ASMRtists claim ASMR videos help audiences with anxiety, stress, depression, and insomnia, all serious mental health issues which are dramatically impacting young people today (Bjelic 2016). In this sense, their content is emerging as a new form of digital care work, work they can receive financial income from through YouTube ads and corporate sponsorships (Bjelic 2016); (Smith & Snider 2018). People who currently watch ASMR have noted experiencing the phenomenon from a young age, such as while listening to a teacher read a book and flip the pages, listening to crayon and paper sounds during arts and crafts, or while getting a haircut (WhipersRed 2015). ASMRtists recreate these nostalgic experiences through roleplay and soundscape videos which trigger common memories of being cared for through the sensory experience in the sounds of mundane everyday objects.
This digital care labour evokes Hochschild’s (2003) “emotional labour” concept, which is the labour required “to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others... the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe space” (7). Seeing that the majority of ASMRtists are women, and many roleplays theme around “tucking you into bed”, “taking care of you and giving you personal attention”, or “Eat with me Mukbang”, we see how this care work is not only digitized, but feminized. ASMRtists adopt nurturing maternal personas by tapping into Western “heteronormative gender roles of care” (Miranda & Iossifidis 2017, 112) through recreating nostalgic calming sounds and sights to immerse the viewer. Therefore, I explore ASMR as a form of feminized digital care labour, where creators form digital care economies through videos featuring sonic and visual stimuli to provide relaxation and calmness. In this essay, I explore ASMR through Coleman’s (2010) digital ethnographic frameworks in order to outline how ASMR has become a form of alternative therapy and feminized digital care economy dependent on and shaped by digital technologies. I then take a deeper multisensorial ethnographic approach laid out by Culhane (2016) and Howes (2010, 2013), to explore ASMR as an embodied and affective experience, and how multisensorial events and feelings of care are socially and culturally constructed (Culhane 2016).
A Digital Ethnography of ASMR The tingly sensations some people feel in response to pleasing sounds and visual stimuli were not widely discussed until the emergence of an online thread in 2007, titled “weird sensation feels good” (Nygaard 2019). The term ASMR was coined in 2010 by the scientific community which was a crucial step towards giving this affective response legitimacy and identifying it as a real experience (Smith & Snider 2019); (Nygaard 2019). ASMR is a common but not universal experience, so the naming of ASMR transformed it from “an affectual experience into something resembling an object that can be circulated, shared and revisited” (Smith & Snider 2019, 44). Seeing that within three years the community expanded from an online thread to being legitimized by the scientific community, is due to social media’s abilities to connect large audiences from across the world. Since its naming, the ASMR community is growing with over thirteen million ASMR videos on YouTube and emerging scientific inquiry on the bodily responses to ASMR (Nygaard 2019).
These growing online ASMR care communities, similarly to Camgirls, hackers, and gamers, exist because of and whose sociabilities are shaped by digital technologies (Coleman 2010, 488). In other words, ASMR is a form of “digital media vernacular” (Coleman 2010, 492), dependent on the technologies of binaural microphones, cameras, and laptops and cellphones for recording, viewing, and sharing informal digital spaces for relaxation. The use of binaural microphones for creators, and headphones for viewers, are crucial in cultivating ASMR triggers because the sound moving from earbud to earbud creates and intense immersive experience which is central to ASMR viewing. It can be argued that the ASMR community is only possible due to the internet and video-sharing media like YouTube. The ASMR community would otherwise be “unimaginable” (Coleman 2010, 943) without digital technologies allowing for creators to cultivate digital care economies for viewers across the world.
A Multisensorial Ethnography of ASMR
Following the path of multisensorial anthropologists who are moving away from the legacies of written and spoken communication (Culhane 2016, 46), I explore the sensorial experiences of ASMR. Though ASMR mainly consists of sonic and visual components, and multisensorial anthropologists have critiqued sight and sound as being privileged and overly conflated with processes of the mind (Culhane 2016, 58), the unique composition of ASMR videos utilize sonic and visual triggers to tap into embodied memories and experiences which stir tingling sensations within the body. At a glance ASMR may seem to focus on sights and sounds, but the purpose of ASMR is to generate feeling and bodily reactions, often scaled lower in the Western hierarchy of the senses because it is associated with the body and rendered more animalistic (Culhane 2016, 58). ASMR is all about providing pleasure and relaxation within the body though calming sounds and nostalgic memories of care (WhispersRed 2015).
