Essay: Alison Whittakeron ASMR

Let The Yolk Drip Down

Maria folds towels one by one, with obvious sensual joy. Her towels are fluffy, with crisp white edges. The cheap loops that make the plush they snag, come loose. She notices without judgement, plucking them and even teasing them out. Maria moves closer, facing the towel towards me with a breath of a laugh, (can you see it?) before pulling it back and resuming her slow fold. It’s 3am and I slowly begin to fold too, off the toilet seat where I’ve been sitting in my sharehouse for the last half hour. I am watching Maria on my phone. My legs are numb from the seat. But maybe now I can finally sleep.

For years, my emotional needs have been tended to by people on the internet who do not know me. I’ve kept this to myself. These people perform a genre of content called ASMR. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. For some, it provokes an intense tingling feeling rushing over their scalp, spine and body. For others, it’s a sense of contentment. How do we get it? Before a mass of people began to generate it online, you’d get it from a whisper in your ear, a friend writing on your back, someone playing with your hair. Care – relationships that had easy terms and exchanges, taking it in turns, building trust.

Do you remember that thing with the fake yolk on your head and then your ears and then your neck? Someone, a friend, stands behind you with an imaginary egg in their fist. They slam it on your scalp, run the tips of their fingers through your hair, skimming your ears, whispering ‘Let the yolk drip down.’ I could never tell if it was a joke. When a girl at school would do that to me, I’d tense. If she saw my face go slack, I would betray my contentment and then afterward I couldn’t grimace or say ‘Ew, that was weird.’ Like many intimate impulses, you’ll be pleased to know, as I was, that ASMR is now surrendered to the algorithm.

Instead of the yolk or the finger of a friend tracing a shoulder blade, for me, it’s Maria and her folding towels. Or a Ukrainian twenty-something who runs around tapping her long nails on bricks and playground equipment. Her neighbours watch, baffled. A woman chewing pickles like she’s sponsored by Mylanta as she types. There’s the one who vapes in my face. Another who becomes Cthulu in a full latex mask and plays video games under my bed. There’s the one who plays Morticia Addams, applies my blush for a fundraiser to make more widows. In this roleplay, I have five cheeks. All of them are trying to trigger an ASMR response. It’s art, and for many, it’s a job.

Netflix cannot stream to audiences as they sleep. This, the company says, is no small part of its difficulty in maximising stream time. Even podcasting is leaping into the small zone otherwise untouched by content. Sleep With Me is a podcast read by people with low voices, staffed by a team of writers expert in the practice of looping boredom. It draws listeners in just enough to disarm their worries. Trawling the archive in my desperation to sleep, I notice the readers’ voices grow more urgent as they call for Patreon supporters or sponsorship support. The call becomes slicker, the advertised products more localised. The first twenty minutes are full of whispered adverts. But how do you buy a box mattress when you are asleep? One of the ads in Sleep With Me drones ‘when your hand hits the refrigerator door tomorrow – ’ causing a Pavlovian wave of sleepiness whenever I try to make a coffee and an urge to give a forty-something podcaster one USD a month.

Netflix seems to have moved away from ASMR for now, except for still temporarily hosting the Norwegian series Slow TV, and during the promotion of TV shows that might resonate with ASMR’s key demographic: anxious, relatively open-minded young-ish people. Like this exquisite in-character offering from Gillian Anderson, promoting Netflix series Sex Education. W Magazine does the same with its profiled celebrities – Cardi B’s racked up 40 million views – offering a strange intimacy with high-profile people unavailable via conventional social media channels.

This is a time of blue-light blocking glasses and sleep filters on computers – and just as we’re being urged to disengage from information economies in bed, sleep is a big business for content generators and a big hurdle for content platforms.

It’s a contradictory impulse to 1) monetise sleep and 2) keep bodies away from screens or stimulus to bolster productivity during working hours. For the consumer and the consumer-reviewer, the tension is also perverse. We seek to fill those small luxurious moments of anxious wakefulness before unconsciousness – and to succumb to the unconsciousness as a goal of the content. If I remember the ASMR video, has it done what it said it would?

I can turn to YouTube, Instagram and Tik Tok, where content creators inflitrated our platonic moments in bed with ASMR and POV roleplays long ago, compilations of prickling sounds designed to produce a particular response. (Not that, as far as reports go, these make people a lot of money.)

It’s a dilemma I’m thinking about every night, with my adblocker firmly on. With the exception of Oddly Ikea,a 25 minute ASMR profile of dorm essentials targeted towards students, advertisements tend to yank viewers out of the gentle world of Maria’s towels. Since writing this paragraph I got a premium account, an expensive gesture to soothe my conscience.

