ASMR, community knowledge, and legitimacy

ASMR, community knowledge, and legitimacy

The long tail effect and the logic of networked communities has enabled internet users to organise themselves in new ways. Unrecognized by modern medicine or science, ASMR has nevertheless emerged and grown from casual discussions in online threads into the expansive and growing community we see today (Hudson 2015; Anderson 2004). Scientists haven’t yet provided many answers about ASMR and the phenomenon hasn’t really been subject to any sort of rigorous study, meaning that the how and why surrounding it go largely unanswered (Roy 2013). Yet the nature of the internet has empowered communities to undergo processes of self-analysis, self-reflection, and knowledge sharing – essentially everything currently understood about ASMR came about through the sharing of anecdotes and audience feedback. It is a kind of ‘subjugated knowledge’ built upon a process of autonomous, theoretical, non-centralized production, the validity of which is not dependent on the approval of established regimes of thought (Foucault 1980, cited in Bock 2015). Steven Novella, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, described this process in regards to ASMR, saying:

“Human communication has been increased to the point that people who have what they think are unique personal experiences can find each other, eventually bringing the phenomenon to general awareness, giving it a name and an internet footprint.” (Novella 2012)

Regardless of how it is treated and understood within ASMR communities, the phenomenon itself is yet to be acknowledged and understood within a scientific context. But whilst this means that caution and good judgement should be exercised when making medical decisions based on information relating to ASMR, it does not make the phenomena or the anecdotal evidence shared by the community invalid. As Stafford (in Micro Mart 2016) acknowledges:

“It might well be a real thing, but it’s inherently difficult to research. The inner experience is the point of a lot of psychological investigation, but when you’ve got something like this that you can’t see or feel and it doesn’t happen for everyone, it falls into a blind spot. It’s like synaesthesia — for years it was a myth, then in the 1990s people came up with a reliable way of measuring it.”

There are many important phenomena involved in human functioning that remain unnoticed, misunderstood, not applied, or are yet to attract the academic interest of the scientific community (del Campo and Kehle 2016). The internet exposes these shortcomings in the scientific and academic processes, providing opportunities for subjugated (or ‘folk’) knowledge about apparently private experience to be constructed collaboratively. As the previously rigid boundaries between credible and questionable knowledge becomes increasingly blurred, opportunities open up for new voices carrying different types of knowledge that have tended to go unrecognized as credible within academic institutions (Bock 2015). In the case of ASMR, this apparently shared experience has acquired an ontological and communicative status, forming the basis for community through common language, terminology, and tropes. The term ‘ASMR’ itself is an example of this. Coined in February 2010 by a significant contributor to the ASMR community named Jennifer Allen, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response was suggested as a term that clinically described the features of the phenomenon as it was currently understood (Dr. Richard 2016).

“After reading the comments of others, I realized people would never be able to open up about what they were experiencing unless it could be discussed in a way that was objective, not tied to emotional or deeply personal terminology, and not suggesting aspects that were not in line with their personal experience” (Allen, cited in Dr. Richard 2016).

Although formalized separately to scientific investigation, the choice of clinical, “scientific” language does betray a certain desire for legitimacy within the ASMR community. Kirner (2015) observed the reconstruction of modern druidry, following its destruction at the hands of Christianity, as a process informed by the scientific epistemology and Western capitalist economic and legal structures that form the foundation of a modern global context. There are parallels that can be drawn between ASMR knowledge and the folk ecological knowledge of modern druidry. Both focus on experimental learning and qualitative variables, rather than quantitative data analysis, yet both encourage personal engagement with contemporary Western science on some level (Kirner 2015). At least one large scale ASMR research project is underway in conjunction with Jennifer Allen, Karissa Burnett from the Fuller School of Psychology, and professor at Shenandoah University School of Pharmacy Craig Richard that has attracted over 20 000 responses at last count in January 2017 (Dr. Richard 2017).

