‘The body made soft / to keep us / from loneliness’
Ocean Vuong, ‘Into the Breach’, Night Sky with Exit Wounds
‘look with thine ears’
William Shakespeare, King Lear
Last Christmas, like lots of people, I had recourse to spend more time with teenagers than usual. My partner’s niece sat on the sofa opposite me covering a notebook with stickers. Something was playing on YouTube from her iPad. I glanced over to see what she was watching: it was a tutorial video on how to make slime. Now this intrigued me. I couldn’t understand; if she was watching a tutorial on how to make slime, why she wasn’t preparing, even mentally, to make slime? Or at least pausing and playing appropriately and taking some notes. In my adult naivety I assumed YouTube tutorials were instructions meant to be followed. This is always how I’d used them in the past. Yet, here my neighbour was, watching the video with absolutely no interest in the instructions being relayed. She was doing something totally unrelated in fact – she was decorating a notebook. For what purpose then, if not to provide tuition, was the video being watched?
I was still baffled the next morning when I found her lying on the floor with her headphones on, watching another video. A white woman beamed up at us from the screen; she was explaining that on a recent trip to Korea she had brought thirty different ‘squishies’. Squishies, I discover, are bits of memory foam made to look like miscellaneous items: pizzas, cheesecakes, teeth and tacos. She takes an ice-cream squishie, holds it up for the camera and presses it delectably. The video correlates with the one from the night before. They both feature people pressing into soft, porous, brightly coloured objects made from materials found in a lab. It is oddly satisfying to watch her do this. #Oddlysatisfying is one of the hashtags that crop up repeatedly on ASMR Instagram accounts, along with #anxietyrelief #euphoricasmrvibes and #asmrtingles.
Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is an experience described as a combination of positive and calming feelings, along with a tingling sensation on the skin. And it is wildly popular. There are 5.2 million ASMR videos currently on YouTube. The term was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, who felt ‘people wouldn’t be able to discuss the feeling properly unless it had a name’. ASMR is commonly referred to as ‘a massage for your brain’. It has also been compared to a mild electrical current, or the bubbling of a glass of champagne. ‘I wasn’t sure how to interact with it’, a friend told me after watching ASMR content for the first time: ‘I didn’t know whether to watch it or listen to it.’ Another friend enjoys watching the videos while high, especially ones featuring soap or ‘things with texture’. I ask how the videos make them feel: ‘They make me feel kind of – hard to describe? Like stimulated and adrenaliny, like writhing my legs around.’ Not everyone experiences these sensations but those who are sensitive to it are triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli which ‘ASMRtists’ use in videos ranging from a few minutes to multiple hours in length. The aim is to stimulate tingles, reduce anxiety and help with sleep.
When I was little my mum used to read to us from a book called Home-Grown Food by Roy Genders, recounting litanies of fruit fly species and glamorous strawberries. Words would settle from her mouth, pool and collect on the page, then seep into the chambers of our ears. These spoken wodges of botanical jargon would send us straight to sleep. ASMR is not meant to engage our intellect. It is meant to send us to sleep. These videos are crushingly banal, lacking even the predictable narrative of a how-to video. Some are arranged like reviews, but that is as structurally legible as it gets. The genre is defined by whispery vocals: usually two boom mikes pointing at someone’s mouth and lots of clicking and shhhing noises. Tapping is also important. Nails on soap, nails on cardboard, nails on any hard surface really. Bread Face is an artist who caresses and taps baked goods. Gibi is the ur-ASMR producer with content that barely deviates from the form. Tony Bamboni uses ASMR techniques to demo make up. These producers make their living through ASMR. In these videos words are repeated often and at different volumes and speeds so that sometimes watching ASMRtists can feel like sitting through a painful variety of spoken word. In her popular homage to the trend for W magazine, Cardi B mews: ‘Swollen-len-len-len-len-len-len’, ‘motherhood motherhood motherhood’.
I think of the intimacy of being read to as a child. There is a safety and a tenderness about being held in the auditory embrace of someone you love that resonates on a primal level. Audio manages to achieve a type of intimacy unlike any other form of communication. I don’t doubt that the rise of ASMR can be indexed to the podcast boom. It is five years since the murder mystery Serial emerged and changed the landscape of audio irrevocably. I listen to Jonathan Van Ness’s podcast to stave off the afternoon slump. He keeps me company over lunch. I use Harry Potter audio books to get to sleep. Stephen Fry’s voice must be so embedded in my psyche that if his Dumbledore voice asked me to rob a bank I probably would. The same intuitive aural intimacy that makes podcasts and audiobooks so successful can be found in ASMR. It can feel as if someone is speaking directly to you.
