On July 27, a 30-year-old Russian expat, known only to her followers as Maria, hit 1 million subscribers on her YouTube channel GentleWhispering–which features her doing just that.
Maria is one of the more famous personalities within a booming online subculture called ASMR. Not everyone experiences Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, but those who do describe is as a tingling sensation in the back of their skull, triggered by soft sounds like whispering, page turning, or hair brushing. Maria and other so-called “ASMRtists” make work—mainly video, and mainly on YouTube—that induces this sensation. “It’s a huge milestone, not just for my channel, but for the whole ASMR community,” Maria whispers into the camera in her celebration video, before reflecting on the “different twists and turns . . . and media exposure, positive and negative” along the way.
For anyone following this particular internet subculture, the size of Maria’s follower base won’t be a surprise. After emerging on YouTube around 2008, ASMR is now one of the biggest trends on the internet. As of this writing, there are over 9 million ASMR videos on YouTube. According to Google’s internal data, ASMR grew over 200% in 2015 and continues to grow consistently.
The community’s influence is now expanding outside of YouTube, where it first found a home. ASMR-inducing video and audio can now be found in galleries and museums, exhibited as art. Its growth has led to interest from academia, and perhaps inevitably, brands like KFC and Ikea have also picked up on its appeal. In some ways, the attention has been good: People who do experience ASMR are validated by so many others who do as well. But the ASMR community is large and fragmented, and it is sometimes split on what moving toward mainstream could do to what was originally intended as a safe space for those who experience the same phenomenon.
ASMR no longer just inhabits the fringes of the internet—and you’re about to see a lot more of it.
A Group-Coping Mechanism
ASMR’s beginnings are a little murky, but several sources say the term was coined in chatrooms in 2010. Claire Tolan, a Berlin-based artist whose work often focuses on ASMR, puts the genesis closer to 2008, when people online were discovering others that experienced similar sensations and setting up online forums around it. “Kind of 2006/2008, people were talking about [ASMR], and YouTube was…