“ASMR” media and the attention economy’s crisis of care by Racheal Fest
User-generated content (UGC) tagged for “ASMR” has proliferated on YouTube, Instagram, and elsewhere since at least 2009. Content creators—or “ASMRtists,” as many call themselves—use the tag to indicate an audiovisual text might produce for viewers a pleasurable bodily sensation they call “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.” [open endnotes in new window] The first peer-reviewed social sciences study investigating ASMR defines the feeling as “a tingling, static-like sensation widely reported to spread across the skull and down the back of the neck.” A self-described “ASMR community” of more than a million creators and viewers shares videos that use an astounding diversity of aural and ocular cues to “trigger” this haptic pleasure. ASMR’s acolytes assign varied functions to these videos, claiming they combat insomnia, calm anxiety, relieve stress, forge connections, and more. By 2015, brands such as Dove Chocolate, Ikea, Glenmorangie Whiskey, and others began to appropriate the community’s sensuous forms for advertising campaigns, fund market research into ASMR, and sponsor popular YouTube influencers.
Since ASMR media’s emergence, scientists, journalists, and marketers have explained in different ways both the etiology of the sensation and the cultural practices the ASMR community has developed around it. The sciences, and the community itself, most often endorse biological, psychological, and evolutionary explanations for ASMR media’s attractions and effects, arguing, for instance, that the sensation is an adaptation for bonding that specialists might deploy to treat a range of psychic ills. Humanists, by contrast, have started to consider what historical conditions, particular to life in and beyond the West’s market democracies in the early twenty-first century, might animate ASMR media.
From such an historical perspective, two global developments and their recent effects seem vital to ASMR media’s appearance and popularity. These videos first proliferated in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, which exacerbated economic inequality and initiated increased political instability across the globe. Contemporaneously, mobile technologies appeared and multiplied, making perpetual labor possible for many and engendering a global economy of attention that generates capital by capturing eyes and ears, increasing screen-time, and amassing data. These (and other) contemporary realities have established precarity and anxiety as the new millennium’s dominant structures of feeling, helping to produce even in the West’s elite centers what feminist critic Nancy Fraser has called a “crisis of care.” Because imperatives for unfettered accumulation rule contemporary forms of economic organization and structure collective experience, Fraser argues, the time and energy we devote to “affective labor”—those activities of intimacy and care, necessary for collective life, the division of labor once assigned to women—have waned.
We might understand ASMR media, at least in part, as an emergent attempt to ameliorate this crisis of care, and the attendant anxieties present economic, political, and social conditions produce, from inside the attention economy. ASMR media at once supplement and commoditize disappearing or outmoded forms of care-work, promising to fulfill those human needs and desires currently under pressure, even as they ensure viewers remain at the screen. To do so, ASMR media cultivate a range of common formal and generic strategies, three of which I describe and evaluate in this essay. I consider how videos tagged for “triggers,” “personal attention,” and “self-care” invent techniques and procedures that simultaneously make available and monetize new sources of affective labor.
When videos associated with each of these tags offer physiological, evolutionary, and therapeutic explanations to describe ASMR media’s aims and effects, I argue, they obscure the genre’s political and economic valences, naturalizing and rendering universal historical practices that emerge in response to particular contemporary conditions. In this way, ASMR media’s explanatory discourses help to shore up existing ways of thinking and the forms of collective organization these sanction, guaranteeing the conditions that reproduce for many a permanent state of crisis remain in place. ASMR media comfort us in a time of emergency, opening for viewers spectacular new modes of massively accessible love and care, but the community’s modes of self-presentation also foreclose critical thinking about how collectives might better remedy the broader crises ASMR media attempt to relieve through individualized digital interventions.
Scholars and critics have already noticed ASMR media promise viewers a reprieve from contemporary life’s many stresses by enlisting them in the brand of spectatorial labor upon which the economy of attention depends. Although important work has tracked how YouTube and Reddit platforms, and their algorithms, contribute to ASMR content’s emergence, critics have only recently started to devote to ASMR texts the close, hermeneutic attention necessary to identify the specific forms and styles by which ASMRtists commoditize care and intimacy via these platforms, and no critic has evaluated with YouTube’s political economy in mind the discourses of self-presentation the community circulates. This essay complements and extends existing work by cultivating that critical attention. It also contests, or at least raises questions about, recent claims that ASMR media cultivate “values antithetical to capital,” as Laura Jaramillo has argued. If ASMR content “provid[es] the care that the exhausted bodies of late capitalism need in order to function,” as Jaramillo writes, I suggest it can do so thanks only to platforms, structures, and styles economic interests already over-determine.
“Triggers”: commodities extend our bodies
For traditions of new media scholarship Marshall McLuhan’s foundational texts inspire, a “medium” is an “extension of ourselves,” a technology, in other words, that extends human senses and faculties. Understood in this way, ASMR media prompt us to recognize contemporary audiovisual technologies have already extended more than our capacities to see and hear. They have also extended our haptic capabilities, allowing us to touch each other, or at least to elicit in others some of the same sensations touch stimulates, across nearly boundless temporal and spatial distances. All ASMR media, by definition, make use of audiovisual recording equipment to generate for viewers distant in time and space a physiological impression comparable to touch.