There have been attempts by prominent ASMR content creators to move from YouTube’s advertising-value-contingent business models to cooperative labour arrangements. On Vine, the cultural precursor to Tik Tok decommissioned by Twitter in 2016, high-profile creators collectively took their drawcard work off the app in response to Vine’s failure to offer them their asking fee for produced content.

Similarly, ASMRtists have attempted to create freemium business models using other app platforms. The model is this: free content on YouTube (with ads, often disrupting their curated affective environment), premium content on subscription apps or platforms like Zees (which has been offline, as far as I can tell, since May) or Patreon. It’s a similar relationship emerging into mainstream consciousness now with pornographic or erotic content creators having public Twitter and Instagram accounts, and private OnlyFans. It’s an extended intimacy of knowing, the new kind of fungibility of the self, as Eda Gunaydin writes of a very different section of YouTube:

Patreons have become a place where fans invest their money not in a particular project or promised, fixed output. Rather than funding the work, we fund the person – or rather, those categories collapse into each other. When we pay these personalities to exist – they film themselves doing daily activities like buying groceries or washing their face – being themselves becomes their job even more than before.

What kind of labour produces this intimate content? Is it media, with a creator and a consumer? Is it care labour with a more complex relationship of interdependence, paid for by advertising or subscription?

Why does that matter? Because at midnight, Maria closes her door, wishes me goodnight and I keep her ad revenue in my pocket. Then I look for the Cthulhu guy. He’s put up a video where a plague doctor jabs you with the beak of his bird mask for thirty minutes. ‘You are my favourite patient. Do not tell anyone else.’ Bliss.

When I’m in my apartment and completely immersed in these videos for which the shame of public viewership used to be a moderating factor, I notice myself habitually tapping objects. I have these heavy glass lip glosses that I roll together in my hands when I’m stressed. My partner, maybe feeling neglected from this intimacy I have with strangers who’ll never know me, starts making little humming and smooching noises next to my ear when I go to bed. We’ve changed the way that we live within the world.

And though I started writing this long before Covid-19, the desire to be soothed has become a kind of reflex now, and not only me. Some, as Anna Spargo Ryan observed, turn to nostalgic digital objects that mimic total control like The Sims. Others, as the Twitter flame war as I was writing this particular sentence would have it, turn to other digital evidence of control – baking complicated and involved bread and telling their friends about it. Whatever. No judgment, I just let a guy fuck my cyborg ear with a lit match.

ASMRtists, as they call themselves, have developed a kind of spiritualist and therapeutic language about what they do that goes a bit beyond woo. The emergence of the term ASMR offers clinical legitimacy, describing something intimate and uncontrollable in our bodies that has lots to do with proximity and socialisation, relationship-building, as much as with the firing of neurons to produce a melting sensation. It was proposed on an internet forum in 2010 as an alternative to the more-stigmatised ‘braingasm’.

A strange fringe body of peer-reviewed scholarship is growing around ASMR as a physical and psychological phenomenon. It does not strictly support some of the more grandiose anecdotal claims from ASMRtists who do this kind of roleplay comfort surrogacy – including that ASMR can relieve a headache or stop a panic attack.

The research is not always flattering for consumers or receivers of ASMR. One study paints an uncomfortable picture of ASMR consumers like me. People who experience or enjoy ASMR have ‘enhanced sensitivity to aesthetic matters’, but also tend to have, statistically, a larger tendency towards severe depression, elevated neuroticism, and significantly lower conscientiousness – at least according to Fredborg, Clark and Smith.

In a neurological study of a small number of participants, suggested that ‘it is possible that [experiencing] ASMR reflects a reduced ability to inhibit sensory-emotional experiences that are suppressed in most individuals’. Whereas del Campo and Kehle suggest that ASMR, along with its psychological cousin and predecessor frisson, offer small steps to the experience of being present or happy. Poerio, Blakey, Holster and Veltri at least noticed reduced heart rate in those engaging with ASMR content. I’m almost certainly misreading these and overstating their significance given their small sample size and the relatively new emergence of the field. I might be neurotic, but I’m no neurologist.

Joceline Anderson calls ASMR a kind of transgressive pleasure, an intimacy delivered so publicly and yet sought out so privately, as to be embarrassing or shameful.

It is, in that sense, similar to pornography – indeed, some ASMR distributed on platforms other than YouTube (like Pornhub or Patreon) is pornographic in nature. But there are other broad similarities.

