Slowing Down Time: Why Are We Drawn to ASMR?

Whatever the reasons, whatever the implications, whatever the agenda, one fact hides all others. There is man in his garden shed, surrounded by cameras and microphones. He is performing and recording a strange, solitary ritual of gentle sounds, whispers and hand movements. One hundred thousand people around the world will watch and listen, placated, mesmerized, engrossed, like an audience at a concert of a lifetime.

As the ASMR steps towards its tenth anniversary I would like to look at our increasingly populous on-line community from an unusual angle. I am interested in a different perspective, one that focuses on the potential of ASMR as a vehicle for artistic expression. And since ‘artistic expression’ inevitably involved a communication process between the makers and the public, I will discuss today us – the ASMR audiences.

ASMR content developers are already recognised by peers and viewers as ‘ASMRtists’. This is an epithet that is both a linguistic play on words and a testament to the quintessentially creative endeavour they are engaged in. Ironically (or perhaps not) the most celebrated early guru of many ASMRtist and ASMR viewers alike is the late Bob Ross. A painter, hence artist, as well as a popular TV outreach art teacher.

It all started ten years ago, with simple home recordings of whispered tales carried out with consumer level technology. Quickly it expanded into a form of expression that in several cases is highly sophisticated, both technologically (the tools) and idiomatically (the artistic language created with those tools). ASMR has progressed following the typical evolutionary stages of all art forms. A desire for expression. A favourable historical conjuncture. An initially small but receptive public. A modest stage. Scepticism, then growing acceptance. The desire for newer things, beautiful things, controversial things, innovative things. The desire for new expression, and the cycle begins again… The loop of creative human enterprises.

Many of us ASMR viewers seek the pleasurable tingling sensation triggered by the sounds and images provided, largely for free, by our cherished authors across Internet platforms, especially YouTube. The content of ASMR videos is often trivial, at least on first looking. We see close-ups of the artist whispering, handling some noise-making objects, acting out seemingly childish role-play procedures, sometimes wearing suitable costumes and make up, or impersonating personal care parts, like a friend, a hairdresser, a doctor. Thus from a certain angle of observation the fast growing ASMR community looks like a worldwide fair of the ephemeral, committed to nothing substantial other than unapologetic escapism. But is this all there is to it?

To answer this question we need to steps inside the ASMR circle and understand the very distinctive type of communication in place between the many thousand individual artists and the millions individual viewers who watch their videos. In many forums, surveys and social network discussions, viewers report and debate as much on the scalp-tingling response as they do on the relaxing effect of the ASMR videos they regularly access. On this account, we can say that the ASMR community is after something a little more than just the ‘tingles’. It is in quest of the holy grail of thinkers, prophets and disciples since the dawn of time. The purpose is to reach a deeper, safer, calmer connection with ourselves, with our place in the world, with the otherwise uncontrollable flow of life.

The ‘language of ASMR’ is very idiosyncratic. It features audio and visual stimuli organised and delivered at much slower pace than any other audio-video content currently available on any other media. Think of TV dramas, films, video-games, the news… It all goes so damn fast! ASMR, conversely, is much more sedated than our working patterns. It is unhurried. So much less rushed than our hectic daily travels… In essence, it is much protracted than the lives most of us live. I believe this is a remarkable and peculiar fact about ASMR. We have a very large and fast-growing circle of individuals, worldwide, all petitioning for a similar experience:

The   s_l_o_w_i_n_g      d_o_w_n       o_f        t_h_e__i__r          t___i____m_____e.

Not the chronometric time, obviously, that is a feat of science (fiction?). It is the perceived widening of the experiential time that we ASMR viewers crave, and ASMRtists skilfully provide. As I work my way through Dmitri’s twenty hours tapping video it occurs to me that those are twenty hours that I will not spend worrying about my career, or driving in the traffic to a (frankly boring) shopping mall. Or navigating aimlessly the web like a modern castaway, buying useless goods online at virtual Amazonias… Instead, I am sitting in a room, getting reacquainted with the ticking of the clock, attuned to the delicate beat of the universe. I reflect on the meaning of the years, imagining what infinite stretches of events will be gifted to my daughter, who is peacefully sleeping upstairs. Slowing down, I become acutely aware of my place in space and time… The rigid geometries of the objects around me… The wonderful oddities of my body’s folds and contour… I ultimately reclaim what was forgotten, the idea that this is my time, and my time belongs to me only, and that I am filling it with my thoughts, which have no price, no market and no expiry date.

Perhaps this is more than a collective escape into the ephemeral, then. Perhaps in asking a greater control over our time we are marching ourselves into a subtler and somewhat revolutionary path?!?

Actually, in typical ASMR fashion, please replace ‘marching’ with ‘tiptoeing’ …  😉