ASMR media’s purest genre promises just this. In videos tagged and titled for “triggers” or “trigger tests,” ASMRtists make sounds or trace before the camera hand movements they hope will incite in viewers “the tingles.” They do so most often by manipulating different objects or substances; the genre showcases a dazzling stable of aural and visual titillations. In some videos, artists play with household articles (tongs, wire, sponges), garbage (cellophane, cardboard, paper), or textiles (shirts, rugs, curtains). In “17 Different ASMR Triggers—Multiple Sounds for Relaxation,” for instance, Water Whispers Ilse captures in close-up two sets of hands as they alternately rub a synthetic purse, run a chopstick across a bag of salt, zip and unzip a windbreaker’s pocket, shred a sheet of paper towel, and scratch the top of an empty plastic case. Ilse does not address the camera or speak as she and a friend manipulate their materials.
In others, artists feature cosmetic or medicinal tools and products. They tap bottles, apply balm, stroke hairbrushes, and spritz essential oils. In the representative video, “Travel-Sized ASMR & Life Update,” Ally, of the YouTube channel ASMRrequests, shares the “nice little sounds” she elicits from the “toiletries and … life essentials” with which she travels. Ally brings on screen with her a carrying case quilted in black patent leather. “I really like my little travel case,” she says, holding it up beside her face, “and I was thinking it had some nice sounds that you guys might enjoy.” Angling the case toward an unseen microphone stationed to the left of the camera, corresponding spatially with the viewer’s ear, she splays the fleshy pads of her manicured fingers across the front of the bag and begins to rap gently on its shiny surface. Each finger adheres to the plastic as she raises and drops it, so a slow, sticky rhythm sounds in a headphones-equipped viewer’s left ear-bud.
For those susceptible to “ASMR,” these ministrations provoke a physical sensation similar to another’s touch, as viewers report in the comments they post on YouTube. Trigger videos thus render the object world an extension of the body, marshaling (or “assembling,” to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari) familiar items to expand our ability to impress upon others and to feel impressions. They enable those who are alone to experience a sensation only contact with an external force or actor can confer, and they invite acolytes to search out and discover which particular materials or motions, when tapped, stroked, or mimed, best stimulate their bodies.
Trigger videos endorse, in their very form, the fundamental view of user-generated ASMR media’s nature and function its larger community shares. When ASMRtists claim a video “triggers” an automatic response, they construct ASMR media as neutral content that spontaneously incites an essentially corporeal reaction free from cultural or historical influence. They imagine they engage with their materials, and the bodies they touch on the other side of the screen, in value-free, universalizing, and biological ways. The language of “triggers” confers upon the cultural practices these videos perform the authority of physiology, as if viewers activate by watching specific activities an uncontrollable physical response.
This understanding of ASMR media’s nature and function suggests trigger videos and their effects exceed or disrupt the systems of meaning and value—economic, political, social—that most often determine how we today encounter objects, or representations of them. If consumer capitalism’s market designers usually govern the ways we discover, use, and understand the items, or commodities, around us, assigning to products by way of images and words both the utility and surplus values that foment mass desire for them, ASMRtists choose their triggering materials for reasons allegedly irreducible to use and branding. Although many produce sponsored content, many others make clear they do not intend to sell the products they handle. Rather, artists insist they select their materials because of sensuous attributes that surpass the properties conventional markets value. Although Ally explains to us that she purchased her travel case because its quilting looks “classy,” for example, she taps it on camera because it is tacky and hard.
This view, however, does not account for some of the historical forces that influence ASMR media’s style, content, and reception. A biological understanding of “triggers” does not take into account, for one, the role identity categories such as race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity play in an ASMRtist’s popularity. (I return to this problem in the next section.) Neither can it explain how a range of commercial practices and the interests they serve enable and shape ASMR media’s proliferation on YouTube. ASMR media in general not only extend possibilities for haptic exchange; they also commoditize them in new ways, so that the content creators share does not circulate in a disinterested online space.
On the contrary, market interests influence (and are influenced by) ASMR media. These videos emerge with, rely upon, and bolster markets for mobile devices and for the material networks that animate them. They court corporate and individual sponsorships that generate capital both for artists and for the platforms that inspire and disseminate their content. ASMR content also simultaneously draws inspiration from and contributes to marketing’s established genres and the service industry’s recognizable protocols, reproducing, intensifying, and revitalizing some of consumer capitalism’s most cherished affects.
First, viewers who watch ASMR media online pay several times over, in both capital and attention, to do so. A viewer must have access to an internet-ready device, an internet connection, and electricity in order to stream ASMR content. In addition, ASMRtists solicit donations in their videos and in the descriptions that accompany them, inviting fans to support their work with donations sent through PayPal and Patreon (a crowd-funding site that brings to techno-enfranchised multitudes the aristocratic practice of patronage). They also promote products for corporate brands. As journalists have reported, digital talent agencies such as Ritual Network represent particularly influential ASMRtists (Olivia Kissper ASMR, Lily Whispers) and help them partner with corporate sponsors.