ASMR has been cited as a way to alleviate anxiety, depression, and even loneliness (Bjelic 2016); (WhispersRed 2015). ASMR taps into sensory experiences, which are entangled with our lived experiences of love and intimacy, thus sensory experiences are “vital to social relationships” (Culhane 2016, 49). Videos theming on “giving you a haircut”, “doctors office” and/or, “tucking you into bed” roleplays are made to provide viewers with a familiar experience of care and sense of connection, emphasising the sounds and visuals that we remember experiencing during these moments, such as cutting hair or humming lullabies. These ASMR roleplay videos can be framed within what multisensory anthropologists call “acoustemology”, defined by Feld (1994) as “how sounding and the sensual, bodily experiences of sound is a special kind of knowing” (10). In this sense, ASMR is a digital media vernacular rooted in shared memories of comfort, pleasing sounds, what it feels and sounds like to be nurtured.
On the other hand, multisensorial anthropologist Roth Gordon (2013) has noted that “our bodies, feelings, imaginations, and senses are educated and trained in particular ways” (Culhane 2016, 58). Memories of what certain experiences sound and feel like may not resonate with someone from a different cultural context, who perhaps did not hear the same lullabies before bed or get annual haircuts in a Western hair salon. Many of the popular ASMR roleplay video themes appeal to audiences in Western contexts and cater to Western vernaculars of caring and comfort. An issue the ASMR community has been dealing with is the sexualization of ASMR, due to the intimate nature of care videos (Pitre 2018). A few female ASMRtists have created channels to capitalize off the male gaze, but the ASMR community attempts to distance itself from the sexual videos by citing scientific studies, commonly one recently undertaken at the University of Sheffield, to explain that ASMR is not sexual but for relaxation (Nyguaard 2019); (Pitre 2018); (Poerio et al. 2018). But even though more intimate videos may seem sexual, the perception of them as being pornographic speaks louder to how their bodies, feelings, and senses have been trained (Culhane 2016, 58). In this context, how some perceives intimate women looking at a camera and feeling a response of pleasing embodied reactions of tingling and relaxation, arise because these sensory experiences mirror the sensory experience of watching porn. Thus when engaging in ASMR for the first time, watching more intimate videos may trigger previous and conditioned experiences of sexual pleasure from videos. ASMRtists argue they cannot control what people find sexually appealing, and if someone finds the ballet arousing, it does not mean that ballet dancers are sex workers or that ballet is sexual (Pitre 2018).
The ASMR community references scientific studies in order to distance themselves from pornography (Nyguaard 2019). However, the scientific studies on bodily reactions to ASMR have taken place in Western institutions and with subjects who grew up in Western contexts (Poerio et al. 2018); (Smith, Fredborg, & Kornelsen 2017). Multisensorial anthropology scholars have warned against anthropology relying on neurological science for understanding “sensory perception and experience” as it undermines Indigenous, non-Western, or other meanings and ideas about the senses (Howes 2010, 335). David Howes (2013) draws attention to how sensory capabilities in humans are shared, but “these are developed and understood in different ways” (8- 10). Relying on Western scientific paradigms to define ASMR is a process of colonializing the senses and upholding science as the legitimizing tool for defining our experiences.
Conclusion The ASMR community has formed into a digital care economy, consisting of digital care workers who provide videos which trigger nostalgic memories of what it feels, looks, and sounds like to be cared for to viewers dealing with mental illness and loneliness. I have drawn from Coleman’s (2010) work on digital ethnography to demonstrate how the ASMR community creates a digital media vernacular of care and is dependent on digital technologies for its existence and ability to reach global audiences. The digital vernacular of ASMR can be situated within the frame of “acoustomology” (Feld 1994), to demonstrate how the ASMR community revolves around a shared knowledge and language of caring. I take a critical approach, referencing work by Howes, to draw attention to how ASMR relies on a shared knowledge of caring that is specific to Western contexts, and conceptions of caring and experiences such as getting a haircut in a salon may not trigger embodied sensory memories in all people. I also critique the communities’ reliance of scientific research to explain what ASMR is in response to the sexualization of ASMR. A reliance on neurological science to explain sensory experience contributes to a colonialization of the senses, because even though human sensory functions are shared, they are understood in different ways (Howes 2013, 8-10). When exploring the YouTube community of ASMR, one can see that the most popular videos are roleplays, where mainly female creators cultivate digital care economies through a new form of digital care labour. By using their channels to bring relaxation to audiences and provide “personal attention” through eye contact with the camera, visual and sonic triggers, and affirmational messages, viewers can take a moment to slow down and feel comforted through their screen. Link to video essay portion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDkmLpLGQaw&t=16s WORKS CITED
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