I had never thought of a sound, one that isn’t music, as something somebody might crave. But one rainy Monday I was with some friends watching a VHS of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet when someone beside me announced, ‘I crave Mercutio’s voice’. I began to rewind through my own autobiography of sounds. As a teenager I spent an inordinate amount of time playing Mario Kart and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and 4. The sound FX have stayed with me far longer than the graphics have. How moreish were Mario Kart’s plinks and beeps! Moreish even, the almost imperceptible delay between riding the car and hearing the car build up on the soundtrack. The virtuality of the game makes us ‘feel’ the sounds differently. I think about the physics of hearing the sound of lightning after the lightning has struck. There is such a gap between event and sound that the sound is named something completely different. It is called thunder. The physical gap is mirrored by a linguistic one. My thumb taps the controller and my player careers off the screen, and the sound deck then translates this action into ‘crash’. I now recognize that the glitchy gap between these small events (thumb, graphic, sound) is ‘oddly satisfying’.
Maybe the virtual sound gap is also disturbing? Maybe that’s what ASMR is about? Take the experience of using a touchscreen and love–hate relationship we have with its virtual sound-feelings. I think about that distinctive ‘click-thup’ the touchscreen keyboard ‘makes’ when we type. ASMR, in some ways, is satisfyingly analogue, analogue, in that it aims to accurately capture the sounds of the body in real time. It is about real eye contact, real caresses and involves objects in the real world. ASMR is digital in the original sense in that it involves our hands. It’s fun watching ‘The Pickle Lady’ for instance, eating a pickle, because the crunch she is making directly correlates to the act of eating gherkins. The sound hasn’t been invented and tacked on later. And this realness is underscored by the technological practicality that ASMR is digitally recorded and transmitted. The screen both impedes our intimacies and makes them possible in the first place.
There is also the element of surprise. A friend told me that the aural experience she craves the most is riding over the loose pavement slabs along Regent’s Canal. She enjoys the bassy thud created when her bike tyre mows over them. She describes this sound using the onomatopoeic ‘plonky plonk gdonk plonk’. I ask her whether it matters that she is actively making the noise or not: ‘I think part of the thrill is not knowing which sections are going to make the sound and which will not.’ The surprise, this thrill of the delay, that ‘maybe it will, maybe it won’t’, is also present in ASMR. The joy of ASMR half comes from the fun of being tickled differently by domestic objects in unorthodox ways. When Bread Face slowly squishes her face into a hunk of bread, the feeling aroused is one of joy and faint rebellion, the objects are misbehaving – or being mis-behaved. Sometimes this feeling happens, sometimes it doesn’t; it’s a game of riding slabs.
Recently I felt the strange desire that I wanted to eat King Lear. Reading the play, or rather comprehending it gave me intense physical reactions like goosebumps and heartbeats and what felt like charged synapses. ‘I see it feelingly’, says the newly blind Gloucester to his son whom he cannot recognize as his son. The line is about the inner sight Gloucester has gained, ironically, upon becoming blind. This seems an important representation of how we live: most humans move through the world feeling-seeingly with plural senses. We do not always have to look down at our feet to know the ground is there. (If we have sight or the capacity to walk.) To know something is there without seeing it in the traditional sense – that is what intimacy is – that is what love is.
Gloucester has come across new terrain; spiritual, emotional and religious. The higher ground he perceives is not as his son-guide misinforms him, the cliffs of Dover, but actually a new emotional landscape. We are ‘touched’ by the things we perceive but not necessarily in any literal manner. ‘See’ in this case has to mean trust and understanding in the presence of something invisible. So sight is also a type of divine faith: to have a vision is really to experience a feeling. And ascension, the ascension Gloucester experiences in that moment on the cliffs of some Dover, is a kind of self-knowledge which also has to be the relinquishing of any assumed knowledge in the face of the self and the world. There is a faith and energy in this exchange. Hardcore ASMR aficionados attest to a similarly unaccounted-for layered sensory experience.