Most significantly, viewers who access ASMR media through YouTube, the platform that makes the community possible, participate in the standard monetizing practices the site implements for UGC. Thanks to YouTube’s “Partner Program,” which Google, the site’s parent company, launched in 2007 to encourage users to post original content, YouTube now shares with creators the revenue its advertisements generate. YouTube provides to content creators guidelines that help them prepare their sites for monetization and analytic tools they might study to garner views and increase profits. At the same time, YouTube tracks, collects, and shares or sells data about viewers’ habits to advertisers, rendering viewers’ attention itself a commodity and exploiting what scholars call “digital audience labor.” These processes allow YouTube to monetize content and ensure monetization influences that content and its forms.
The fact that ASMR media draws inspiration from marketing strategies and service protocols also challenges the view that videos produce pleasure in purely autonomous, physiological ways. This is in part why user-generated ASMR conventions, despite some of their more eccentric or avant-garde applications, have proven to be so easily adaptable for commercialization. Trigger videos already reproduce many of the techniques marketers have developed to encourage consumption. In videos similar to “Travel-Sized ASMR,” influencers couple unexpected triggers with reflections upon the more orthodox satisfactions commodities deliver. In this case, after Ally caresses and admires her plastic case, she goes on to describe and handle other products, explaining why she uses each “life essential.” She praises an exfoliating sponge, reads the packaging for a tin of Olly “Restful Sleep” vitamin gummies, and applies Skinflix lotion to her hands. Because Ally has shared sponsored videos in the past, to some viewers’ dismay, she emphasizes no corporation underwrites her voice in “Travel-Sized ASMR”—“Before I get started,” she says early on, “I just want to let you know this is actually not a sponsored video; I’m not endorsing any of these particular brands”—but she nonetheless borrows throughout it marketing’s testimonial gestures. She performs and amplifies the sensuous gratifications of her own consumption, just as do actors featured in ASMR advertisements for Ritz crackers or Dove chocolate.
Such videos share a common impulse both with traditional promotions and with “unboxing” and “haul” videos, other popular—and frequently sponsored—YouTube genres dedicated more plainly to commodity fetishism (many of which creators now tag for ASMR). In all of these, influencers enable viewers to experience vicariously the pleasures of consumption, sharing moments of acquisition, anticipations built before use, and the prized gratifications of applying, wearing, or ingesting. Many trigger videos duplicate and intensify consumption’s happy affects, monetizing anew items that have technically been “consumed” already. They extend through the attention economy’s devices, advertisements, and algorithms a commodity’s capacity to generate capital far beyond what it yields at its original point of purchase. In addition to being sold, products now also may be unboxed, stroked, and caressed on screen, often just after advertisements for similar commodities air. Trigger videos thereby render consumerism itself consumable, multiplying revenue, not only for designers, manufacturers, and suppliers, but also for the attention economy’s new digital and cultural stakeholders.
Because ASMRtists often understand and present their performances as prompts for disinterested and automatic corporeal experiences, they naturalize and reinforce, even as they sometimes challenge, the established attitudes toward commodities corporate marketing strategies promote across media. And they join us more intimately than ever before with our commodities, which have become, for ASMR media, our very bodies—what we touch and what touches us.
“Personal attention”: monetizing eros and agape
Another ASMR genre, videos titled and tagged for “personal attention,” discloses anew what Foucault and Deleuze knew of the pleasures endemic to modernity’s disciplinary or control societies—the techniques that individualize, examine, and order collectives for elite interests endure in part because they confer upon subjects their own deep satisfactions. These videos signal millions of viewers across the globe want to participate (or at least, pretend to participate) in discipline’s medical, physiological, and psychological routines, perhaps because, as Deleuze put it almost thirty years ago, “capitalism still keeps three-quarters of humanity in extreme poverty, too poor to have debts and too numerous to be confined.” Across a global spectrum of inequality, ASMR content frames as a privilege participation in capital’s regimes of control, made hyper-visible via widely available networked media.
While trigger videos focus our attention on the materials ASMRtists use to extend our haptic capacities, personal attention texts conceal their extending materials to simulate intimate, unmediated encounters between artists and viewers. Creators “touch” our faces, hair, and shoulders by caressing camera lenses and scratching binaural microphones, transforming into extensions of our bodies the sensitive, expensive audio-visual apparatuses they use to record themselves. As we sit before our screens and become those worthy of attention, the technologies that extend our corporeality hide in plain sight.
In personal attention videos, ASMRtists stage many different kinds of encounters between those who give and those who receive attention. They pretend to be doctors and therapists, opening on the other side of the camera a space for patients, or they play flight attendants, receptionists, and stylists, casting an audience of clients. In some videos, ASMRtists pretend to be viewers’ girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, or family members; they pause as if listening to our complaints and whisper comforting nothings. Many of the ASMR community’s most influential figures—those able to sustain themselves with capital they earn through YouTube, PayPal, Patreon, and corporate sponsorships—do not role-play at all. They speak as themselves, YouTube celebrities aware that millions seek out, subscribe to, and view their content.
If trigger videos promise only to elicit an automatic sensory response, personal attention videos more explicitly promise to supplement gendered care-work at a time when its conventional forms are in crisis. Creators, many of whom present as cisgender women, assume trauma and anxiety dominate viewers’ lives, and they seek to ameliorate these troubles with love and empathy, putting on the various erotic, affectionate, and compassionate affects traditionally associated with women’s labor. Some comfort viewers they imagine suffer from vague, generalizable maladies—they soothe to sleep anxious, self-conscious insomniacs or rehabilitate taxed bodies. Others construct more specific audiences, addressing complaints particular to corporate capitalism’s competitive, tedious contemporary environments. They bolster exhausted students studying for exams, massage stiff office workers, or shave male executives.