Like modern druidry and folk science systems, ASMR also engages in certain conventions of spirituality, mysticism, and new age, internal well-being (Kirner 2015; Micro Mart 2016). Although sometimes engaged with on a shallow level as a flavour to contextualize the ASMR experiences triggered, there are countless videos like the ones shown below that cater to users seeking more ephemeral, spiritual experiences.

 

References

Anderson, C 2004 ‘The Long Tail’, Wired, 10 January, viewed 1 March 2017 <https://www.wired.com/2004/10/tail/>

Barratt, EL and Davis, NJ 2015, ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state’, Dahlem M (ed.), PeerJ, 3, e851, viewed 2 June 2016 <http://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.851>

Bock, S 2015, ‘’Grappling to Think Clearly’: Vernacular Theorizing in Robbie McCauley’s Sugar’, Journal Of Medical Humanities, 36, 2, pp. 127-139, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, EBSCOhost, viewed 1 March 2017.

Dr. Richard 2016, ‘Interview with Jennifer Allen, the woman who coined the term, ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’ (ASMR)’, ASMR University, 17 May, viewed 1 March 2017 <https://asmruniversity.com/2016/05/17/jennifer-allen-interview-coined-asmr/>

Dr. Richard 2017, ‘ASMR Research Project’, ASMR University, viewed 1 March 2017 <https://asmruniversity.com/asmr-survey/>

Hudson, L 2015, ‘The brain-tingling world of ASMR collides with science fiction’, Offworld, 29 April, viewed 2 June 2016 <http://boingboing.net/2015/04/29/asmr-ally-scifi-departure.html>

Kirner, KD 2015, ‘Pursuing the Salmon of Wisdom: The Sacred in Folk Botanical Knowledge Revival among Modem Druids’, Journal For The Study Of Religion, Nature & Culture, 9, 4, pp. 448-482, Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost, viewed 1 March 2017 <http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/viewarticle/render?data=dGJyMPPp44rp2%2fdV0%2bnjisfk5Ie46bBRs6e2TLek63nn5Kx94um%2bSq2otkewpq9Pnqm4Srews0mexss%2b8ujfhvHX4Yzn5eyB4rOvTbaut0y0p7BJpOLfhuWz44ak2uBV8OLmPvLX5VW%2fxKR57LOvSbGosUu2p7Y%2b5OXwhd%2fqu4ji3MSN6uLSffbqpH%2fz2%2fGMu8rwjeMA&vid=27&sid=9e56b75a-f63a-45c3-979a-6ce7e3063539@sessionmgr120&hid=120>

Micro Mart 2016, ‘ASMR Explaining The PHENOMENON’ 2016, Micro Mart, 1398, p. 86, MasterFILE Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 2 June 2016 <http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/eds/detail/detail?sid=b2d32e14-c1eb-46bc-a677-4be20472a474%40sessionmgr107&vid=0&hid=120&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=112573442&db=f6h>

Novella, S 2012, ‘ASMR’, NeuroLogica Blog, 12 March, viewed 2 June 2016 <http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/asmr/>

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To everyone who has asked me what my honours thesis is.

To everyone who has asked me what my honours thesis is.

It’s a shame I haven’t used this blog as much as I had previously intended to. Between other, more concrete writing commitments and picking up more shifts at work, I just haven’t found myself in the right rhythm for writing for myself. I’m not sure about other writers, but once something has dropped off my regular weekly activities it’s very hard to bring it back in. The longer I wait, the more stuff happens, and the more stuff happens, the more I want to write about all at once.

But that’s not what I came here to write about.

Many of my close friends and family will know that I will be beginning a year in honours study over the course of the current year. But what basically nobody knows is what my honours thesis will be on.

Of course, people often ask me what my research topic will be.

I just don’t often give them answers.

It’s not that I’m trying to be mysterious or protective of my work, far from it. My main hesitation with responding to this question is that when people ask it, I don’t think they really signed themselves up for the lengthy process of answering.