It was one of those nights in Soho where it felt like Soho was still a place where things happen when my partner and I were waiting to cross Greek Street. It was one of those nights in Soho where it felt like Soho is still a place where things happen when a car from a littoral dream glides past. I’m telling you at the sight of it our jaws went slack and our eyes widened. Wow just happened, which is how I know wow is truly onomatopoeic. The sublime synchronicity of the car’s glamourous slow creep, the five suited men inside and the play of streetlight on licked silver: it was aghast-making. The car had been dipped in glitter and God! How it moved! The specks seethed on the car’s body like beatific worms. I can’t relay adequately what this car did to me. The feeling went directly from my eyes to my throat; it was entirely sensory. I don’t know how to explain this reaction other than to say I had not experienced it before. I wasn’t sure if I was having an orgasm or evolving.
Seeing the car replenished me like fruit. Its beaming difference in the wet black of Soho provided my body with relief. I was touched awake by its sight. ‘Never had this kind of nutrition’ sings electro-pop musician Robyn in her song ‘Honey’. Its video is a hymn to the kind of visual stimulus made popular by ASMR content. We see honey dripping down crystals, feathers magnified in the camera lens and flowers suspended in ice that can only be described as looking ‘crunchy’. Little bubbles in the honey stream by. And close up, all the cascading glucose looks like Martian terrain. The video has bright yellow subtitles that mimic those of YouTube tutorials or karaoke. And the lyrics read like an evocation of the new ‘kind of nutrition’ ASMR and the wellness boom have ushered in. ‘Every colour and every taste / Every breath that whispers your name / It’s like emeralds on the pavement’, Robyn sings as more honey spools over the millennial pink. ‘The heart of some kind of flower, stuck in glitter, strands of saliva’ Robyn hits on the strange interplay of distaste and fluffiness that ASMRtists have made their métier. Wasn’t it Virginia Woolf, the great atomiser of experience, who said life is made equally of granite and rainbow? The best ASMRtists give equal time to saliva and glitter, granite and rainbow, in their videos. As I watch ASMR content, I find I am not hoodwinked necessarily, but blanketed softly by a genre I don’t fully understand. It feels like being topped by an algorithm.
For the video’s duration I am pretend-loved by a virtual dominatrix who cares about me and my needs. And the tipping currency? Likes and subscribes. Adverts bring in US$0.006 and $0.015 per page view for the YouTube producer and after the platform takes their cut, content creators make around $4.18 for every 1,000 views of ads shown on their videos. It is overwhelmingly femmes who make this content. And this collision of femininity and big capital brings consequences for the artists themselves, especially when they are below the age of consent.
Makenna Kelly, a thirteen year old white middle class person from America, runs the YouTube channel Life with MAK. Boasting 1.5 million subscribers, she makes $1000 a day and as of May this year she has a net worth of an estimated $360,000. In her most watched video she is eating a high heeled shoe made of sugar. Role-play ASMR is the genre that made Kelly famous. Her subscribers would leave comments underneath her videos suggesting what she should do next. That is, until YouTube disabled all comments on her videos.
YouTube cited inappropriate content as the reason for stopping comments on Kelly’s account. This was certainly the case, but should Kelly’s agency be compromised? The intersection between porn, minors and capitalism has existed for a long time and has its roots in advertising and screen cultures. ASMR differs from traditional advertising in that the suggestive content is created by the child themselves rather than a corporation or agency. When Britney Spears waggled her bum in uniform twenty years ago it was at the behest of an industry boss. Today the algorithm is boss, and the role of the algorithm in ASMR content is a level-up in terms of child sexualization. Today, the algorithm becomes the industry boss-bot no one can control. The case of Life with Mak highlights new questions in the dilemmas of child sexualisation, consent and corporate manipulation.
YouTube has a paedophilia problem, and since Makenna Kelly’s videos lie in a sexual grey area, they were removed by the moderator. To be clear, the majority of comments on the videos were genuinely concerned with participating in the surreal worlds she created, rather than veering towards paedophilia. In June, Kelly announced she was leaving YouTube for good (she didn’t). But the announcement was big news from an ASMRtist as high profile as Kelly. Twelve of her videos were taken down and the teenager retaliated by accusing YouTube of discrimination.