Although many of these personal attention videos rely upon erotic intimacy’s familiar tactics—mouth sounds, whispers, and more—the ASMR community is anxious to differentiate its aims and gratifications from pornography’s. As China’s recent ban on ASMR media highlights, creators have good reason to emphasize these differences. In 2018, China’s anti-pornography office issued a statement calling for video streaming sites to purge posts tagged for ASMR, citing an imperative to protect young viewers from “harmful” content. In the US, norms and policies for the video sharing websites that host ASMR media help viewers differentiate between pornographic and more widely permissible, if still erotically charged, texts. YouTube does not allow ASMRtists to post and monetize “nudity or sexual content,” while sites devoted exclusively to pornography do. On popular sites such as YouPorn, Pornhub, and Red Tube, posters adopt and adapt for the avowed purpose of sexual arousal user-generated ASMR media’s formal and stylistic features: in one video tagged for ASMR, a poster zooms in on her genitals, which she positions before a visible microphone, and amplifies masturbatory sounds; in another, a nurse role-play turns into a tryst.
On YouTube, by contrast, ASMRtists sometimes employ sensuous, even carnal sounds and gestures, but they neither expose themselves nor explicitly aim to arouse. Instead, women seem to most successfully win mass audiences for their YouTube channels when they cultivate, in addition to a tame eroticism, nurturing and serene mannerisms. Maria of Gentle Whispering ASMR, one of the ASMR community’s most popular and influential figures, helped to popularize this simultaneously erotic and sublime intimacy style. Maria is lovely, gentle, and comfortably exotic, at least for an Anglophone audience accustomed to seeing Eastern European women portrayed as care- and sex-workers. Fan comments indicate her videos successfully play to both sides of Freud’s “Madonna-whore” binary, which, responses show, still seem to over-determine contemporary evaluations of women and of the affective labor expected from them.
Maria is not only popular; she also often serves as the ASMR community’s unofficial spokesperson, theorizing both on YouTube and in interviews the nature and function of her own activity as an ASMRtist and YouTube influencer. Since 2011, her channel has attracted more than 1.5 million subscribers, and her content has tallied more than 500 million total views. As Maria revealed in one recent interview, creating ASMR content sustains her financially; thanks to individual and corporate sponsorships (among them Blue Apron and Samsung), she was able to quit a previous administrative position. Maria plays service workers and others in her early videos, but, as fans have come to know and follow her, she now most often speaks to her audience without taking on a fantasy role.
One of ASMR media’s all-time most-watched videos (11 million views since 2016), “~Simple Pleasures~ ASMR Soft Spoken Personal Attention,” signals this shift and marks Maria’s ascent to self-aware ASMR celebrity status. It also exemplifies the suggestive beatitude many female ASMRtists cultivate. The video fades in to a close-up of Maria’s face, set off against an unremarkable tan backdrop. Blond, feminine, and conventionally beautiful, Maria cultivates a soft, on-trend aesthetic—pink lips, neutral nails, big lashes—that complements her quiet voice and languid movements. Smiling tenderly, she looks directly into the camera and welcomes viewers. “Today,” she whispers, a faint Russian accent audible, “I decided to just have some one-on-one time with you. So, no roles, no games,”—she leans in close and drops her voice as her lips brush the unseen microphone that stands in for the viewer’s right ear—“just pamper-time.” She says she plans to use some “relaxing techniques” she hopes will “comfort” us, making us feel “sleepy” and “safe.” These include hand movements, tapping sounds, soothing affirmations, and more.
The camera, unrelenting and fixed, keeps a tight close-up on Maria’s face as she strokes and pets it or leans in close to whisper, and her binaural microphones amplify her sighs, her breathing, and her tongue’s wet textures. These sounds and gestures incite the sensual, somatic responses a lover’s attentions might, but at the same time, Maria offers us the comforts associated with agape, or selfless love, of both the filial and transcendental varieties. Maria moves her fingers along the camera’s margins as if to stroke our hair and reassures us we are valued, as might a mother, a saint, or an angel, all figures to which fans compare her in their comments. She recasts our suffering—sourced as it might be in the range of contemporary economic, political, and social forces that try us—as timeless, universal misery, familiar to all mortal creatures and therefore redeemable by transcendental love:
“You know our existence as humans is a constant struggle, and it’s very unfortunate. But the reality is, it is a blessing and a curse. We’re just here to experience everything, good and bad. We all go through it. You’re never alone in this world, so, just remember that. We all do our best. And I know that you do your best as well, and I appreciate it, I personally do.”
As do the gods of monotheistic traditions and the martyrs who serve earth’s poor in their names, Maria establishes intimacy with anonymous masses she need not know. She promises to love anyone who steps into the online frame that she opens, accepting us regardless of our identities, our circumstances, or our transgressions. She also refigures our perpetual access to her image and voice, available onscreen day or night, as a new kind of pseudo-transcendental presence, eternally available and consoling. When Maria promises she is with us, that we are never alone, she offers an ecstatic, unconditional love similar to the kind believers imagine transcendental beings bestow.
