Visual ASMR: The weird online world of hypnotic loops and satisfying sounds

A subreddit devoted to strangely soothing video clips has grown into a behemoth

The subreddit r/oddlysatisfying has always had a wholesome mission: it collects small moments of magic in the world – "those little things that are inexplicably satisfying".

It began in 2013, when people started sharing gifs of high-pressure hoses and industrial pasta cutters on Reddit. Eight years later, it has grown into an entire subsection of the internet: r/oddlysatisfying has 5.6 million members, and there’s a multi-platform “media network” of the same name. It curates content for a combined 3.44 million followers across YouTube and TikTok. Videos with the hashtag #oddlysatisfying have clocked up 25.9 billion views on TikTok alone.

The pandemic, coupled with an increasingly chaotic news cycle, has us striving towards the ultimate #smoothbrain state – meaning there’s a global audience regularly seeking out the oddly satisfying, and a huge wave of content creators actively manufacturing it.

People are making a good living cutting sand, carving soap and crushing things with hydraulic presses – and in recent years, digital artists have begun tapping into these small moments of magic and making them even more surreal, optimised for your Instagram feed and packed with ASMR (or autonomous sensory meridian response) triggers for added brain tingles.


‘It can be quite meditative’

Scrolling through Andreas Wannerstedt's Instagram is the digital equivalent of walking into a spa. There are soothing soundscapes and pastel tiles. It's a curated escape from the mess and stress of the outside world.

This is all deliberate. The Swedish artist posts each animation – from a slowly twisting velvet rope to two halves of a brass ball clicking into place – with hashtags like #relax #calm, #satisfying and #sleep. He has nine volumes of a series called Oddly Satisfying, which fans lovingly describe as “soothing”, “hypnotising” and “extremely f***ing satisfying”.

“I think I could deal with my life if I had one of these handy,” one commenter writes, on an animation of a pendulum swinging perfectly through a rotating wooden cylinder.

“My work is very much influenced by visual ASMR,” Wannerstedt says. “It’s all about finding these specific ‘triggers’ that evoke that tingling sensation we all feel some time. The most common triggers are audible – like whispering, scratching or humming – but I’ve noticed that specific movements can work as triggers as well.

“To stop scrolling through your Instagram feed and just get lost in a hypnotising motion pattern for a couple of seconds ... it can be quite meditative.”

With 649,000 followers and a distinctive visual style, Wannerstedt is one of the most popular artists in this genre – but he’s not alone. Oscar Petersson, arc4g and extraweg are among the many other digital artists regularly posting these short, weirdly satisfying loops on Instagram (some of which rack up more than a million views).

“[This kind of work is] very popular in the digital art space right now, especially [among] the NFT movement and the crypto art hype that is happening,” Wannerstedt says.

These videos aren’t just viral objects; they’re now collectors’ items. And as more and more brands look to get in on the action, they’re sometimes even ads for sneakers.

The rise of ‘self-soothing’ media

Evan Malone, a professor of art and film philosophy, has been studying the “oddly satisfying” phenomenon for the past few years, and in that time he’s seen a significant shift.

“In the beginning, most of the videos and pictures … captured or gestured at something from lived experience,” he says. “Whether this was pressure-washing videos, or gifs of a line cook rapidly chopping vegetables, it was about seeing things that we do, done well.

“[Now]\it seems to have shifted to seeing and doing things simply because we can do them well.”

Sand cutting and slime squishing fall squarely into this category. These things only exist to provoke an ASMR response, to make people relaxed. And the same is true of these digital artworks.

“While ASMR, the oddly satisfying [videos] and these animated gifs function differently and use different mechanisms, they are united in the ameliorative role that they play for people,” Malone says. “There is a self-soothing element to the order, repetition and seamless fluidity.”

Social and romantic isolation

Malone thinks this trend has accelerated recently. After all, who hasn’t needed “self-soothing” in the past 12 months?

“Two of the most common feelings about the pandemic [are] that it has led to social and romantic isolation [which ASMR apparently relieves], and a feeling of powerlessness in the face of enormous problems [which the ‘oddly satisfying’ apparently relieves],” he says.

It’s nice to feel in control of something, even if it’s just a satisfying pattern on a screen.

Wannerstedt knows this well. He describes his work as “a portal into the perfect world of physics, movement and predictability”. Each loop appears on our feeds like a glitch in the system: an ethereal space where things are simple and pleasing and slow.

“In a world where we are surrounded by stress and chaos, I think it’s easy to appreciate this type of artwork where everything just works out perfectly.” – Guardian