“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.”[1] [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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.”[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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,[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

Glenmorangie Whiskey funded social sciences research with market applications and commissioned a series of online advertisements inspired by the study’s findings (See Barratt, Spence, and Davis). “Journey into The Original” invites viewers to “feel the taste of Glenmorangie online.”
The promotional film scores natural images and abstract shapes with layered sounds and swelling violin. It represents whiskey’s genesis and claims to reproduce audio-visually its smell and savor.

“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.[16] 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.[17]

Water Whispers Ilse and a friend try out “17 Different ASMR Triggers." They coax noise from cardboard, salt, paper, and cloth.
They don’t speak or address the camera. The video exemplifies how ASMRtists engage with objects in ways that seem to exceed their familiar utile, economic, and social values. https://www.youtube.com/watch?

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.[18] 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.[19] (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.[20]

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.[21] At the same time, YouTube tracks, collects, and shares or sells data about viewers’ habits to advertisers,[22] rendering viewers’ attention itself a commodity and exploiting what scholars call “digital audience labor.”[23] These processes allow YouTube to monetize content and ensure monetization influences that content and its forms.[24]

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.[25] 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.