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April 27, 2016, 11:15 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“Keeping it weird”: BuzzFeed’s ASMR Facebook Live experiment wants to whisper you the news

“This is the Internet and the Internet is weird. It’s always been weird. Especially when there’s a new format like this, the weirdness comes out.”

“Hello and welcome to BuzzFeed’s ASMR News Now, where we take you on a euphoric journey though the news,” a soothing, almost unsettlingly soft female voice whispers. “Now let’s move on to our top headlines.”

Twenty-six minutes later, after softly and methodically reading BuzzFeed stories about Mexico’s fight to legalize marijuana, the Secret Service’s paychecks to Donald Trump, and Virginia’s move to restore voting rights to its 200,000 felons, the video concludes (or rather, fades out): “That’s all the news for today. I’m the voice, signing off.” It starts off quiet and slow and ends quieter and slower.

The video, the fourth of its kind that BuzzFeed has broadcast on Facebook Live since last week, is at least theoretically aimed at viewers who experience ASMR — an autonomous sensory meridian response. If you’ve been around the Internet long enough, you know that’s the alleged “brain orgasm” triggered by sounds such as scratching, tapping, and, yes, whispering. BuzzFeed’s interest in ASMR is no accident: ASMR videos that feature nothing but hours of fingers tapping and paper crinkling have been viewed millions of times — proving that there’s plenty of demand and curiosity for the genre.

BuzzFeed’s videos feel very much at home in the early days of Facebook Live, where the lack of consensus about what works has led to the creation of a series of experimental stunt videos from publishers, each odder than the next. Since BuzzFeed’s seminal watermelon broadcast earlier this month, Canada’s National Post tested how many pieces of cheese its reporters could eat, while Mic tried to open beer bottles without a bottle opener. BuzzFeed, not to be outdone, has also turned up the weirdness and gimmicks. Its recent live video broadcasts have included “How many marshmallows can we fit in your mouth?,” “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a lollipop?” and “What did I just kiss???”

“Right now we’re keeping it weird, but simple,” said Sarah Burton, a BuzzFeed humor writer, the voice behind the ASMR videos, and a self-described “ASMR head.” “We’re trying to see what people respond to.” (Most of the ASMR videos so far have gotten between 10,000 and 20,000 views.)

I spoke to Burton and Dorsey Shaw, a writer and producer for BuzzFeed Video, about the ASMR experiment, why Facebook Live is so weird right now, and how BuzzFeed is trying to move beyond one-off stunt videos. The transcript of our conversation, slightly edited, is below.

Ricardo Bilton: Even compared to BuzzFeed’s other Facebook Live videos, the ASMR videos seem out of left field. Where did the idea come from and why did you think it made sense for Facebook Live?

Dorsey Shaw: I used to watch a lot of cable news, and when things like elections happen, watching the news can be kind of a sensory overload. We thought that ASMR would be a nice alternative to deliver that information.

It doesn’t really go with the ethos of what ASMR is, traditionally. ASMR is supposed to be for more relaxing stuff, but we took took a very not-relaxing subject and tried to make it relaxing. It was also to tap into a community that is on the Internet, mostly. It’s not a traditional journalistic way of delivering the news.

Sarah Burton: Especially for news and Facebook Live, it’s hard to make things interesting, so this was us trying a take on it.

Bilton: So the idea for the ASMR videos wasn’t supported by data? Data is a big part of what makes BuzzFeed tick, but it seems as if this was created on a hunch.

Shaw: There isn’t a lot of data out there yet when it comes to Facebook Live, so it wasn’t data-based. Mostly, we’re just experimenting with new things. I want to create things that aren’t copying traditional TV. We’re trying to find a new way to do these things that are visual and audio- and news-based on Facebook Live, which feels like a very new medium even though streaming video has been around for a long time. There are a lot of variables that no one really understands yet. There wasn’t any real data involved, except for the fact that we knew there was a huge ASMR community online.

Burton: ASMR videos get millions of views. People like GentleWhispering Maria are becoming celebrities in their own right within this niche. It’s definitely becoming a phenomenon that people are starting to hear about.

Bilton: It seems pretty divisive. Some people like it, but it seems as if most people are just confused by it.

Shaw: So far, the comments for the shows we’ve done have been positive. You obviously get people asking questions like “Why are they whispering?” but when it comes to the actual content, ASMR fans seem to like the idea of news in this format.

Burton: I’m really interested to see what people are taking away from listening to news from ASMR. We just started doing it, so we don’t have any real data on that yet.

Bilton: The videos feel unique, but also of a piece with the other weird stuff BuzzFeed is doing on Facebook Live. What’s the common thread here? Are you just coming up with weird ideas and seeing if people are interested?

Shaw: The stunty things are things we know people have experienced in life and enjoy over and over again. We’re not going to stop experimenting with weird things that we have a hunch people might like. But there are other things that have a strategy behind them. The ASMR concept can be sustained and repeated, and hopefully, people will come back and enjoy it over and over.

Bilton: Why do you think that BuzzFeed and other sites have gravitated toward weird stuff on Facebook Live?

Shaw: Because this is the Internet and the Internet is weird. It’s always been weird. Especially when there’s a new format like this, the weirdness comes out. Everyone’s trying to learn fast. Going for weird stuff is a good way to experiment and find out what people are willing to sit there and watch for a half-hour.

Burton: There’s already television. We do not want to do that.

Bilton: A lot of the successful Facebook Live videos seem designed so that you can watch them at any point. It’s almost the opposite of narrative TV shows, which are often less enjoyable if you don’t watch them from the beginning. Are you consciously designing these videos with that idea in mind?

Shaw: You want people to be able to join in at any time and know exactly what’s happening, and not have to wait until the broadcast is over or rewind to the beginning to see what it’s about. They might miss some information in the beginning of the video, but if they come in the middle, they’ll still know what’s going on and will keep watching and see what happens next.

Bilton: How is the ASMR experiment different from the other more stunty Facebook Live stuff? Is the vision to do more news-based video there, or to keep doing the stunts?

Shaw: The stunts are going to keep happening as we can brainstorm them. They’re a lot of fun. I know people want to keep seeing those. But there are also going to be formats that we’re going to do that are going to have a strategy and process that we can replicate day after day.

Burton: Weird is great, but for something to be repeatable and long-lasting, it does need to have a purpose and a goal.
POSTED     April 27, 2016, 11:15 a.m.
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