic by Blue Microphones goes for $90.84. This means a fairly well-appointed home ASMR recording setup can have an initial investment of less than $300.
Any props (crayons, paper, makeup, and other small items) used in videos tend to be things the vloggers had around their homes in the first place, and generous audience members with special requests will often send them the items required for the videos they’d like to see.
Most of the top ASMR artists stick to a relatively tight posting schedule of one to three videos a week; the real workhorses do videos daily. But the internet is always a hungry beast when it comes to content, and vloggers often feel pressure to produce more, especially if their schedules slip and they miss an update. So the time commitment can be great.
Aided by ASMR
Those who get brain tingles swear up and down by their benefits for overall wellbeing. The occasional feeling of good vibes from within is a natural way to keep a good mood going throughout the day, of course, but sufferers of depression, social anxiety, and a host of other mental disorders who experience ASMR say that the tingles have alleviated their symptoms without the need of medication.
A few people make rather more outrageous claims, such as healing physical wounds via ASMR, but the majority of people say their mental comfort is increased by it. Far and away, the issue that comes up the most in ASMR channels’ comments is insomnia; not surprisingly, as the videos indeed tend to be soporific even for people who don’t feel a frisson down their backs. ABC News has even covered ASMR and suggested it as an insomnia home remedy.
As YouTube user Adam Brothwood posted on Maria’s ASMR channel gentlewhispering, “ASMR literally changed my life. I [used] to suffer from severe panic attacks with long periods of depression with no light at the end of the tunnel…it was as though I was broken with no manual to fix the problem. I would smoke weed and take drugs to self-medicate but it only made it worse. Long term benefit of ASMR is that I am now confident and have a healthy, balanced state of mind. My outlook on life has never been better.” Others’ testimonials may not be quite as enthusiastic, but many of the posts in the comments sections of most ASMR videos and channels at any given time seem to be from people who claim improvement in some psychological condition.
Yet, despite the anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of ASMR, scientific research on the phenomenon has only begun recently, and has barely scratched the surface. While it’s hardly disputable that a lot of people are having similar sensations for similar reasons, the precise mechanics and origins of the brain tingles remain for now a mystery.
Jennifer Allen’s ASMR Research and Support, despite being purely online-based and without a physical central office anywhere in the world, has been fairly successful in its outreach efforts, soliciting interest for brain scans and other trials of people with ASMR. Noted brain scientists Steven Novella of Yale’s neurology department and Tom Stafford of the UK’s Sheffield University school of psychology have said there’s a need for in-depth research.
While science catches up to the internet phenomenon, people like Maria and Blansert make money. But how does one get the adoration of thousands plus the revenue stream that comes with making ASMR videos?
To start, you have to figure out whether you experience this kind of tingling sensation yourself. There does not seem to be a single ASMR vlogger on YouTube who doesn’t claim to feel the benefits of ASMR as well.
“Long before I knew what ASMR was, when I was maybe five years old, I got a feeling of brain tingles when my grandmother used to softly touch my hand and sing lullabies to me,” Blansert relates, and her story is not atypical.
Every ASMR vlogger says they experience the feeling, and their narratives usually begin in their childhoods. Some kind of gentle, non-threatening stimulus made their brains buzz a little, and though the feeling relaxed and soothed them even when they were troubled, they assumed everyone felt such things, or simply got used to it and put it out of their minds. Then, they got older, and learned this was something special.
And most of them don’t seem to have intended to become as big a deal as they now are in the ASMR video subculture. The narrative of “This was just a hobby,” common to many YouTube celebs, is often referred to, as is a desire to give back. The ASMR community emphasizes altruism.
There’s a sense of genuine surprise and gratitude that comes from vloggers who pass a subscribers or views milestone. As unforeseeable as the massive returns these people have seen from trying to help others get a few tingles or a little sleep might be, as the ASMR community grows, so do vloggers’ profits. They may not be shouting about their success, but they certainly continue to whisper.
Photo Credit: antonio