ASMR and porn are privately consumed and often publicly available on mass content platforms like Youtube and Pornhub that exploit their creators’ work. They are under-consumed on creator-led co-operative platforms that pay their creators. They are premised on a kind of proximity to human contact, producing something in the body like relaxation or arousal. They are perceived as simulated supplements to their real-world counterparts, and sometimes serve as education on how we do things with our bodies to one another. They blur our understanding between an online good (Content) and an online service (attending to a body).

However, despite being a transgressive pleasure, ASMR enjoys relative freedom on the internet – as US FOSTA SESTA legislation drives digital sex workers out of safety in their digital cooperative infrastructure and into scarcity and danger, away from sex worker driven havens and checks and balances.

Some sex workers have become ASMRtists with huge followings on YouTube, where predominately-feminine labour through comfort and arousal is begrudgingly allowed space – although there is speculation that it is algorithmically disadvantaged. As ASMR diversifies, younger women in particular are both denigrated and followed for their sexualisation of the medium, blamed sometimes for its stigma. Online sex work and ASMR are not the same, but in the singularity collapse of affective labour online, what they share and what differentiates them in treatment is interesting to contemplate – they are essential emotional and sensual workers, in every sense of the word, especially now.

In the consumer and consumed alike, there’s an acknowledgment of the weirdness of this shared pleasure, of the slipperiness between Content and Relationship, an expectation gap between the person producing the video for anyone to watch and the person receiving the intimacy as if it is their own. It’s not only in the tipping seam between going to bed and going to bed, but the fundamental tension in any yearning for comfort in the activities of others, in wanting something in ASMR that is ‘less sublime than ridiculous’. As Rob Gallagher suggests to newcomers to the genre.

Our desire to be comforted like this, and the new content rising to meet this need, is ridiculous and humiliating. It is vulnerable to ridicule because it reveals a grinding need within us. There was something pathetic about asking your friend to draw on your back or braid your hair when you were a kid. There’s something even more pathetic about asking the internet to do it as an adult, something which a wave of parody ASMR videos routinely riff on.

Angelica, a young ASMRtist produces explicitly ridiculous content incapable of being interpreted as care such as ASMR~ Dolphin Pufferfish Dealer Deals You Pufferfish {and Kills You}, or as selfish and money-oriented care like 1300s A.D. ASMR~ Nun Takes Care of You In Bed {You Have the Plague}. ‘Oh, you are sick? With the bubonic plague? So saaawiii. Do you have money? I take care of you for mo-ney. Good, good.’ Whether intentional or not, it signals a pivot to content over care, unlike Maria and her folding towels, which prioritised care over content.

Like other forms of feminised performance, and especially feminised care work, there are gaping omissions in the politics and representation of ASMR. You need only look upon my own archive of shame and platonic desire, my YouTube search history, to see some of it. While queer and trans ASMRtists have flourished (mainly with thin young people with pixie cuts who call me valid), my searches for ‘Aboriginal ASMR’ have gone unanswered.

For Indigenous producers of content, it would not be an easy field to step into. This isn’t just because ASMR pitches for the universal in the niche, although that shouldn’t be discounted either – in the mines of online content ephemeral audiences seek a familiar kind of comfort. What is familiar and what is comforting, these are both aspects of desire shaped by power relations, in the same impulse as white nostalgia. We’re a hegemonically-marginalised population of 798 365. It’s a highly-competitive (and racist) online space where the main way to turn a profit is to secure millions of subscribers. How could Devon Cutting ASMR or Nan brings the foam mattress and fan out for your cousins ASMR gain the online currency they deserve?

It’s hard to ask, ‘Who will become the great Aboriginal ASMRtist of our generation?’ in the same way one would ask for the next big Blak novelist. The tendency to be fetishised and boiled down to essential tropes online by a white gaze performing acts of mass-market care and sensuality loads the question. And the field already torturous to navigate because of its stigma and its obvious invitation to humiliation.

It’s more than a representational thing. Most prominent and highly subscribed to ASMRtists (depending on the scene and platform) are white, part of majority-ethnic groups, and cis women.

