Mary J Lee used to be a dental hygienist. Then, she started making ASMR videos on Twitch, whispering peaceful sounds into a microphone shaped like ears. Soon, she was earning far more money murmuring to internet strangers than she ever did cleaning coffee stains off crusty yellow teeth. So she quit her job and moved to Austin,Texas to pursue a full-time career as an ASMRtist.
Makenna K Kelly, known on Instagram and YouTube as Life With Mak, used to be your average adolescent girl making home videos on an old camcorder. A few months ago, she started posting ASMR videos to her YouTube channel, and watched her following skyrocketed to over a million subscribers and nearly 100 million views. Now, Mak is collecting YouTube ad revenue. She’s accepting brand ambassador jobs and marketing companies’ products on her Instagram and YouTube channel.
Mak and Mary didn’t start making ASMR videos because they had a passion for whispering. They saw an opportunity: to jump on an emerging trend. To grow their audience. To make big money pursuing the new generation’s American dream: becoming internet famous.
And they’re not alone. ASMR is exploding in popularity, and paving a new way for young women to make bank as social media celebrities. Although ASMR might seem like a niche community, its star personalities are attracting astronomical numbers on YouTube, Twitch, Twitter and Instagram. From these platforms, ASMRtists often direct their followers to PayPal or Patreon accounts, where they accept donations.
“I have started earning money,” Mak giggles modestly as we chat over the phone. “It’s my part time job as a kid and it’s working out pretty well for me.”
Mak is 13 years old. She’s had a YouTube channel since she was 7. However, she only started capturing mass attention once she started creating her signature ASMR content: chewing on obscure or disgusting foods, so viewers can listen to the sounds inside her mouth. Roleplaying characters sometimes sweet and endearing, sometimes savagely cruel, but always soft-spoken.
“I’ll eat spiders or crickets, boba or honeycomb. One time I ate a dehydrated tarantula,” Mak says. “I try to take a lot of my fans’ requests, and eat all the random things they tell me to eat.”
Of course, eating outrageous things is a timeless attention-grabbing technique, but slap on the title of “ASMR” and suddenly these videos are destined for greatness.
“I think what makes my ASMR special is the roleplaying, the sarcasm, and the comedy,” Mak says. Characters like the sassy police officer, the rude flight attendant, or the highly-insulting dentist make viewers experience a strange combination of feelings — amused, pacified, yet humiliated by a cold-hearted brace-faced red-headed child.
Mary hasn’t amassed quite the same YouTube following as Mak, but has become a leading figure of her own streaming platform, Twitch. ASMR might be bigger on YouTube, but Twitch has a unique structure that often makes it a much more profitable space for ASMRtists.
Twitch offers a multitude of ways for content creators to get paid for their work. Viewers pay for subscriptions. Devoted fans can make single donations. Supporters of an entire genre can use a new “Community Gifting” feature to donate to up to 100 creators at once. On top of all this, Twitch streamers earn ad revenue.
“Most of my revenue comes from Twitch subscriptions, which are similar to a YouTube ‘follow.’ A Twitch subscription is $4.99, $9.99, or $24.99 each month to support a streamer,” explains Mary.
Each higher payment tier comes with a few extra perks. The low-level subscribers will get access to Mary’s past videos. They’ll get a few “emotes,” emojis with Mary’s facial expressions. They can become Mary’s friend on Snapchat.
Higher level subscribers get extra emotes. Mary plans to send them an exclusive album or EP every month, so they can listen to her ASMR without having to stream live video on Twitch.
“Perks are up to each creator to make. But people don’t seem to subscribe for the perks. They subscribe just to support a creator,” Mary says. “I’ve gotten to a point where I’m at 3,500 subscribers. And a lot of people will re-sub every month. It’s gotten to a size I’ve never imagined.”
Streamers can accept one-time donations through Twitch. The most Mary has received from a single donation is $1,000.
They can also direct fans to other websites where they sell customized content. When viewers requested specific sounds, maybe ear-licking or teeth tapping, Mary used to push them over to Etsy, where she could sell personalized recordings. Other streamers send their fans to Patreon, where they offer premium content or adult content, like sexual ASMR videos.
The opportunities to monetize almost never end — if you’re a woman. For reasons too complicated, controversial, and not entirely understood, the ASMR community seems to drastically favor women, more than men, as the providers of their soothing whisper sounds. For girls (and girls alone), whispering to a camera has become a career move.