My topic requires quite a bit of unpacking.

A few weeks ago my honours supervisor described my thesis topic as ‘the weirdest she’d ever supervised.’ Of course, she meant this to be encouraging, but I think it also serves as something of a warning for the year ahead. People will be asking a lot of questions about my research, and I will need to have a lot of good answers.

So as part of the process of researching my topic, I have decided to regularly blog about my research as I go. This will help clue other people in to my studies and – with an audience – it will give me some practice with explaining my research and addressing questions related to it.

But back to explaining what my topic is.

Of course, many people aren’t satisfied with my hesitation to tell them what my research will cover. So, when pressed, I begin each explanation with the following question:

“Do you know what ASMR is?”

If the answer is ‘yes’, it makes things a lot easier. If not, well then I have quite a lot of explaining to do.

For those not in the know (which is okay by the way, it’s not a usual thing to know) ASMR is an initialism that stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is a deliberately ‘scientific sounding’ phrase to describe a previously unstudied sensory phenomenon in which individuals experience a tingling, euphoric sensation across the scalp and back of the neck in response to certain audio and visual stimuli (Barratt and Davis 2015). It is also commonly understood to be relaxing and beneficial for sleep, insomnia, depression, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD according to many people within ASMR communities (Barratt and Davis 2015; Micro Mart 2016; Kloc 20140. Here’s a video that is designed to explain the sensation whilst also triggering it:

“ASMRs are intimate but not sexual, feel-good but not orgasmic, private but not secret.” (Jessica Roy 2013)

Videos like the one above are highly prevalent on YouTube – videos designed to simulate intimacy and trigger ASMR in the viewer by performers known as ASMRtists. ASMRtists produce “videos of nice people speaking softly while doing nothing in particular” with complete, non-cynical sincerity (Kloc 2014). Because ASMR has yet to be formally researched, the work of the ASMRtists represents a kind of experimentation – it is an expertise that arises through community engagement, feedback, and the ability quickly produce and distribute videos that can reach a sizable, dispersed audience at a minimal cost. These are inherent and unique features of a Web 2.0 network, which is where ASMR as an understood phenomenon and culture managed to grow through shared experience, participation, and a means of production based on produsage and collaboration.

“So wait, what was your thesis again?”

My thesis is to show that ASMR itself is collectively understood and culturally organized in a way that would only have been made possible through a Web 2.0 globally connected environment. I also plan to look at this kind of pseudo-expertise as a digitally enhanced extension of the way folk knowledge and subjugated knowledge have been practiced throughout human history. As Novella (2012) points out in his attempts to explain ASMR from a neurological perspective, human communication has reached a point where people who experience what they think of as unique or private phenomena can find each other and eventually bring this phenomenon to general awareness in the process. Although it should be acknowledged that although real patterns may emerge from the internet, sometimes these are illusory or misidentified (Novella 2012).

Understanding these new internet centred epistemologies is important. This is not simply to establish its accuracy or validity – or because ASMR and its culture are itself interesting – but because we are now living in a world of “fake news”, online conspiracy theories, and social media echo chambers. Knowledge, both real and fabricated, is now created, disseminated, and shared with great speed and with fewer experts than ever gatekeeping the process or accessing its quality or validity. As the rigid categories of knowledge that characterised academia and expertise in the past begin to lose social capital, it becomes important to understand the new autonomous, non-centralized kinds of knowledge production where validity is no longer dependent on the approval of these previously established regimes of thought (Foucault 1980, cited in Bock 2015).

Digital Haunting and Asynchronous Mourning

This isn’t about Pokemon GO. However, the proliferation of Pokemon GO into mainstream culture has gotten me thinking a lot about the relationship human memory has with space – and the ways in which digital augmentations begin to show how inseparable both these elements really are. I just recently wrote a piece about the ways in which Pokemon GO have had a transformative effect on community in Wollongong (which can be read here).

