During the early months of quarantine, Bree, a 26-year-old in San Diego, was feeling overwhelmed with stress. She was out of work. Her job in the beauty industry had closed. “The world was so uncertain,” she says.
That’s when Bree went on YouTube and discovered ASMR videos. After having surgery in the spring, she watched a ton of whisper videos to get through recovery. “It was so therapeutic watching the videos that the physical pain I had from surgery didn’t feel as amplified or as bad when I was watching ASMR,” she says. “I had stopped taking my pain meds; I was just in agony. ASMR — it really did help.”
Soon Bree launched her own ASMR YouTube channel, “ASMRBellaBree.” Most of her videos are typical of the ASMR genre’s soothing timbre: She whispers into a close microphone, role-plays as a comforting friend or kindergarten teacher, and employs gentle household objects like an eyebrow brush.
But on June 5th, as much of the country erupted in protest following the murder of George Floyd, Bree, who is Black, uploaded a different kind of ASMR video. In it, she delivers “positive affirmations” for protesters and anyone experiencing pain after Floyd’s death, and discusses the Black Lives Matter movement while gently caressing the camera with a makeup brush. “To do nothing — to not use my platform, to not inform, to not educate, to not love — would be a grave disservice to you all,” Bree states in the video, her voice never rising above a tingly whisper.
Prepping You for Protest — In a Gentle Whisper
Perhaps it’s unusual to see the fraught subject of police brutality addressed in the hypnotic, tingly tones of an ASMR channel. But Bree’s video reflects a burgeoning, distinctly 2020 ASMR subgenre: the ASMR protest video. Conventional protests involve shouted slogans, energized crowds, electrifying orators. ASMR creators (often known as “ASMRtists”), meanwhile, have started employing the language of whispers and tingle triggers to educate their viewers about Black Lives Matter and systemic racism. In other words, it’s the unrest of 2020 — filtered through a format more commonly associated with rest. “Because of the trauma, it’s a way to soothe people,” Bree says. “It’s pushing the movement in a different way.”
Indeed, YouTube creators of all racial identities have found surprisingly inventive ways to engage with Black Lives Matter within the confines of ASMR. In June, a popular ASMRtist named Aleece McAvoy, known on YouTube as “DiamondASMR,” created a video in which she role-plays as a friend prepping you for a protest and outfitting you with masks and safety gear. (Role-play scenarios in which someone gives you personal attention are a common ASMR trigger.) It’s probably the first ASMR video that teaches viewers what to wear in case of being hit with tear gas:
The same week, a London-based creator who goes by “ASMR MAG UK” published a video in which she discusses the police killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner in between gentle bites of rainbow cookies inscribed with the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” At the end of the video, she takes a bite out of an edible power fist (an iconic protest symbol) made out of chocolate.
As of September, the clip has amassed 415,000 views and thousands of supportive comments. “An ASMRist who discusses current political issues?” one commenter wrote. “Automatically subscribed.”
Other videos are more overtly educational. Later in the summer, an ASMRtist named “Hailee ASMR” created a video responding to anti-Black Lives Matter arguments — especially, she wrote, “from some people in the Asian-American community.” This vlog lecture lasts 90 minutes but never deviates from a whisper:
‘The Biggest Bubble of Safety and Love’
These videos testify to the powerful reach and intense urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also to the cultural malleability of ASMR. For YouTube audiences, the growing phenomenon is typically a tool for casual relaxation, but ASMR can serve plenty of other roles, too. It can be used to treat anxiety and insomnia, some researchers believe. It can be sexualized and incorporated into soft-core porn. It can be co-opted by advertisers or upscale hotel marketers.
Until recently, ASMR was largely apolitical. But can it also be a vehicle for protest?
