Last summer the candymaker Reese posted a feature-length video on YouTube called Reese the Movie. In a Reese-orange room, five popular YouTubers sit around a Reese-orange table and whisper into their headsets about the pleasures of peanut butter cups. They compare notes on the best way to open a Reese packet. (Cue amplified sounds of packets whooshing across the table and fingernails clicking on wrappers.) The candies topple free with the clunk of wooden blocks. The breathless council dismantles them, scooping into the cups with apple corers and smooshing them under spatulas, releasing soft, sliding squeaks like trampled snow. They slice them like bread, each chop cartoonishly loud. After 80 minutes, our protagonists come at last to the intended destiny of these fluted UFOs: They eat them. The end.
What we’re watching, or rather having, according to the video’s tagline, is “an ASMR experience.” I find it hard to gauge how well-known ASMR is. In savvier digital circles, and among my 18-year-old students, it usually elicits a familiar chuckle. But when I bring it up to my thirtysomething peers, they tend to look at me blankly. So here is the requisite unboxing of the acronym: autonomous sensory meridian response. ASMR is an umbrella under which many millions of people huddle to make and listen to amplified sounds of mundane events—bars of soap being scraped, a whisk hitting the side of a bowl, tissue paper crackling, instruction manuals read out in one prolonged whisper. Fans return to their favorite “ASMRtists,” like the Reese whisperers, for the intensely pleasurable tingles or chills these sounds produce. Move over, Seinfeld; ASMR is truly “the show about nothing.”
For a long time, commercials have known the satisfying effects of exaggerated sounds—the loud scrape as a beer cap is twisted off, the hiss of pouring soda, the splintering crunch of tortilla chips. In this sense, Reese the Movie is nothing new. But the past year has seen a self-conscious turning up of the volume: Bacardi, KFC, McDonald’s, and Michelob have all embraced ASMR too. One practical reason for the sudden surge in mainstream force is that ASMR provides an acceptable reworking of the old adage that sex sells. This is carnality that bypasses the genitals. (A recent study by researchers at the University of Sheffield concluded that “sexual arousal is not a reliable outcome of watching ASMR videos.”) At a time when we’re rightly reconsidering the public limits of expressing private desire, these videos permit sanitized declarations of sensuality. With ASMR, we’re all ears. Erogenous zones are outsourced to a crème brûlée’s glassy, tappable roof, or to the plump domes of bubble wrap.
Yet there is something far deeper at work in the mainstreaming of ASMR: It brings balance to the manic features of our crowded digital economy. We talk about the polarizing of political views, but for a while now we have also witnessed a polarizing of internet culture into two opposite kinds of extremity. On one side is the deafening roar of social media. Twitter booms with self-justifying echoes. Newsfeeds blare one headline after another. Influencers and star vloggers compete under the constant pressure to be memorable. This virtual one-upmanship has its physical perils: A Russian motoblogger died in a crash while reportedly driving his motorbike with his feet; a Chinese vlogger died while eating poisonous insects for his fans; a Spanish YouTuber died while filming a stunt jump from a chimney. We are the numb scrollers on the other side—strung out, edgy, sleepless, and unable to stop.
In the midst of this cacophony, ASMR has set up its quiet stalls. It gives us an inverse image of the digital culture of the past 20 years, converting the internet’s worst stressors (repetition, amplification) into soothers. Rather than pack the moment with push notifications and text alerts, ASMR encourages us to dive into one sound at a time. It transports you to a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids kind of sound world, but one emptied of the terrors of magnification. (No giant ants stomping through the undergrowth.) Instead you listen, elf-like, to the oceanic heaves and swells of a napkin being pleated. Social media is roundly criticized for its elevation of meaningless things to prominence (“Do I really need to see a picture of her morning coffee?”), but ASMR unabashedly embraces the trivial. In Reese the Movie, a YouTuber called Gibi ASMR explains, “When I peel open my Reese, I choose where I begin like it’s the most important decision in the world.” Her 2.38 million subscribers seem to share this sense of importance.
“Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” the writer Susan Sontag once observed. “For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” Sontag wrote this in 1965, when Cold War tensions and the specter of nuclear annihilation lived alongside what she saw as the uncultured tedium of postwar suburban American life. Sontag argued that science fiction films were one of her era’s coping strategies: Their thrills helped distract from life’s banality while also habituating people, via alien invasions and attacks, to the idea of existential danger. Perhaps every age feels strung between extremes, and the strategies that help people cope are one way of defining the times. While the ’60s had sci-fi, we have ASMR, with its alchemical way of turning “unremitting banality” into something sumptuous and potentially therapeutic.