The Soothing, Digital Rooms of YouTube

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Picture this: You’re in the Hogwarts library. Rain falls outside, a fire crackles across the room, and somewhere offscreen, quills scribble on parchment. You might look up from time to time to see a book drifting through the air or stepladders moving around on their own. Or maybe, you’ll feel so relaxed, you nod off to sleep.

Welcome to the world of so-called ambience videos, a genre of YouTube video that pairs relaxing soundscapes with animated scenery in order to make viewers feel immersed in specific spaces, like a jazz bar in Paris or a swamp populated with trilling wildlife.

They are part of a long tradition of audiovisual products and programming designed to make a space feel a little more relaxing, a little nicer.

Consider the black-and-white footage of a crackling yule log that the New York television channel WPIX debuted on Christmas Eve 1966 — grandfather to the many digital yule logs available today — or the rise of white noise machines that fill a room with the sound of crashing waves, chirping crickets or falling rain.

But recently, this genre of video has attracted new fans who want to be transported beyond the same four walls they’ve been staring at for the better part of a year.

“I’ve gotten comments that emphasize how helpful these videos were to them during the pandemic,” said Melinda Csikós, a 33-year-old ambience creator from Budapest who operates the YouTube channel Miracle Forest. “I have a subway ambience, where a person said — from New York, I think — that they weren’t able to take the subway in a year and it was nice for them to listen to this ambience because they like taking the subway and they miss it.”

Lindsay Elizabeth, a freelance copywriter from Central Florida, fell headlong into the ambience genre last year because she wanted to recapture the experience of working in coffee shops. Ms. Elizabeth, 31, misses the random conversations she used to have with strangers and the little moments she’d witness, like an engagement that played out on the other side of the window while she was working at a Starbucks.

Of the ambience genre, she said: “It gives you at least a little piece of what we’re missing.”

The genre is a close cousin of A.S.M.R. (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, which are meant to evoke the pleasant brain-tingling sensation that some people experience when they hear sounds like hair brushing, nail tapping and soft whispers.

But ambience videos are differentiated, their creators say, by their purpose — not necessarily to give the tingles, but to relax and soothe a viewer by means of an immersive experience.

Since she uploaded that video in 2015, her fantasy-themed ambience work has gotten a lot more elaborate. She records audio at home and in the wild as much as possible — capturing the sound of pages flipping, or bird song and rain while she’s out on hikes — and has been building a library of original sounds so that she doesn’t have to license them from a stock catalog.

Helle Breth Klausen, a doctoral student at Aarhus University in Denmark who researches digital media, including A.S.M.R., classifies ambience videos as a kind of “self-medicating media.” (She also includes in that category Spotify playlists of soothing sounds and meditation apps like Headspace and Calm.)

“As soon as you have entered this universe, you don’t have to give it any more thought. There are no sudden sounds. There’s no narrative you have to keep up with in order to be a part of it,” Ms. Klausen said. “You know what’s going to happen, and it’s predictable in a very safe and soothing way.”

Ambience videos provide a respite from the “hypermediacy” of the internet, she said — a break from the constant bombardment of ads and emails and the self-inflicted burden of dozens of open browser tabs. (Hypermediacy can be defined as the act of viewing, consuming or interacting with multiple forms of media at once.) Paradoxically, a person has to wade through YouTube’s buffet of suggested videos just to locate an ambience video that will shut out the world.

“I think it’s quite interesting, that the same medium that can make you anxious and stressed out can also bring you back and save you from that very same feeling,” Ms. Klausen said.

Ms. Csikós, the ambience creator from Budapest, said that she started watching ambience videos in 2013, when she was having a “really bad time mentally” and struggling with anxiety.

“I had them on in the background very often, and I used them to meditate as well, to just shut everything down around me and bring myself into a calm space,” she said.

Ms. Csikós was working as a medical translator when she first started making ambience videos, and as her YouTube work gained traction she started getting commissions for visual effects and audio mixing gigs — enough that it eventually became her full-time job. Today, about half of her income comes from her ambience videos, she said, which she works on for six hours a day on weekdays. One video can require a full week of work.

Over time, Ms. Csikós’ videos have gotten more professional looking, and she has developed tricks for making them maximally soothing. Sometimes, she captures motion on a real-life green screen — shooting her pets or drops of water on a pane of glass — but those elements can move too quickly, in a way that can be jarring against the soothing scenes she tries to create.

Now she tends to work digitally so that she can give her videos a slow-motion effect that doesn’t exist in the real world. “Real life is so fast,” she said.

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