Maria’s YouTube channel pioneers this complex form of care, makes it available for monetization, and theorizes its nature and function. Personal attention videos such as those Maria posts commoditize intimacy just as trigger videos commoditize touch—viewers pay in capital (devices, services) and attention (viewing advertisements, yielding data) alike to experience the new forms. As do other top YouTube influencers, Maria openly acknowledges the fact that viewers support her financially, be it simply by watching her on YouTube and surrendering to the platform’s sponsors and data-farming practices, or by taking a more active role, donating capital through PayPal or Patreon. She and others make special content available to donors and sometimes thank viewers by name for their support.
Maria celebrates and casts in evolutionary terms the mutually beneficial “relationship” she has forged with fans. She interprets the exchange of capital and attention YouTube brokers between artists, viewers, and corporations as itself a form of loving intimacy or, in the language of the social sciences Maria adopts in another popular video, “ASMR | Get Your Groom On | Brushing | Soft Spoken,” as a form of “social bonding.” “Get Your Groom On” articulates a version of the common evolutionary vision many in the ASMR community—and many of the social scientists, marketers, and amateur enthusiasts who have started to study it—embrace. Stroking the camera, Maria explains what she is doing and why she believes it pleases millions:
“You know this type of caressing and touching and brushing your hair or just some parts of your body is a type of social bonding. Yes, yes, social bonding. So we are bonding, you and me. Yes, it’s a type of grooming. So, grooming is mostly when one living thing gives all of its energy and in a way sacrifices themselves in the moment in order to please another beautiful living thing. It could be quite emotional, but mostly very, very pleasant.”
Adopting a language of human behavior familiar across social sciences disciplines (among them sociology and evolutionary psychology), Maria explains that touch brings us pleasure because it facilitates between creatures necessary attachments. While Maria does not draw upon the work of particular social scientists, her account of touch’s function shares with established discourses a utilitarian view of corporeal stimulation and a correspondingly essential view of the human. For Maria, grooming gives us pleasure for identifiable biological reasons, and that pleasure in turn serves a purpose, bonding individuals into more or less harmonious collectives that ensure individuals survive and the species endures.
As the video continues, Maria develops this view, explaining why we should understand ASMR’s care protocols—Joceline Andersen calls them “distant intimacy” practices—as new expressions of the same fundamental human drives that inspire all other forms of human “bonding.” “As of right now,” Maria says, running a make-up brush over the camera lens, “our society definitely pushed away from this type of social bonding and grooming is left only for very close people. But before our ancestors used to use this as the most important part of their social life.” Today, she continues, “we are surrounded…by oceans, deserts, islands, enormous forests,” so “we don’t get to socialize so much physically.” In response to these new conditions of separation, which are also, it is clear, the conditions of globalization that connect us to and make us aware of distant others we cannot touch, Maria believes we have evolved new grooming and bonding practices that do not require physical proximity. These include, according to the video and the description Maria posts with it, ASMR videos, which can stimulate touch’s effects from a distance, and “gossip,” which allows us to track others by way of network technologies.
Having recoded these activities as biologically essential, Maria shares some news of her own. She says she will be “moving across the country” this summer, a “dream come true,” and she thanks viewers for helping her do so. “You have been with me every step of the way,” she says. “I groom you, you groom me. Like a real family. And I always try to make sure that you know how thankful I am for you and how much pleasure this right here [she gestures toward the camera] brings me.” Maria here acknowledges a contradiction ASMR’s top influencers attempt to resolve in different ways. She at once speaks through a screen to a mass audience and stages intimate scenes in which she pretends to meet a single individual’s needs, touching, consoling, and valuing “you.” Formally, she slips back and forth between singular and plural second-person address, performing an incongruity fans sometimes joke about in their comments: “Yup, love me some quality 1 on 7.3 million time,” one writes in response to Maria’s promise in “~Simple Pleasures~” to spend some “one-on-one time” with viewers. In this moment, Maria successfully juggles the fantasy of individualized intimacy she mimics with the reality of the mass audience she reaches. She has caressed “your” face and ears throughout the video, speaking and moving as if ministering to one person, but when she thanks “you” for helping her realize her ambitions and compares “you” to a “real family,” she addresses the considerable collective united by its attention to her.
“Get Your Groom On” discloses how Maria frames her relationship to viewers and how she establishes legitimacy for it. First, she sources the attention her audience devotes to her in the species’ remote past, suggesting ASMR media gives new expression to timeless drives our primate ancestors fulfilled in other ways. To “groom” is here to go through the motions of stroking and caressing skin and hair—“I groom you,” Maria says to the camera—but it is also to watch, fund, and sponsor a stranger’s cultural production—“you groom me.” This equivalence presents as natural reciprocity a relationship dependent upon corporate algorithms and policies. Second, Maria says she and her viewers are “like a real family. ”The comparison renders equivalent older intimate forms of love and support, which Maria presents as authentic and absolute (“real”), and the new brand of monetized, impersonal intimacy ASMR media forges through YouTube. Together, these moves confer upon personal attention videos the value evolutionary discourses of biological essentialism assign to inevitable forces beyond human control. They thereby elide the ways purposeful corporate practices make possible, intercede in, and profit from the mutually supportive affiliations Maria describes. This evolutionary discourse again naturalizes ASMR media’s political economy. It casts as an inexorable species care practice with roots in deep time the remunerative affiliation YouTube makes possible between ASMRtists and their viewers.
