How is a user created? This was the question at the forefront of Chris Chesher’s mind as he wrote ‘Layers of Code, Layers of Subjectivity’ in 2004, and upon reading it I was drawn to a clear gap in my understanding of ASMR culture.
According to Chesher (2004) the process of generating users is complex and hard to predict, but it can be understood through the lenses of ‘invocation’, ‘avocation’, and ‘vocation’. In this relationship, the invocation is a “special power” a user is able to conjure forth through the avocations which make up the languages, platforms, and vectors through which invocations can occur (Chesher 2004). Through the process of defining an ASMRtist – a performer and content creator who specializes in manipulating ASMR triggers for the benefit of an online audience – we are also able to define the ‘vocation’.
“When subjects take up a vocation they internalise collective conventions, expectations and stereotypes and turn them outwards again. The vocation determines both a person’s internal sense of self, and how others perceive them. Vocations are crucial in securing social power: if someone is perceived as having been called to a position of authority, their power is legitimate.” (Chesher 2004).
Through the gaze of Chesher’s piece, ASMRtists can be understood as charismatic celebrities and performance professionals (vocation) who are able to trigger ASMR in deliberate and enhanced ways (invocation) through the combined efforts of specific audio and video recording equipment, the technical and social rules of YouTube, and the audio-video outputs of ASMR users (avocations) (Micro Mart 2016).
As I examined this relationship in relation to ASMR videos I started to realize there was a gap in my understanding of the culture. As discussed in previous posts, ASMR is a phenomenon that was discovered and largely described anecdotally as a result of the effect of decentralized global networking (Micro Mart 2016). I also placed the phenomenon in the historical context of simulated intimacy and in the process found Bob Ross to be an example of ASMR triggering media that predates any known description of the sensation (here). Whilst these posts have attempted to describe and contextualise the recognition and discovery of ASMR and its related media, I have yet to address the question of how ASMR media is used.
To assume everyone who eats does so simply to meet a basic human need and stave off hunger is to grossly oversimplify a complex physiological, psychological, and individual relationship a person might have to a host of different meals in a range of different contexts. Until now I had been looking at the relationship between ASMRtists and their audiences in very narrow ways.
The first and what seems to be most common usage cited for ASMR media is relaxation. The video above is taken from the UK comedy panel show Would I Lie To You, in which comedian Joe Lysatt explains his use of an ASMRtists videos for relaxing of an evening. This is supported by research that was done in regards to ASMR, in which 98% of the participants agreed (or strongly agreed) they largely sought out ASMR as an opportunity for relaxation (Barratt and Davis 2015). In a similar vein, 82% agreed that they used ASMR to help them sleep, and 70% used ASMR to deal with stress.What we can see is that it’s more than ‘relaxation’ in the simplest sense, as many who suffer from insomnia use ASMR triggers to help induce sleep (Micro Mart 2016).
Conversely, there are some ASMR uses in the community that are more controversial and disowned. This is in regards to ASMR use in relation to sexual arousal. Despite the relationship between ASMR and close, personal attention and the prevailing number of conventionally attractive young women who are the most successful ASMRtists in terms of subscribers – not to mention the number of them with somewhat suggestive names like Heather Feather and OliviaKissperASMR – many who experience ASMR are quick to disregard any accusation that ASMR is sexual in any way. In the same study above, only 5% of the participants reported using ASMR media for sexual stimulation, with the vast majority of participants (84%) actively disagreeing with this notion (Barratt and Davis 2015). This division can also be observed through the comparison of the ASMR subreddit – with over 111 000 subscribers – to the ASMRotica subreddit, which is for the sharing of erotic ASMR content that has only 83 users. This resistence to sexualization makes some sense when the community and the phenomena itself have often been mistaken for fetish material by those on the outside (Micro Mart 2016).
But, nevertheless, ASMRotica still exists and still meets a need. In much the same way as simulated intimacy, friendly company, and personal attention will factor in with the way ASMR media is used, so may sexual arousal. That’s not to say that ASMR is inherently sexual itself, but there are definitely people who experience ASMR out there who would like this sensation to be factored in to a sexual experience, in the same way that a fan of DC comics may be interested in pornography that intersects with this interest in some way (such as the Batman V Superman XXX parody – that happens to have a higher user rating than the original movie on which it is based). But ASMRotica is still not sexually explicit, providing more of a “soft, sensual, and therapeutic alternative to mainstream porn”, according to Vice’s Broadly (Lindsay 2015). In an interview with Broadly, ASMRotica artist Laila Love ASMR describes the success she has found in her own videos after she noticed the growing demand for erotic ASMR content in forums, whilst Juicy Peach actually noticed the demand from fans of her more traditional, explicit erotic content who admitted that in addition to arousal, they found her voice soothing and relaxing (Lindsay 2015).
These are just a few of what I can imagine is many uses for ASMR triggering media. I know that there are other uses – such as the desire for friendly and welcoming company/attention, mental and physical health, spiritual and internal well-being, etc. (Micro Mart 2016) – that I may possibly revisit later on in my research. But I think the complex relationship between production and consumption of ASMR media may become the focus of my research in this area.