One morning last month, young Americans scrolled through their phones and discovered a tantalizing set of instructions posted across social media. Hours later, dozens of them converged on an Apple Store in lower Manhattan, rushed up its glass staircase, and jostled for position in front of a small stage lined with five empty chairs. The girls wore false eyelashes and crop tops. The boys wore leather jackets and statement necklaces. Every minute or so, someone in the crowd let out a little anticipatory shriek that sent a shock wave roiling back through the mob, as the teens rose to their tiptoes and lifted their phones high into the air.
Then they emerged: Kim Kardashian West, 34; her sisters Khloé, 31, and Kourtney, 36, Kardashian; and their stepsisters Kendall, 19, and Kylie, 18, Jenner. The Kardashian-Jenners had summoned their fans to announce the release of their new lifestyle apps—one for every sister (excepting Kourtney, whose app has been delayed due to IRL drama), each featuring slightly different typefaces, color schemes, and central themes. When asked why each sister needs her own app, they replied in a Kardashian khorus: “I feel like we all have such different styles,” Kylie said. “We all have such different personalities,” Kim said. “We’re definitely not all in the same place at the same time,” Kendall said. “We are sisters, and we do like a lot of the same things, but our passions are very much individual,” said Khloé. Kim does beauty, Khloé does fitness, Kourtney does mothering, Kendall does fashion, and Kylie does—what does Kylie do? As Kim put it, “Kylie loves her makeup, and she’s really into showing a lot of her dogs, and the things that are in her house.” Kylie does Kylie.
People bought it. Every sister’s app cracked the Apple Store Top 50. Kylie’s hit No. 1. Last week, the Hollywood Reporter reported that the family racked up a combined 1 million subscriptions in their first week on the market. Each subscription bills at $2.99 per month.
Why does anyone want to watch the Kardashians do anything? This is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the modern age. The sisters are typically described as “famous for nothing” or “famous for being famous.” When Barbara Walters appointed the Kardashians to her Most Fascinating People list in 2011, she seemed perplexed by her own interest. “You don’t really act. You don’t sing. You don’t dance,” Walters told them. “You don’t have any—forgive me—any talent.” Kim nodded serenely. Critics who attempt to understand the Kardashians by contrasting them with traditional showbiz talents (like Beyoncé) or comparing them to other reality-show fixtures (like Paris Hilton) are approaching the puzzle too narrowly. The Kardashians aren’t like other people. There’s something inhuman—or maybe superhuman—about their whole thing.
The family rose to prominence through the E! reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but its drive to be seen quickly outgrew the constraints of the weekly television schedule. Kim called KUWTK a “commercial” for the Kardashians themselves. Soon the Kardashian brand had oozed onto tabloid magazine covers, sponsored infomercials, spinoff television series, clothing lines, fragrances, a ghostwritten novel, and inevitably, a cluster of massively popular social media profiles. Today, Kim has 48.3 million followers on Instagram and 35.8 million on Twitter. This summer, days before her 18th birthday, Kylie was declared the most-watched person on Snapchat. Now each sister has a social platform of her very own. On the Kardashiapps, the models, the makeup, the lighting, the medium, the message, and now the publishing platform are all family-owned.
If KUWTK functioned as a commercial for the family brand, the Kardashiapps work like online native ads, styled to blend seamlessly into the smartphone’s social landscape. Like Snapchat, users swipe the screen up and down and left and right to unlock more content. Like Periscope, the sisters can broadcast their sleepovers and SUV rides live to their fans. And like addictive mobile games, such as Candy Crush, the Kardashiapps are steeped in a mesmerizing ambiance. Their videos are slowed to dream-sequence speed, paired with light Muzak, and narrated with ethereal voice-overs. Thumb over to Kim’s, and you’ll see her emerge from the black background, blink slowly, retreat into the darkness, then repeat the gesture again and again on an endless loop.
Kim has said that she and her sisters “evolved with social media,” but it’s almost as if social media developed to accommodate their unique talents. When KUWTK debuted, the Kardashians were blamed for demolishing the distinction between private life and public performance. The accusation seems silly now that it’s normal to carry a camera in your pocket to broadcast your life to the world. Meanwhile, today’s top Web stars feel more like vaudeville throwbacks than modern Hollywood performers: Vine virtual illusionist Zach King, YouTube makeup artist Michelle Phan, Instagram dog handler Shirley Braha, and Snapchat court jester Jérôme Jarre have all amassed followings in the millions.
The Kardashians are the hypnotists of this digital stage. Paper magazine’s Amanda Fortini described spending an afternoon with Kim as akin to slipping into a futuristic spa: “I steep myself in the ambience of her pleasantly languid manner and hologram-perfect looks,” she wrote. Kim’s voice, she added, is “Zen-like”—syrupy and slow. Kylie’s vocal affect is even more pronounced: When she talks, she sounds like a tranquilized Marilyn Monroe. As one fan remarked recently: “Her voice is so calm I could fall asleep damn.”