Andersen argues the ASMR community relies upon discourses of biological truth in an attempt to ease reception for its “nonstandard” erotic practices and to thereby legitimate its perceived queerness. We might add that another set of consequences follows from ASMR media’s popular explanations. By rooting contemporary practices in an evolutionary past, these discourses turn attention away from the ways that purposeful human activity creates the present’s crisis of care. Personal attention videos satisfy from within the attention economy needs and desires that economy, with capital accumulation at its center, otherwise fails to fulfill. From this perspective, interested, purposeful forms of creative and economic human activity, rather than inevitable, inhuman processes, help generate and sustain ASMR media. To view the content they help shape as an expression of timeless, absolute need salvable by selfless and eternal transcendental love forecloses this insight and the possibilities for broader change it holds.
“Self-care”: new media’s romantics
Nineteenth-century poets celebrated and fetishized “nature” just as industrialization transformed its materials into consumable resources and destroyed the pastoral forms of life closest to it. William Wordsworth famously taught readers how to bring back to a drab urban hole bright memories of flowers, sky, and wind, modeling in poems how one might recall the pleasures of the countryside in the city’s sooty darkness. A similar impulse to protect or remember old forms of experience and their outmoded systems of value animates a final ASMR genre, videos that reproduce discourses of “self-care.” ASMRtists recommend a range of self-care practices other online communities also endorse, but I conclude here with videos that promise to alleviate the psychic and corporeal dangers viewers face when we spend too much time sitting at our machines. This subgenre of self-care video calls us back to a world off-screen and to our own basic metabolism with it. It encourages us to look away from our devices and aims to teach us how to breathe again. At the same time, however, an obvious contradiction haunts these videos, which formally capture and secure our attention even as they beg us to darken our screens. In this way, ASMR media and the attention economy’s structures monetize even the desire to look away.
CordeliaCharter ASMR’s video, “ASMR Reiki to Balance and Heal Your Soul,” reveals most strikingly these contradictions. The video addresses its viewer as a returning client for whom Cordelia performs the protocols of “Reiki,” a modern Japanese healing practice Western “New Age” communities have adapted and popularized since the late twentieth century. Throughout the session, Cordelia uses the much newer language of self-care left critics such as Laurie Penny argue has proliferated online in response to the anxieties and challenges life under corporate capitalism engenders for many. This discourse encourages us to maintain our own physical and psychic wellbeing in an environment that erodes our time and ability to do so. It recommends we solve capitalism’s crisis of care through individual interventions, admonishing us to meet the needs of body and spirit—eat nutritious foods, sleep, go outside, exercise, relax, relinquish negative thoughts, etc. It also often suggests we purchase goods and services to in order to do so.
In “ASMR Reiki,” Cordelia welcomes “you” back to her office, a vaguely corporate urban loft she projects via green screen, and she begins your session by checking for “tension.” She moves her hands back and forth before the camera, says she detects problems around your brow and shoulders, and asks if “you find yourself squinting at a monitor.” As Cordelia works on “your energy,” moving her hands, a coil of copper wire, and a penlight across the camera’s field, she identifies white-collar employment as the source of your distress. “In today’s world, we have desk jobs,” she says, “and it’s very rare that we get activity during the day.” To combat the “stress” that builds “because we’re doing a lot of squinting and scratching at the keyboard,” Cordelia recommends self-massage. She opens her mouth and presses a slender finger against her cheek to model a technique she says relieves pain around the jawline.
As Cordelia caresses her own face, she recognizes how difficult it can be to practice self-care, and yet, she encourages us to give “mindfulness” a try:
“I think a lot of [tension] can be mitigated by relaxing your jaw and being mindful of how much you’re at the screen, so if you can, and I know it’s sometimes very difficult, set a timer for yourself. You can just put a key word, like “eyes,” “break”—whatever you want to put—that just reminds you to take, either a quick walk around the office, or just look at something that isn’t a screen—I know it’s tempting to look at your phone, but just looking at something else for a little bit. If you have a window, you can look out your window. But of course, not all offices are equipped with a window, so you could… get up and get a drink of water.”
The attention economy, Cordelia notices, induces us to spend as much time as possible at our devices, for both work and pleasure. Perpetual entrepreneurs, we are always on call, completing tasks, not only for employers, but also for the supplementary activities (the term “side hustle” describes these) we take up in order to make ends meet in the so-called “gig” economy. In between, we cultivate social media profiles, read news, shop, and watch TV shows, pornography, YouTube content, and more online. As we do, Cordelia reminds us, our bones and sinews suffer—necks stiffen, backs ache—and our isolation intensifies. We forget to drink water, talk to others, or look out the window. Discourses of self-care, which begin from the assumption that the “self” or individual is under destructive pressure, suggest the standard unit of liberalism’s disciplinary societies is now an aging, outmoded construct we can barely hold together at the level of experience.
