Maria is a 28-year-old YouTube star with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Her video view numbers reach dizzying heights and people are addicted to her brand of charisma. But Maria doesn't sing or dance or even teach viewers how to put on makeup. She just whispers at them. And then she whispers some more.
When I first watched Maria's videos, which are supposed to be soothing and make you feel like "showers of sparkles" are descending upon your head, I was excited to be relaxed into a state of bliss that I'd never achieved before. But after about 30 seconds, the only reaction I had was a creepy-crawly sensation all over my arms and a horrifying feeling I can't describe in my collarbone. I wanted to rip my skin off and bathe in alcohol. And all this woman was doing was pretending to be a librarian, wishing me a happy birthday and demanding (nicely and quietly) to know where I lived. For me, Maria's videos are torture, utter and complete. For many others, however, her "gentle whispers" are little slices of mind-blowing heaven.
The Washington Post reports that Maria's followers—all of them wrong—are experiencing a physical sensation known as autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR, perhaps you've heard of it over the years), which "floods your body with warm tingles" and, according to Maria, feels like "sand being poured all over you" or "goosebumps on the brain." The latter of these feelings sounds like a legitimate physical problem that should be checked out by a doctor, but for Maria's fans, these sensations aren't just welcomed, they're addicting. Just wait: soon, people's lives are going to be ruined by this.
It's not that I have anything against Maria—in fact, I hope she's making videos off of these fetish (would you call them fetish?) videos—but it's just so strange. Compared to other oddities I've found on the internet, I didn't think that whispering would be the the thing to do me in, but I find the videos unbearable to watch for more than a few seconds.
Maria says that ASMR helped her through depression and she believes that her videos can help others feel better, too. In fact, Maria credits whispering videos to her own continued good mental health and claims that learning about ASMR was transformative.
The discovery was life-changing, she says. Whenever she felt stressed by her administrative job at a medical company, she watched a "whisper" video to calm down. And when she herself spoke in gentle tones, she realized that she could provide the same feeling for others. She noticed that some of her employer's clients often asked her to show them product catalogs, though they rarely bought anything. "They would just keep asking me questions and I would keep flipping pages, and they would just zone out and stare at me," she says with a shy laugh.
And her videos have been transformative for others, as well:
A few weeks ago, Maria says, she was contacted by a young woman whose grandmother was in hospice, near death. The elderly woman was no longer very responsive, but when the granddaughter played Maria's videos, "it made her grandmother happy and calmed her down," Maria says, recalling the woman's message. "She said, 'This is so great, because we don't know how else to help her.' "
WaPo does note that some people get ASMR and some don't, comparing the experience to Magic Eye paintings, which many people can't see. One of my colleagues referred to the videos as "cilantro" meaning that some people love them, some people like them, and for some the sounds of gentle whispering, like the taste of cilantro, are actually painful.
No scientific research confirms that ASMR is a thing, but ASMRtists (as the community of those who make these videos refer to themselves) are excited about the possibility of ASMR being studied.
As for Maria, though I don't understand her, I wouldn't call her undedicated. While WaPo reports that she can't afford to live off her videos alone (she holds a part-time job), she is very responsive to fans and creates high quality soundscapes with binaural microphones and props such as a hairbrush. One of her most popular videos—a YouTube commenter writes that the tingles were almost too much—is called "Crinkle Crinkle Little Shirt" and features hair brushing, shirt-rustling, and fabric touching. And then, to top it all off, she does the same exact video, but completely in Russian. (I liked that one even less.)
That, friends, is real commitment. Perhaps it just takes a few listens to really get into it.