Under the Kardashians’ spell, upper-middle-class consumption transforms into a lush sensory experience. Kris Jenner believes that shopping at Costco “is like a massage.” In Kim’s mobile game sensation Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, players who reach out and touch objects like suitcases and bottles of wine are rewarded with jolts of energy. The sisters’ apps also promote tangible products that you can order offline and, several days later, actually hold and taste and smell for yourself. Kylie recommends Olive Leaf scented candles and Spanx from Target and Twizzlers for a snack.
Thanks to affiliate links, which give referrers a cut of every online sale they inspire, Khloé and Kendall get paid when you pay to have what they like. (Slate drops affiliate links into its stories, too—including this one.) Every feature of the Kardashiapps is tilted toward this possibility. The sisters post fashion breakdowns of their street style on the apps, but instead of hawking the pricy designs they’re actually wearing, they serve up links to fast fashion lookalikes from Forever 21, Zara, and Mango. Flusher fans can head to Kardashian-branded eBay auction sites, where they can bid on genuine articles from the sisters’ wardrobes. This is one central tenant of the Kardashians’ success: They offer their services at various price points. It might cost you $500,000 to book Kim at a private party, $1,000 for a ticket to a contouring lecture in a Pasadena, California, auditorium, or just $2.99 a month to access her through the app. Everyone gets a taste.
Crucially, one social media fixture that’s missing from the Kardashiapps is user feedback. You cannot like, fave, comment on, or upvote any Kardashian content. At the launch, Kim said the closed design helps cut out the haters and keep the apps “happy.” But it also enhances the illusion of intimacy. All the other social networks aggressively broadcast just how many other people liked the post you liked. The Kardashiapps appear more like a one-on-one text exchange or video chat between you and your sister of choice. “I feel like I’m on FaceTime with @KylieJenner” one fan tweeted after Kylie broadcast herself live, lounging in her yard in aviator sunglasses. “Someone tweeted me today and said, ‘I just feel like you’re my BFF,’ ” Kim said at the launch. “And that’s exactly what we wanted.”
The Kardashians are often accused of “oversharing,” but their digital worlds are curiously devoid of truly personal details. In one chatty app post, Khloé promises to reveal her secret for performing the perfect blow job, but by the time she signs off with a smiley face and an XO, close readers will notice she hasn’t revealed anything at all. According to an academic analysis, Kim’s most popular Facebook post of 2011 was this little simulated conversation snippet: “Is my hair too dark? Should I go lighter for the summer?” Paper magazine’s Amanda Fortini says that Kim speaks in a “stream of small faux-confidences” that “reveal very little yet foster a sense of closeness.” Critics often interpret this quality as a sign of stupidity—Kim has nothing to say. But fans recognize it as a hallmark of intimacy: When they’re with Kim, nobody has to say anything at all.
The most apt human comparison for the Kardashians is not Paris Hilton or Tila Tequila but Bob Ross, the relentlessly positive painting instructor who spent decades conjuring “happy clouds” and “happy trees” on canvases aired on public access TV. Last year, Newsweek’s Joe Kloc wrote about how, years after his death, Ross was rediscovered by a new group of fans looking to fulfill a peculiar digital thrill. Most people “don’t watch his show to learn to paint,” Kloc noted. They’re hypnotized by the instruction itself—the soothing sound of Ross’ voice and mesmerizing movement of his brushes on the canvas. You’ll get the same feeling watching Khloé hypnotically stack Double Stuf Oreos in a glass cookie jar.
Ross has been co-opted by the ASMR community—it stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” which is a pseudoscientific word jumble used to describe oddly entrancing recordings that produce a pleasurable tingling in viewers. It’s basically the virtual equivalent of that sleepover game where girls recite a creepy rhyme, run their hands over each other’s hair, walk their fingertips up each other’s backs, and blow air on each other’s necks. ASMR junkies report being drawn to videos featuring soft whispering, “slow movements,” “repetitive tasks,” and an element of simulated “personal attention.” Videos that push the right buttons send shivers to the shoulders or back of the head. Some ASMR-ers report that the videos make time slow down; others say they ease chronic pain or coax them into a state of relaxation. Communications scholar Joceline Andersen suggests that ASMR videos project the “impression of a body,” carve out an “intimate sonic space,” and somehow deliver the feeling of “pure sensation” between speaker and listener.
In many of the videos posted to the apps, the sisters hardly speak at all. In one 14-second video, titled “Slo-Mo Mint Hair Whip,” Kylie tosses her confection-colored hair over her shoulder—that’s it. In another offering, Kim serves as the model for a contouring makeup tutorial. She smizes silently at the screen while a makeup artist brushes her face with various powders. She has just two lines in the whole video, which she softly hisses at the makeup artist when he calls her “Kim Kardashian” (“Kim Kardashian West,” she corrects him) and the “contour queen” (“the contour king.”) The “K” sound, by the way, is a common ASMR trigger. Even listing off the names of the sisters aloud—Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, Kendall, Kylie—produces a pleasurable sound akin to slowly crinkling the pages of a tabloid magazine. The sisters compound the effect with alliterative branding: Kylie’s app has a feature called “Kylie’s Clique.” Khloé’s URL is KhloeWithAK.com. It sounds like the jangling that quarters make when they pool into the smooth metal dish of a slot machine.