Dear @YouTube: Your blatant discrimination will not stop me. I will not let you use me as a target for your platform’s shortcomings. I am not sorry for being a confident young woman who speaks her mind
YouTube defended its position by deeming Kelly’s account and accounts of other underage users ‘potentially sexual’. This is where it gets murky. What does ‘potentially sexual’ mean? A Wotsit cheese puff could be potentially sexual. Should Kelly be penalized for the way she is objectified by adult men? Is this not another type of victim blaming? YouTube and Instagram are platforms fueled by desire and attention. ASMR feels good, we desire the feeling again which is what keeps us watching. The pleasure gained from ASMR is adjacent to sexual pleasure. YouTube has recognized and capitalised on this, with only an inept awareness of the dual role children play as both creators and consumers.
‘ASMR SASSY DOROTHY EATS HER HEEL ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD’ was the original title of one of Kelly’s most popular videos. In the video Kelly is dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and appears against a CGI backdrop of the Emerald City. She carries a basket containing a stuffed Toto and begins the video by using her smartphone to call her friend and tell her how pissed off she is to be stuck on this ‘pee-coloured’ road. Shortly after hanging up, she eats a high heel. She eats the heel, made from sugar, for many minutes. There is certainly something fetish-like about the whole exercise but it is impossible to know whether Kelly herself has any idea how her videos may be interpreted. Does it matter? Kelly’s account looks like that of many porn stars on free streaming sites. But instead of ‘milf’ ‘schoolgirl’ and ‘stepson’, Kelly’s clickbait tags are ‘sassy’ ‘eating’ and ‘roleplay’. YouTube took action by deleting comments and releasing this statement:
We’ve been working with experts to update our enforcement guidelines for reviewers to remove ASMR videos featuring minors engaged in more intimate or inappropriate acts. We are working alongside experts to make sure we are protecting young creators while also allowing ASMR content that connects creators and viewers in positive ways.
To me this seems a clumsy response that absolves corporate responsibility. It additionally reveals an implausible lack of foresight for a company we know is constantly tracking the minute behaviours and tendencies of their users. And the fact is, a large portion of the revenue of these platforms comes from the distribution of exponentially extreme content. Every time we select and watch a video, cute cats for instance, a more extreme version of that video is selected for us to watch next. We get hooked on the cuteness-travellator, chaining and binging on a never-ending circus of cuter, fluffier and younger cats until we reach the bonsai kitten we never wanted to see. The algorithm is not neutral, and we need to use opportunities like these to have serious conversations about sex and consent in a digital age.
I think of what Robert Glück says on the intersection between horror and porn: ‘It’s the task of horror and porn to constantly replace image with image, each more intense than its predecessor’.
In an oedipalised world it is not that easy to delineate what is and isn’t porn. Some sex workers make money from camming, where clients will make requests online or over the phone for performers to act out in their videos. These, usually softcore, videos are then distributed by a channel or on the cammer’s own account. Kelly’s videos are a type of camming, yes, but femmes are objectified in everything they do. It seems morally hypocritical to isolate Kelly as sexual, when she is operating in a system that objectifies women for everything. They are objectified just for wearing clothes, walking down the street or going to work every day. Where there is money, where there is power and patriarchy, femmes are pawns in the consuming male gaze. Makenna Kelly disturbs because she makes this structure apparent.
Implicit within that structure is the predictably obscured world of online moderation. In February 2019, The Verge published a report on the conditions of Facebook moderators. The report detailed long working hours and strictly controlled breaks. The employees of Cognizant, the company Facebook uses to screen its data, resort to having sex with each other in the toilets and smoking cannabis whilst at work in order to emotionally process the sexually explicit and violent material they are required to vet every day. Sarah T. Roberts, author of Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media, says, ‘There’s really two exit pathways for people who do this work for the most part: burnout and desensitization.’
Cognizant has initated ‘wellness breaks’ to guard against the secondary PTSD brought on by this work. It is unclear what a wellness break actually entails but ‘yoga, pet therapy and meditation’ are all available to staff at its HQ. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which works to support journalists who cover violence, has created a resource for people working with traumatic imagery. They advise having a host of ‘distraction files’ to act as an antidote to the grim and the bleak. These files, they suggest, should include ‘pictures of cute puppies to look at’. Many of these solutions, however, are not in the rubric of companies like Cognisant. The world of capitalist content moderation, as Roberts notes, means that suggestions and reforms – even the most common-sense ones – are very difficult to implement. Firms are worried about losing a contract to a company that can prove it is more efficient. ‘When a person is on a “wellness break” they’re not out on the floor.’ ASMR and wellnessTM have been subsumed into capitalism’s mania for efficiency. Cognizant’s ‘wellness breaks’ are reportedly only nine minutes long. On 30 October 2019, Cognizant announced it was leaving the content moderation business.
