Picture: 123RF/arkela
Picture: 123RF/arkela

A fully clothed blonde woman whispers into her camera while strumming her manicured fingers across a soft-bristle make-up brush. "I’m just examining. Just paying attention … making sure that you’re in good health," she purrs, as she strokes the camera lens with the brush.

It’s not sexual in any way, but it feels personal and is oddly soothing.

This is Maria "Gentle Whispering", a YouTube "ASMRtist" with 1.4-million subscribers and more than half-a-billion views since she started in 2011.

The acronym stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, a physical reaction experienced by some people when they are exposed to the right visual and auditory stimuli.

According to a study by psychology professor Stephen Smith of the University of Winnipeg, ASMR is probably the first psychological phenomenon that was discovered by internet users rather than by scientists.

The study found that people who experience ASMR reactions have neural networks that are fundamentally different to those of other people.

So ASMR viewers feel warm and fuzzy when they watch YouTube videos in which people do things like whispering and tapping or strumming a comb.

"Many users describe it as a ‘head orgasm’," says reporter Scaachi Koul in the Follow This Netflix documentary episode about the phenomenon. For Koul, ASMR creates a tingle in her spine and brain. She says it provides a calming respite from her busy life and hectic job.

For me the tingling sensation mostly runs gently down my neck into the tension in my shoulders, forcing me to relax in ways that normally would cost a lot of money at a fancy spa. Ironically, my favourite sensory therapy is courtesy of the Instagram user Andrea @therosequeenn, who slowly, beautifully, cuts up a succession of Lush beauty and spa products.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way; in June, the University of Sheffield’s department of psychology found ASMR may have benefits for both physical and mental health. The study suggests that those who experience ASMR show significant reductions in heartbeat rates as well as lower levels of stress and anxiety.

"I don’t think it’s a new thing that people want to feel better," says Koul. "Or that people want to feel comfort, we always want that. But there is something that’s happening in the past, probably three years, where it has really exploded in a bigger way."

"Exploded" may be an understatement; 570 ASMR videos are posted every hour. In the past year 11-million videos have been tagged #ASMR. The biggest number of viewers is in South Korea, almost twice as many as in second-ranked Canada. The US, Australia and New Zealand also have substantial viewerships.

But in June China banned and deleted videos of sound effects as part of its efforts to block online porn. And in the US, internet companies are being more vigilant about content following the adoption in March of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States & Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.

In the past two weeks PayPal has started banning content creators that violate its sexual content policy from using its services, and is freezing their assets for six months. Even YouTube started taking steps in June to demonetise the ASMR genre, deeming the videos "not advertiser-friendly".

"This poses the question, does YouTube itself misjudge ASMR content as sexual?" British ASMRtist "Be calm with Becca" wrote on Reddit when this happened to her videos. "Very disappointing that the very platform [on which] the ASMR community comes together is also contributing to the misjudgment of ASMR."

Though ASMR breeds some form of artificial intimacy, most videos focus on helping with insomnia rather than other bedtime activities. So when watching the videos it’s hard to understand why these fully dressed women who mostly whisper encouraging acts of self-care are now being treated in the same manner as sex traffickers.

This is mostly thanks to 8chan, a hive of the worst kind of internet trolls. Trolls so extreme that they left the already problematic 4chan once the deplorable site started regulating speech during "Gamergate", a campaign in which rape and death threats were sent en masse to female videogamers. Now these trolls have started a campaign to report, to PayPal and elsewhere, attractive women who make ASMR videos. They have created a forum on 8ch.net where they champion getting the women kicked off YouTube and Patreon.

As with many things on the internet, a small group of people who bang on their keyboards the loudest are ruining things for everyone else — including the millions of users who believe ASMR has helped them cope with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. At least the trolls can’t take Lush away.

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