Whispering plays a big part in ASMR. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Welcome to the world of autonomous sensory meridian response videos, the internet’s soft play area

For some people, videos of people performing intricate tasks or crinkling paper can produce a satisfying tingling feeling. If you can suspend your cyncism, it’s one of the nicest places on the internet to be.

“Prob not going to make it tonight, feeling rough,” I text. I’m taking a social sick day, and what I actually mean is, “Prob not going to make it tonight, can’t be bothered to stand in a hot room, sipping a drink that I had to queue for 40 minutes to get.” What I actually, actually mean is, “Prob not going to make it tonight, a woman off the internet is doing stuff to my ears, and I’m into it.”

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos are, objectively speaking, the weirdest thing on the world wide web. They’re weirder than this, this and this. But they’re also an internet sensation. The one I’m watching, the one about ears, has over 400,000 views. A 20-minute video where a woman prods a disembodied silicone ear with various objects has been watched nearly half a million times. But why?

In case you haven’t read one of the many, many articles about what ASMR is, I’m going to attempt to explain. And boy, this is a real humdinger of complexity. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. OK – it’s effectively a satisfying tingling feeling (or “braingasm”) that some people, myself included, get from watching and listening to other people performing, say, an intricate task. Or crinkling some paper. Or whispering in your ear. When I was at school, for example, I had a friend who used to draw on her hands in lessons. When I sat next to her, quadratic equations and conjugating “être” became background noise. I’d be too mesmerised by watching her tattoo herself in biro to even function.

A decade later I learnt that not only is there a name for what was going on in my head when I zenned the hell out in French and maths, but there are millions of other people who experience it. And, unwittingly, I suppose I’ve become a member of the nascent ASMR community. And I hate communities. And I hate hippy dippy, kale juice enemas, reiki hand jobs bollocks. And, for anyone who doesn’t experience ASMR, that’s exactly what most of the videos probably look like. A lot of it is women whispering about relaxation, in this babbling, nonsensical, stream of consciousness way. But, holy shit is it calming.  

In fact, I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say that ASMR videos have changed my life. They’re sometimes more effective than sleeping pills in getting me, an anxiety ridden insomniac depressive, to drop off. Really and truly. I mean sure, there’s going to come a point when you’re 15 minutes into a video of a woman blowing on a saucepan where you think, “What the fuck is my life?” But, if you’re truly relaxed for the first time in three years, does that really matter?

ASMR videos are the internet’s soft play area. Anyone who spends even a fifth of the amount of time that I do online will know that it’s at least 93 per cent shouty caps lock arguments. If you fancy a holiday from all that, I highly recommend you suspend your cynicism – I managed it – and get into ASMR. If you don’t believe me, just look at the comments on any given ASMR video. We all know that, a dreaded glance over the comments section of a video of a penguin falling over will usually direct you straight to someone being called “worse than Hitler”. The comments on ASMR videos are things like, “this really helped me get to sleep, thanks J” and “I want to hug whoever invented ASMR”.

Hugs. Actual hugs. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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