The ASMR community are quick to clap down anyone who calls kink on their practices. This is unsurprising given debates highlighted by Kelly’s case above. Some fans of the genre simply believe that ASMR cannot be pornographic because ASMRtists are clothed, while porn actors are not. I wonder if some ASMRtists outsmart the moderator because they are clothed, and a more nuanced type of sexual content is harder to detect, especially in the mix of extreme content moderators must be confronted with. Other ASMR buffs imply a link between increasingly sexualized ASMR content and YouTube algorithms. You can make more money faster if your videos are bumped up the pyramid. One way of doing this is to make provocative content. The ‘reply-girl’ phenomenon is one example. When YouTube’s algorithms were less sophisticated, all a user had to do was comment on a highly viewed video and harvest the clicks. By commenting on a video that was already popular, these users would gain more viewers for their own videos, thereby driving up their income. How did these users or ‘reply girls’ drive traffic? Sexy thumbnails. Some women reportedly made thousands of dollars through catfishing men this way. YouTube has since tailored its algorithms to stop reply girls.
The ASMR community is divided over whether to embrace the ‘potentially sexual’ elements of ASMR or to disown them. Nica Noelle, a porn actor and erotic ASMR producer, has faced a backlash from the community due to her interpretation of the genre. Many do not want her to besmirch a practice many believe to be ‘a pure, almost childlike artistic expression; the antithesis of porn’, as E.J. Dickson says in her profile of the artist. Noelle combines the whispery vocals and sustained eye contact of ASMR with pornographic content. There is a video of her discussing her cardigan at length before removing it and massaging her breasts. ‘Erotic ASMR is a special kind of porn that promotes a feeling of relaxation and of being nurtured and cared for,’ Noelle explains. ‘It’s not the harsh, impersonal stimulation of traditional porn. I’m telling you I love you and that you’re beautiful [and I’m] talking to you about sweet, gentle things.’ Noelle is bringing ASMR and porn together not to stimulate orgasm but to simulate love. This is radical in an industry driven by a capitalist incentive to reduce the forms desire takes. Physical pleasure is only one reason people visit sex workers, and only one type of sex work. Sex work is any type of labour that requires the use of sexual energy. Nica Noelle recognizes that sex and intimacy are distinct but overlapping. She is expending her sexual energy to make consumers of her work feel cared for and safe.
In what is an increasingly unstable and threatening virtual world, Noelle is meeting a demand for users to feel like special recipients of her care. I use Harry Potter audiobooks to recover from my nightmares. The growth of ASMR content indicates a yearning for intimacy in all its forms. Intimacy requires trust to build, and faith to maintain; the kind of trust Gloucester puts in the guide he does and doesn’t know. The trust and faith I had in my mother’s voice as she read to me as a child in her lap. Trust and faith are prerequisites for intimate acts. So, if intimacy requires time and trust to build then some might say that anonymous sex can never be an intimate experience. But this is not true. One-night stands can be touching, tender and romantic. What takes time to create is an intimacy that is not sexual at all. I have always found it impossible to fall asleep in the arms of someone I don’t know. Falling asleep feels like an act of greater vulnerability than the sex itself. You can’t really fake or recreate that type of sexless intimacy.
ASMR has built a sensuality that is not, in every case, intended to be sexual but may be indicative of a populace that craves to be held. One of the most enduring stories in Christianity is the idea that Mary gave birth without having sex – the divine infant written into being like code. I wonder if it’s the kind of imaginative leap that would help to think through ASMR. In some ways it’s a similar act: its inexplicability is part of its power. Would ASMR be half as fun or healing if we knew exactly how it worked? ASMR does something to us that is not altogether sexual but might be verging on intimate in an immaculate kind of way. What ASMR should provoke rather is a conversation about consent and power: just because ASMRtists don’t fall into traditional categories of sexual content, doesn’t mean we should abandon considerations of consent. The tech platforms would do well to remember in their top-down evaluations that, although there was no sex at the virgin birth, there was also no consent.
Photograph © Sita Magnuson