Lately, I have been thinking about a time in my life from 3 years ago.

It was around June or July in 2013. I had been living around six months in a cheap, run down old house in Wollongong with my cousin. He was studying at the university doing the degree that I would eventually end up enrolling in – and I was unemployed. Unstable employment is something I have struggled with on and off for many years since I left high school in 2006, but this was the first time I had been on unemployment benefits and living far away from my family and support networks. I was feeling very lost. I had moved to Wollongong to enrol in a chemistry honours program, but had dropped out after a month. I was unemployed, directionless, and alone in a strange place far away from home.

It was during this time, I started using and experimenting with a range of social media platforms. As I did this, I started to form online friendships.

I was new on Twitter and Tumblr at this time, and grew to be quite active. During these first few months of Twitter I fostered friendships with a few people. I would converse with them publically and privately. They’d support me in times of need and provide escapism to help take my mind off the various uncertainties in my life that had been growing during this time.

It was by no means a panacea for my troubles, but I didn’t feel so isolated anymore.

As the months dragged on things continued to change in my life. I started to move out of the emotional trench I had dug for myself. I was visiting close friends in Sydney more and I had started to keep busy with job seeking and enrolment in a new degree. As I did so I had less time to spend on the mess I had made of my Twitter account (I had ended up following a lot of garbage accounts). So just a few days before I returned to uni to start a new degree I decided to get back on to Twitter and catch up with some of my friends. I had been out of touch, and I missed them.

What I wasn’t ready to learn, was that one of my Twitter friends had died in a car accident a few weeks beforehand.

It came as a shock. I tweeted at them publically – a distasteful joke about still being alive in spite of my prolonged absence. A mutual online friend privately messaged me, unsure if I was tweeting in poor taste or if I was completely unaware of what had unfolded. I was oblivious and it took me about 10 minutes before I believed it. But as I investigated her timeline it all started to become painfully obvious. People tweeted that they missed her. She hadn’t tweeted in weeks, and – sure enough – her last few tweets documented that she had been in a car accident and was in hospital. The last tweet she wrote was made in praise of one of the nurses caring for her.

She was going to bring her a pizza in gratitude. Her account was often a celebration of pizza.

Once again I felt isolated. This time in grief. Her death and my own delayed discovery had made the grieving process strangely private and difficult to manage. I couldn’t just say to my own friends, ‘a friend died and I’m mourning’ because the distanced relationship I had with this person meant that this would turn into a big, messy explanation. It’s hard to completely explain who a person is and what they meant to you when you’re still struggling to process this new, strange form of loss. It wasn’t until I had some emotional breakdowns later on in the year that I had begun to explain this to people. This hidden loss – the death of a person who was so invisible to my closest circles of friends. My friends didn’t even use Twitter. It was so foreign I felt like it was impossible to share. It didn’t even feel real. Every time I would go to her account I’d search for new information – an indication that she was alive and we could make up for all this lost time. Maybe we could have laughed about it?

I bet we would have laughed.

I guess I’ll never know.

It wasn’t until quite recently, after a process of grieving and opening up about my experience with some close friends, that I was finally able to look at her Twitter profile again. I had long since stopped using the Twitter account through which she had known me – partly because of its aforementioned clutter, but mostly because it felt vastly more empty without her.The relentless churn of Twitter marched on in a way that I wasn’t happy with – I wasn’t ready for it. So I gradually moved over entirely to using my university Twitter account, where I wasn’t just a few clicks away from her digital legacy. But at the same time, I never want to delete my old account as it remains the only thing I still have that ties me to this person. A digital scrapbook turned memorial.

It wasn’t until recently I was emotionally able to follow her account from my new one.