Cordelia joins other self-care cheerleaders—among them “@tinycarebot,” a Twitter bot that implores followers to “please take a little bit of time to eat something” or “remember to rest your eyes and look at nature please”—in promoting physiologically essential activities, including simply looking from time to time at three-dimensional objects. These self-care videos beg us to alleviate the attention-induced suffering work and play alike engender by policing our own concentration, reducing screen-time, and performing basic maintenance tasks to sustain our flesh and bone. A comparable video, Lulu Indigo’s “ASMR Intense Relaxation (Close Whisper),” encourages us to return to our surroundings and to our bodies. “I want you to just become aware of everything around you,” Lulu Indigo says, asking us to notice what we can “touch,” “hear,” and “see.” She tells us next to take a few deep breaths with her, as if showing us how to master again a vital competency we have lost.
A formal contradiction obviously haunts the genre these videos typify, undercutting the ameliorating strategies they recommend. Artists such as Cordelia and Lulu Indigo promise to reinvigorate and renew us by calling us back to an off-screen materiality kinder to our brains and bodies, and yet, they cannot ultimately liberate our attention. This is because the form they choose, by nature, confers upon viewers a pleasurable sensation (“tingles”) only if we watch and listen. The genre binds our senses to our device’s frame, even as the artists speaking to us inside of it gesture beyond it. These self-care videos simultaneously capture our eyes and ears and beg us to look elsewhere. They acknowledge our desire to oppose or break with the habits the economy of attention inculcates, and to ameliorate their attendant bodily and psychic dangers, but they do so, without irony, by keeping us plugged in. The attention economy thereby co-opts, contains, and profits from a radical yearning to direct our attention elsewhere.
When ASMR media presents itself as a mode of self-care, one of mainstream media’s most popular strategies for combatting the present’s crisis of care, it perpetuates the notion that sufferers can best respond to this crisis by changing individual habits. Self-care discourses encourage us to maintain our pressured psyches and sedentary bodies by purchasing commodities, seeking out wellness services, or performing basic domestic activities, rather than by transforming through collective action the conditions that threaten many. Left critics have argued this discourse deflects attention away from the broader political and economic sources of present anxiety only revolutionary action could actually address. ASMR self-care content disingenuously suggests individual solutions the attention economy sanctions can best amend an emergency historical forms of human organization have produced.
The novel modes of intimacy ASMR media proliferate reveal simultaneously the promises and challenges of our moment. On one hand, these texts extend a single individual’s loving gestures to millions of viewers, solacing and pleasuring us in strange, exciting ways. This in itself is an astounding feat, and ASMR media displays the rich array of new styles and genres we have invented to care for each other online. On the other hand, the platforms and services that have enabled ASMR media to emerge ensure these new forms of intimacy also function as, and in tandem with, commodities, so that corporate stakeholders mediate, influence, and benefit from the new intimacies. Viewers on the left might therefore consider these forms critically, not as would conservatives suspicious of monetized care- or sex-work, but rather as would those attuned to the powerful interests that imbricate new media when it is constituted in part by the attention economy’s network forces. Critics might then better consider what conditions limit love and care in our world, and imagine how we might collectively transform them. ASMR media’s modes of self-presentation can discourage critical scrutiny of this kind.
Although new online forms of intimacy have their own exciting materiality, a yearning for a tactile or haptic experience different from the version ASMR media offers (and monetizes) often seems to haunt these videos. Maria registers this longing at the end of “Get Your Groom On,” abandoning the illusion of intimacy she has created and contrasting ASMR bonding with off-screen (call them “IRL”) exchanges. She privileges time spent grooming, she says, because,
“you don’t have to talk at all. You feel another person is touching you, and you feel them, like, in you, on you. Isn’t that fascinating? I always thought it was. Even right now, I am brushing your hair, and it might come off as if I’m actually with you. And I would be more than happy if that would actually happen, but sometimes you miss that bond with a woman, you know. Having another friend, a woman, a sister type of figure, brush your hair, that would feel awesome. I would love to feel that someday again.”
ASMR media’s most popular angel here describes the aspiration that brings a mass audience to her videos. ASMR content is perpetually accessible and freshly soothing; it offers a way for our devices to seem to love us back, to appear to gaze back at us, with affection, just as we gaze upon them. And yet, many ASMR acolytes still crave the intimate, corporeal attention an embodied human with leisure, desire, and love enough to caress us might tender. Read critically, ASMR media finally encourage us to ask why attention of this kind, as well as figures across gender categories available to confer it freely upon us, are today so dear and rare.
1. In 2010, Jennifer Allen coined the phrase “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” and founded a Facebook group devoted to the previously “unnamed” sensation. See Richard, “History of ASMR,” for a frequently updated timeline of the emergence and development of ASMR media. An ASMR enthusiast and medical doctor, Richard has become the community’s self-appointed amateur historian. [return to text]
2. Barratt and Davis, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): A Flow-Like Mental State,” 1.
3. To view ASMR-inspired advertisements, see Ikea USA; BBDO Worldwide; and Glenmorangie. Glenmorangie produced advertisements and funded research with market applications. See Barratt, Spence, and Davis. The authors try to “establish key multisensory factors contributing to the successful induction of ASMR through online media” (1).