“After the tragic death of George Floyd, I slowly started to see creators in the ASMR community show up and use their platforms and voices to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement,” writes Maddie, a semi-anonymous ASMRtist better known as “mads asmr,” in an email. “Previously, I had never watched an ASMR video that tapped into any social or political movement like what the death of George Floyd sparked in our community; creators began to speak up and show up. I have also noticed many creators shy away from the subject matter because they find it ‘inappropriate’ and ‘not the right time or place’ to speak on such matters. I think many creators have such a fear of backlash, losing subscribers and even losing sponsorships for being vocal on such matters.”
During the peak of the protests, Maddie — whose channel has more than half a million subscribers — created an ASMR video centered around positive affirmations. At the beginning of the clip, she summons “the biggest bubble of safety and love, light and comfort,” then reveals in a soft whisper that all revenue made from the video will be donated to a Black Lives Matter organization. (Various other YouTubers also pledged to donate advertising revenue, and one ASMRtist donated 1,100 double cheeseburgers.)
Maddie, who is not Black, says she made the video in part because she wanted the Black viewers coming to the ASMR community for relaxation to know that her channel would always be a safe space. “When watching your favorite creator, it can truly feel like you are hanging out with a close friend,” Maddie tells me, “and sometimes what we need from a friend is love, a safe ear, comfort and a place to retreat that feels safe.”
‘ASMR and Activism Share a Common Foundation’
Again, prior to 2020, most ASMR videos — with rare exceptions — steered away from politically charged subjects. That may be because the ASMR community is predominantly white, and less likely to have been actively engaged in movements for racial justice. Or because, in less stressful times, ASMR is meant to lull you into a relaxed stupor, not arouse passions. That’s why so many ASMR videos are deliberately boring and mundane. ASMRtists often rack up tens of thousands of views while reciting safety instructions, unboxing household objects and quietly chewing gum. Viewers can zone out and relax while enjoying tingles (a term for the euphoric “tingling” sensation that ASMR can trigger).
But the unrest of 2020 has necessitated a more urgent, politically charged style of ASMR.
I reached out to Craig Richard, a physiologist who is a world expert on ASMR and wrote a book about the phenomenon called Brain Tingles, to ask what he thinks of these protest videos — and is it possible for ASMR videos to address subjects as serious and emotionally fraught as police brutality and induce tingles all at once?
He suggests that ASMR and activism may have more in common than it seems. “Being supportive and caring is at the heart of ASMR and the ASMR community,” Richard writes over email. “I think it is possible for ASMR videos to induce tingles and increase relaxation while also addressing intense and stressful topics. Caring for another person is central to ASMR and also to activism, so they may appear quite distinct on the surface, but they actually share a common foundation.”
The written text below the video can also be a venue for activism. “When ASMRtists make a BLM video, they’re informing people what happened on the day George Floyd was killed, [and] they’re also letting people contribute by putting links in the description of the video so people can donate,” says “Rodomg ASMR,” another ASMR creator.
Fellow YouTubers agree that ASMR videos can address subjects such as Floyd’s death by focusing on offering comfort and healing, instead of lingering on the violent details. “You can speak about the issues without speaking so explicitly about what happened,” says Bree. “Our platform as ASMRtists is one of peace and collectively coming together and having a safe space.”
Building the Black ASMR Database
Even still, ASMR tends to be associated with young, white women. As YouTubers have begun engaging with the protests, there has also been a concurrent, smaller movement to support and promote Black creators within the ASMR community. In late May, a creator who goes by “Wildheart ASMR” tweeted a link to a Google spreadsheet of Black ASMRtists. This growing database later migrated to its own website: blackasmr.com.
Bree says there’s still work to be done in terms of carving out a space for Black creators in the ASMR world. “I have talked about it with my other Black ASMR friends,” Bree says. “We all agree that if we were a different color, our channels would have grown a lot faster, and we would be a lot more exposed. You know, we’re a minority in ASMR, and even on top of that, someone might not click on our video as quickly because of our skin.”
“Even though Black Lives Matter is more geared toward police brutality, it’s still about acknowledging that Black people have a voice and it needs to be heard,” Bree adds. “And I would like for people to be aware that there are Black people in ASMR — and we do need more of a push.”