I realize a huge part of the impact this had on me was how asynchronous my process was with the actual events. I felt so strangely displaced, and I felt a lot of guilt at knowing this had happened whilst I was on hiatus. I had distanced myself and in that time I had been robbed of the opportunity to spend more time with her. I saw her final few tweets describing the events that lead to her fatal injuries and I realized if I had not been away I could have wished her well. I could have said something.

When you start to think about this it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that if you’d said something, things could have been different.

A lot is made of the internet era in terms of what is now instant and permanent. But It’s moments like these that really deflate and unravel those notions. Human beings aren’t always available – aren’t always switched on. Sometimes we need breaks, pauses, and disconnections. The technology only extends us – both our capabilities and our permanence. But it doesn’t let us escape our transience.

Nothing is permanent.

We are living in a time where everyone is able to construct digital personas that have enormous reach. A life that extends far beyond our own. The things we put into cyberspace – be they carefully crafted or haphazardly tossed out – are now an extension of our memories that already augment the world we live within.

They won’t be complete. They won’t even be permanent. But they will haunt the spaces where we once found comfort long after we’re gone.

Tabula Rasa and the Mental Bottleneck

Tabula Rasa and the Mental Bottleneck

I have reached something of a turning point in my life. A pivotal moment, if you will. At time of writing I am about 3 weeks into my post-university life. I just finished up my last semester of a Bachelor in Communications and Media Studies, and I have 7 or 8 months away from that institution before I plan to begin a year doing honours.

It’s very exciting.

My life feels as though it has reached a new phase – a tabula rasa. I have the time to indulge in creative pursuits and take up new projects. I am free to experiment and try new things. I am a new person with new opportunities to explore.

Except I’m not. I mean, not really.

University is often pitched at people as an opportunity to learn skills and gain employment. But you won’t be getting just any old job – you’ll be starting on the path to your ~dream career~. It’s an ethically dubious proposition at times, given the increasingly hostile labour market we find ourselves living in.

But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

For me, university education was a great opportunity to learn about myself. I grew to understand what I liked and what I valued. A big part of what I discovered is how much I enjoy writing and thinking. My degree was made up of many subjects that required me to blog that now I’m finished, I want to try and develop my writing and thinking further. I want to take things in a new direction, using a voice that is less ‘Angus the student’ and more ‘Angus the opinionated human being.’ I wanted a new space to create in, and a new space to think in. I started this new blog for that purpose. It is a blank page – a tabula rasa.

It’s always hard to take those first steps starting something new. It is exactly because this feels like an exciting new opportunity that I end up afraid to start it. It can be as daunting as it is invigorating because of the pressure I have put on myself. On this moment. I have a list of things I want to write about eventually – soon even. I want to do and say a lot of things in this space, and I want to say them now. As a result of having a thousand busy thoughts seeking attention in my head, it can be hard to pick a single one to loiter on. Because what if I make a bad choice and the rest of my thoughts escape in the meantime – off to occupy the minds of people who will give them the respect they deserve.

Of course, this logic is silly. It’s barely logic at all. It’s the equivalent of buying expensive new trainers but never wanting to put them on because you don’t want to have to confront the fact that you’re first time running in them won’t be perfect. The trainers are symbolic of a desire, just like the end of university is. They represent a universe of possibilities that only stop being infinite when you decide to use them. The reality is you’re going to get dirty and sweaty – and you’ll probably be sore because you’re tremendously unfit and unpractised. It won’t be your best work, just like this first blog post won’t be.

But best or not, here I am. I am making a start on a brand new writing project. It will be a place for thinking aloud and voicing my opinions – away from the video game and university writing I have been primarily doing up until now. As you can probably tell, I have opinions about work and labour. I have thoughts about the arts and pop culture. I have perspectives and I want to share them here – with anyone who cares to read them. But also, I want to share them with myself. I want to stop trying to get the thoughts in my head to form an orderly queue and just start to write them down when I can so I can dwell on them in comfort. Perhaps if I am lucky I will find others willing to dwell with me in the comments. Who knows?

As I said before, it’s very exciting.