Digital Care | Tasha Bjelić
As a kid, I was comforted by somebody typing. A tingly sensation would ensue with specific cues, but I would only identify these triggers later on. The tingly sensation happened at the airport. The woman at the counter takes our passports. We are late and concerned that we will miss our flight. Her fingers tap the keyboard. Her nails are lengthened and dyed. She works horizontally due to their size. In a soft unfazed voice, “Would you like to check your bags?” she asks. The typing continues. An uncanny sensation occurs, tingles down my spine and transforms into a full body trance.
Over the past few years, I discovered this experience was not so unusual. In fact, the tapping of fingernails that would elicit my tingles is a common “ASMR” trigger. ASMR or “autonomous sensory meridian response” is a neologism traced to 2010 when a Reddit thread started asking whether others had experienced pleasurable sensations for unusual triggers. Thousands responded that they had, igniting the formation of multiple online communities as well as a surge of YouTube ASMR videos. Part of the popularity of ASMR is the relief it can give from insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression, among other conditions. Moreover, subscribers can meet their individual needs by requesting the production of particular trigger videos from ASMR artists. In this way, the production and consumption of relief in ASMR videos occurs through a grassroots network of participation.
Though the triggers for ASMR are diverse, they often follow a specific pattern for performing empathy. Many of the videos include well-groomed attractive women whispering while describing a commonplace task that they perform in a slow methodical way. This may include crinkling, tapping, brushing or massaging, often in the form of a role-playing scenario in which the viewer is given personal attention.i Mark O’Connell from Slate.com claims that attention is a crucial dimension of the ASMR experience and writes, “[o]ne of the things almost all role-play videos have in common is the that they center around a single person who is speaking to, and attending to, one very important presence: yours.”ii He furthers this with:
Although I don’t seem to be able to experience ASMR myself, I find that there is something quite affecting, even poignant, in the idea of people whispering sweet nothings into a webcam, or rubbing their hands up and down a bath towel, so that anonymous strangers might find some unaccountable pleasure or solace in witnessing them do so. As odd as it is, there is a deeply human quality to this strange convergence of technology, alienation, and intimacy. The first instinctive reaction to ASMR is one of comic bemusement; but if you watch enough of it, or if you think about it long enough, it eventually gives way to a kind of baffled reverence. It’s only weird, in other words, because we humans are weird, and because the reasons for our comforts and pleasures are so often obscure to us.iii
In this regard, the resounding pattern within the ASMR video structure is performance and belief in care and attention from another person. The popularity of ASMR videos can be viewed as symptomatic of an existing social need to be cared for, loved, and connected with. Moreover, this kind of care is being sought through digital technology, through digital intimacy. In this way, ASMR is connected to something already happening in the digital-social field. This drive for digital intimacy might be linked to contemporary exploitative labor relationships. Within the neoliberal turn, and the negation of State responsibility for social investment programsiv—ASMR steps in as a social service.
We can think of ASMR, and the growing network of videos, as a shame-free locale for accessing various kinds of support, one that circumvents the risk of being registered as “needy”. Accusations of neediness are often motivated by the ideology of neoliberal individualism, counterposed to the biased presumption that those in need are social and economic pariahs. It is within this context that the video, “ASMR Caring Friend Roleplay”v— a performance of a listening and supportive friend — can be seen as circumventing neoliberal barriers which shame and/or monetarily exclude access to emotional care. ASMR can be understood as a coping mechanism within our digital, late capitalist condition. It is a self-soothing device amidst populations without healthcare, abandoned by the “maternal” (though imperfect) hand of the ‘welfare state’.
ASMR certainly has a specific scope, care-wise, that is far outnumbered by the multiple other kinds of urgent forms of care (physical, etc.) that continue to be outsourced and unmet daily. And, this reframing of hair brushing videos as digital care relies on an optimistic account of the digital social relationship. So, is digital care —like ASMR— really caring? Considering Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s work in “After the Future”, the relationship between people, technology and late capitalism seems anything but caring. According to Berardi, the digital era has redesigned and redistributed people spatially and temporally with psychologically deteriorating sensorial effects. Berardi relates the feeling of disconnection with wider social patterns: the fragmentation of bodies caused by technological advancement associated with late capitalism, the deregulated market, the rise of ‘info-labor’ rather than material labor, etc. With computer-based employment, post-industrial workers are often fragmented in time and space. Often, the workday never ends, and the popularity of working remotely may in extreme cases prohibit colleagues from ever meeting in the flesh.vi
And, then again, maybe there is hope in hopelessness. The catalyst for seeking digital care is similarly technologically induced. The late capitalistic techno/digital turn and the resulting social disconnection (in multiple ways) have manifested a shared desire to connect (in a multiplicity of ways). ASMR videos, and the relief they provide through digital intimacy, cannot be separated from their supporting late capitalistic techno/digital infrastructure of neoliberal state violence, spatial redistribution, sensorial and material disconnection, and depression described by Berardi. They are, perhaps, more accurately described as “pharmakon”vii or drug: 1) remedy to soothe anxiety and 2) poison, part of poisonous architecture that, ultimately, produces more anxiety.
Lastly, part of the problematics of ASMR videos is embedded in the solution that they provide: pleasure. While it is possible, of course, for viewers of ASMR to interface in a non-pleasure inducing way – for example, it is possible for pleasure in the moment to then inspire “radical” practices later on (as a kind of recharging of will) – the design of ASMR videos is, in general, non-contemplative. ASMR videos subjugate reflection for pleasure. In this way, contemplation of gendered performances of care, woman as naturalized caregiver, are not part of the designed experience. With all of this in mind, perhaps the popularity of ASMR may be best understood as both symptomatic of, and attending to, the poverty of care within the late digital capitalist contemporary moment.
i Olivia’s Kissper ASMR. 2014. “What is ASMR? 40 Fast Triggers to Find Your Tingles for Relaxation (Binaural).” YouTube, 18, July, [Online]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5QjfnIHZ1A. [Accessed: 04/28/16]
ii O’Connell, Mark. 2013. “Could a One-Hour Video of Someone Whispering and Brushing Her Hair Change Your Life?” Slate.com. 12, Feb., [Online] Available from:
http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2013/02/asmr_videos_autonomous_sensory_meridian_response_and_whispering_videos_on.html. [Accessed: 04/28/16]
iv Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press
v Amalzd. 2014. “ASMR Caring Friend Roleplay.” YouTube, 27, May, [Online]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9WpB3YPsOI. [Accessed: 04/28/16]
vi Berardi, Franco. 2011. After the Future. Oakland: AK Press
viiFlutuante.wordpress.com. 2009. “‘Pharmakon’: The Cure or the Poison?” WordPress. 8, Aug., [Online]. Available from: https://flutuante.wordpress.com/2009/08/01/pharmakon-the-cure-or-the-poison/. [Accessed: 04/28/16]