ASMRTheChew, the pickle-eater from earlier in this piece, as a mature Black woman and early ASMR content creator, was turned into a meme during the early emergence of ASMR into the public view. Today, she has just over 700 000 followers, which is not huge in the ASMR world, and is fundraising to continue her work. Meanwhile key prominent young white women ASMRtists who have emerged since and built on tropes she developed garner sponsorships and subscription bases as monetisable internet personalities comparable to influencers. And they perform, with exactitude, these parasocial roles in order to lean into the comfort of the aspirational. Soccer mum roleplays abound, along with girlfriend roleplays, each teetering on the brink between a reality that is familiar in mass media (Content) and a reality that is desired by an individual (care). You can maybe see where this is going in 2020. I’m trying to refrain from saying – ‘in times like these, homemade sourdough, toilet paper, quarantine, human touch deprivation, something something’.

As the Content and care dichotomy plays out, one odd product from it is ASMR adaptation and intertextuality. Nearly every genre of online content is at risk of being developed into ASMR content, and therefore into the realm of care. Tutorials for sewing, whispered. Gaming, with mechanical keyboards and breathy quiet. Movie scenes dubbed over with whispers and movies themselves intentionally working to create ASMR as a way of conveying subtextual intimacy. Even, yes, books (usually in the public domain or already with massive online fan bases), open for adaptation and interpretation. Food, lots of it, eaten loud into the microphone, deriving from the Korean online genre of Mukbang, brings public figures and professional every people into the public eye as their private selves. Mukbang (whether it is pre-recorded or streamed and open to chat interaction) has flourished in the past decade as a salve to solitary living. This also seems to be the impulse that recently birthed GRWM (Get Ready With Me) and GuRWM (Get Unready With Me) ASMR Content. From waking to meals to sleeping to brushing your teeth – there is nothing that needs to be done without the company of someone clicking their tongue.

How did ASMR get into everything? Well, Rob Gallagher has some answers in the development of digital content culture and the platforms that host them –

Platforms like YouTube are not just new delivery mechanisms for the same old genres and content, nor even just breeding grounds for new forms. Rather, because more or less anything can be uploaded (even if it is subsequently taken down) and because YouTube’s interface juxtaposes clips with little regard for genre, provenance or context, new ways of sorting and seeing become possible, rendering apparent hitherto hidden commonalities and inspiring new approaches to video production. As the history of ASMR culture shows, YouTube is, among other things, a reservoir of effects, stylistic traits and tactics from which new aesthetic paradigms, defined by particular conventions of reception and production, can emerge.

It was only a matter of time before high and low culture alike began to take notice of these aesthetic tendencies in turn. The recent digital intimacies issue of The Lifted Brow offered an ASMR poetic feature both on the page and in audio by Flatwhite Damascus and Mxmv.

From around 2013 to 2017, as the practice grew big enough to be noticed and ridiculed, ASMRtists and online culture journalists started to refer to literary precedents, especially this passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Septimus heard her say “Kay Arr” close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke.

The experience of ASMR and frisson (a related but distinct affect produced by attentiveness on one detailed task) has long been a theme of books and media trying to produce something embodied about either narrative or form in their audience. But it’s also a reflection of the subject-reader relationship in any kind of media – the extent to which we are cared for by Content is more obvious in ASMR but certainly not exclusive to it. The Mrs Dalloway quote is nice, but it doesn’t produce ASMR as directly as other forms of media. Even film, either deliberately or by accident, produces it when trying to press intimacy between characters on its viewers.

Dzenana Vucic wrote about ASMR for Meanjin in March, opening her essay with Mrs Dalloway. She writes –

To pursue an object of desire requires conscious recognition of the goal and a movement towards it…they circle around it and the pleasure is in the repetitive movement around the closed circuit…viewers are acted upon with no ability to interact: the ASMRtist ‘cuts’ your hair or ‘does’ your makeup, but you, the viewer, are totally passive throughout, unable to respond even if you wanted to…By turning viewers into objects, these videos render our lack absolute: the desire for connection necessarily fails because it’s all pre-recorded and far away…reflective of a desire to give up will and intention, the need to make choices and interact.

How to describe ASMR? ASMR lives in the anecdotes and recommendations of your acquaintances in the same way that a multilevel marketing scheme does. Allow me to open to you this lucrative opportunity. I used to experience ASMR as a sensation that would shoot out of my left arse cheek and run all the way to the bottom of my skull. It produced an involuntary twitch – I’d later learn that the twitch, at least, was part of a posture problem. Once it was addressed, the weird lightning bolts of total calm would not come back. After that, the glow from within came purely from the sensation of being cared for.