4. For peer-reviewed social and natural sciences research on ASMR, see Barratt and Davis; del Campo and Kehle, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and Frisson;” Fredborg, Clark, and Smith, “An Examination of Personality Traits;” and Smith, Fredborg, and Kornelsen, “An Examination of the Default Mode Network.” For representative accounts in the popular media, see Beck, “How to Have a ‘Brain Orgasm’;” Cheadle, “The Good Feeling No One Can Explain;” and Collins, “Why Music Gives You the Chills.”
5. No scientist has yet published a peer-reviewed version of this argument, but Collins; Higa, “The Technicalities of the Tingles;” Richard, “Origin Theory of ASMR 2.0;” Wikipedia, “ASMR: Evolutionary History;” and Young and Blasvert, Idiot’s Guide to ASMR, circulate versions of it inspired by existing research. See, for instance, Nelson and Geher, “Mutual Grooming in Human Dyadic Relationships.”
6. See Andersen, “Now You’ve Got the Shiveries;” Gallagher, “Eliciting Euphoria Online;” and Jaramillo, “ASMR: Auratic Encounters.”
7. Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, gives one broad account of the crisis. Jaramillo also observes ASMR media seemed to gain popularity in response to economic and political crisis.
8. Davenport and Beck defined the popular phrase “attention economy” in 2002 (The Attention Economy). Wu, The Attention Merchants, and Bosker, “The Binge Breaker,” give updated accounts of its development.
9. Fraser, “Contradictions of Capitalism and Care,” 99.
10. Ibid., 99.
11. See, for instance, Ahuja, “It Feels Good to Be Measured” and Gallagher.
12. See Gallagher.
13. See Jaramillo. Gallagher claims critical and hermeneutic methods cannot help us understand ASMR media.
14. Jaramillo, 4.
15. Ibid. Jaramillo concludes that “ASMR will resemble a subcultural gift economy less and less” as capital exploits and expands the community’s forms. I identify some of the ways commercial interests have always helped to shape them.
16. McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” 7.
17. McLuhan and Fiore (1967) anticipated this expansion early on: “electric circuitry,” they wrote in The Medium Is the Massage, is “an extension of the central nervous system” (40). Gallagher gives an account of how ASMR media produce sensation out of sound’s sensuous excesses (9-11).
18. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.
19. Andersen offers one important reading of the role gender and sexuality play in the ASMR community.
20. See Fowler.
21. See YouTube’s support documents: “Introduction to the YouTube Partner Program;” “Make Sure Your Site’s Pages Are Ready for AdSense;” and “YouTube Analytics Basics.”
22. See Google, “Your Data.”
23. Nixon, “The Old Media Business in the New.”
24. Nixon; Postigo, “The Socio-Technical Architecture of Digital Labor; and Wasko and Erickson, “The Political Economy of YouTube,” offer significant critical readings of YouTube’s capitalization program and its effects.
25. Sony, Pepsi, Ritz, KFC, and others have also released ASMR-inspired advertisements for markets in the US, China, Korea, and more.
26. Foucault, Discipline and Punish and Deleuze, “Postscript.”
27. Deleuze, “Postscript,” 181.
28. Some male ASMRtists, such as Dmitri of the YouTube channel Massage ASMR, have prospered. Dmitri has posted twice as many videos as has Maria of the popular YouTube channel Gentle Whispering ASMR, but his channel has won only about half as many subscribers as has hers.
29. See Miller, “Whispering on the Internet,” and Richard. Richard’s interview with Allen reveals how the ASMR community’s anxiety about sexual pleasure has constituted its practices from the outset. The label “ASMR” came to replace earlier terms such as “braingasm” because its technical (call it pseudo-scientific) quality allowed an emerging online whisper community to describe its fetishized sensation without reference to sexual arousal.
30. Abraham, “Why China Has Banned Videos.”
31. Not only state censors worry about whether or not ASMR media is pornographic. On nofap.com, a “community-based porn recovery” site, users attempting to overcome addictions to online pornography debate the question in forums titled “Is ASMR pornography?”; “Is ASMR a legitimate substitute [for porn]?”; “ASMR—good or bad?”; and “Can I watch ASMR videos during my reboot?” Community members hold different views. Some believe ASMR content is benign; others argue it perpetuates the same harmful behaviors that isolate porn addicts and discourage them from developing human relationships offline.
32. See Miller.
33. Maria, “~Simple Pleasures~.”
34. See Collins; Higa; Richard, “Origin Theory;” Wikipedia; and Young and Blansert.
35. Criminologist Travis Hirschi first elaborated “social bonding theory” in Causes of Delinquency. He argued individuals able to foster strong “bonds” across institutions—family, workplace, nation—do not as often commit crimes or suffer psychological distress. For more recent social sciences views ASMR media popularizes, see Nelson and Geher.
36. Andersen, 685.
38. Ibid., 695.
39. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads.
40. Penny, “Lifehacks of the Poor and Aimless.”
41. Deleuze, “Postscript,” predicted network forces would increasingly treat individuals as “dividuals.” See Mirowski for an updated expansion of this insight.
42. TinyCareBot, “Remember” and “Please.”
44. Some of Silicon Valley’s young defectors have started to advocate and organize activity that resists the attention economy’s imperatives. See “Time Well Spent,” a project that brings together software designers, sociologists, programmers, graphic designers, and more to “invent a more human future.” Left critics have noticed the project still seems to valorize technology.
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