Lacking a precise physical product, I enjoyed an entirely one-sided interaction with my ASMRtist – a desire to give up will and intention, as Vucic puts it. But also a desire to be unseen in my receiving of care. To be invulnerable. To be unafraid to ask to be patted on the head for thirty minutes while being complimented. To be unafraid to search a catalogue of embarrassing social needs. To be intimate without stakes. To be beyond interdependence and co-dependence, to be totally dependent on someone without them knowing. To do what literature has thus far pretty much failed to do – create a second-person short story that’s actually believable, late at night on the cusp of consciousness on a toilet with numb legs. To make the reader a real character, to turn the screen into a surrogate for their emotional will, by literally and literarily making them feel something, bringing them into a story.

I pour my vulnerabilities into a video of someone whispering in Korean as they ‘make my brain’ from slime and then proceed to pierce it for two hours. The parasocial relationships that talk back as if they were friends. When the world gives me any reason to howl – however petty, shameful and lonely the howl always is – I search ‘comfort ASMR’ instead of talking to my friends or family. The comments sections are full of people like me – some articulating grief, others some sense of feeling unable to be understood, others that deep sense of shame of a crumbling life. For these, I think, ‘damn, go to therapy’. And then, as one of these unhappy many, I think to myself ‘damn, go to therapy’ (I’m in therapy) – not realising that therapy too, for whatever reason and without judgement, is becoming a reflex by which many of us (me) outsource the horror of being alive. A meme by which interpersonal vulnerability, made to anyone except someone you’re paying or someone who’s paying you, is an intrusion.

A collective of ASMRtists have used Facebook and other gathering sites to coordinate some scientific basis for ASMR as a therapeutic or allied health practice. They have not really been rewarded with the kind of evidence they seek. The need to drive care into a therapeutic mode all the time, though, is exhausting and I wonder about the value of it. Would I like this whispering more if I knew it was raising my mood overall? Would ASMRtists be able to charge more for it, expand it as a therapy or a spa treatment? The cling to medical legitimacy over its fundamental weirdness I guess is one that’s meant to elevate it – more than emotional care or affective play – maybe even normalise it.

When treatment becomes the answer to all behaviour, as is evident in the impulse to medicalise ASMR, and when maladaptation reigns as the governing metaphor for all our existential ills, what is so wrong with wishing we could stop burdening one another with our pain? What is really different about wishing we could direct it all to monetizable content like ASMR rather than mutual community care? The ways we discuss labour and emotion through media and content have alienated so many of us from our interpersonal relationships, have propelled our relationships into the realm of service provision. People are scorned for requiring the services, people are stigmatised for needing something like comfort to be a service. Where else are those of us without therapy to go now that face to face engagement isn’t regularly possible – except to write personal essays on care in the Sydney Review of Books?

Like so much online content, mindfulness or frisson, ASMR is plagued with its own issues of diminishing returns. Pleasure which had previously seemed enthralling and meditative is now boring for a collective viewership. The escalation of ASMR-inducing practices have only fragmented the form – long nails tapping on objects have been hyper-normalised and the rest pushed further into the margins of algorithms and transgression. Ear eating (yes), once a fringe and taboo ASMR practice which involves chewing and licking silicone microphone earpieces, is now more common. Ear mutilation (yes) was started by practitioners trying to distinguish themselves from the ear-eaters, trying to invent increasingly extreme and sensitive ways to generate a sense of intimacy, closeness and control.

On an individual level, too, and continuing the clinical metaphor, commenters complain of developing ‘tingle immunity’. One popular genre of videos claims to offer cures to tingle immunity, but the consensus among the YouTube comments so far is that you have to reduce your usage and then return. The law of diminishing returns made real on two scales. The circular play that Vucic describes – of desire, pursuit and comfort – begins anew.

And that’s where ASMR runs into its more fundamental juncture – whether ASMR is a desired tingly neurological response from the audience or is instead a genre of relaxation media that doesn’t have to result in tingles. If ASMR Content is solely to trigger the ASMR sensation, then strategies to combat immunity make some kind of sense.

But growing numbers of people who don’t experience the physical phenomenon (who never have, or who lost their ability to) watch ASMR for other reasons. To relax, to have a sense of company in isolation, to create parasocial relationships with characters, to simulate having a girlfriend, to not eat in silence, or for plain background noise.

Comfort comes in all guises, as does stimulation and simulation. Right now the genre lacks the clarity of what it’s trying to do, diving into pseudoscience and woo for something as imprudent, weird and human as the desire to have a totally one-sided relationship of emotional and spiritual service. The desire to be served in an emotional or psychic domain entirely your own – or maybe just the humble ambition for a second-person narrative to make sense, for the very first time.

Special thanks to Ilhan Abdi for editorial input that helped shape this essay.