SEPTEMBER 25, 2019
This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Imitation, No. 23
“Let’s all experience something together,” whispers the actress Zoë Kravitz in a recent primetime TV advertisement for Michelob Ultra Pure Gold beer. She sits alone at a wooden banquet table atop a large raised platform — the only soul, it seems, on a lush emerald island, verdant mountains towering behind her. Two highly sensitive microphones sit on the table, connecting Kravitz to the outside world. She taps her fingernails on the glass bottle and rolls the bottom of it across the table, eliciting a rich, woody timbre. “This place, so pure you can feel it,” she purrs. She pops the Pure Gold cap and lets the fizzy pour fill the tall glass and the listeners’ ears. The camera closes in on her face, lips, and wry smile as she confides to the estimated 100 million people watching the 2019 Super Bowl, “Beer, in its organic form.”
The hushed intimacy of this advertisement is not the brainchild of Madison Avenue. It borrows instead from a popular internet phenomenon of videos featuring people whispering into microphones to produce what is called ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a unique physiological reaction to soft auditory and haptic stimuli. In ASMR videos, primarily young women make light clicks or pops with their lips, hard-vowel sounds with their tongues, tap their fingernails on resistant surfaces, crinkle pieces of thin paper, brush their hair, flutter their fingers, gently chew food, and, for the most part, like Kravitz, whisper tenderly in stereophonic clarity. These sounds are known as “triggers,” and, depending on your disposition, they can produce a tingling, soothing sensation at the top of your scalp, down the sides of your head, and into the nape of your neck, awakening psychological associations of love, warmth, affection, and calm. ASMR is associated with the bonding rituals of mothers with their babies, between romantic lovers, and in the grooming practices of primates. Some people feel deeply relaxed by ASMR, some feel sexually aroused, some fall asleep.
Over the past two years, ASMR videos have ballooned on YouTube, where some of their creators — known as “ASMRtists” — boast millions of subscribers and hundreds of millions of views. Popular ASMR video-makers include Gibi, Fluffy, Pelagea, ASMR Darling, Sophie Michelle, Tingting, and Caroline. Perhaps the most famous is Maria, whose channel, Gentle Whispering, has more than 630 million views. “In this world of stress and chaos,” she writes in the description, “I wish […] to be your secret island of relaxation and peace. I’m here to comfort you, to share my love and care with you, to make you feel relaxed and stress free.” Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Maria whispers to you as she cuts your hair, puts makeup on you, massages your face, and lulls you into a lovely trance. ASMRtists can earn up to $1,000 a day.
Children have begun making ASMR clips too, with adults tuning in to watch and listen to teens and pre-teens chew, whisper, play with slime, and tap on things. The biggest star on YouTube is — or, rather, was (she quit the platform in June) — Makenna Kelly, of Fort Collins, Colorado, a red-haired, freckled, energetic 13-year-old who posts videos of herself chewing aloe leaves or spraying soap-foam bubbles on her hands on her YouTube channel, Life with Mak. Kelly’s first video, from June 2018, “Eating Raw Honeycomb – EXTREMELY Sticky Mouth Sounds,” features her masticating a piece of honeycomb into a microphone for 16 minutes. A February 2019 article in Wired(“The Dodgy, Vulnerable Fame of YouTube’s Child ASMR Stars,” by Amelia Tait) notes that, in the succeeding months, Kelly’s seminal video was viewed 12 million times. By October, Life with Mak had over a million subscribers. “The Chinese government banned” the videos, Tait writes, “and PayPal [has] blocked their payments.” Kelly’s mother now fields all requests for bespoke videos.
Craig Richard, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University, in Winchester, Virginia, is the go-to scientist for explaining ASMR. He says that no researcher has yet been able to unravel the exact biochemistry or physiological mechanisms behind the phenomenon, but chances are that ASMR triggers stimulate the brain’s “neurotransmitters, probably things like oxytocin — sometimes called ‘the love hormone’ or ‘the bonding hormone’ because it’s associated with people that are really close to each other.” Research on the subject has exploded in recent years, so, in 2014, Richards started a website to host it all: ASMRuniversity.com. His book Brain Tingles, published in September 2018, explains ASMR’s myriad health benefits, including decreased stress and anxiety, elevated mood, deep relaxation, and the alleviation of insomnia.
There is a potential evolutionary basis for these effects. As clinical neurologist Steven Novella, of Yale University School of Medicine, describes on the blog NeuroLogica: “Vertebrate brains are fundamentally hardwired for pleasure and pain.”
We are rewarded with a pleasurable sensation for doing things and experiencing things that increase our survival probability, and have a negative or painful experience to make us avoid harmful behavior or warn us about potential danger or injury. Over evolutionary time a complex set of reward-and-aversion feedbacks have developed.
In short, ASMR is a hardwired positive evolutionary response to being taken care of and feeling loved.
ASMR videos are quite unlike other internet fads. Tide Pods, Nom Nom, the Cinnamon Challenge, and kids doing Fortnite dances arise because of clicks and novelty, but then they eventually vanish when the next new thing comes along. But videos featuring young women whispering into microphones to elicit physiological responses that intimate acts of maternal and romantic affection would seem to fill a more widespread emotional longing for intimacy. “I don’t think ASMR is mainstream at this point,” says Maria of Gentle Whispering, “but I think it’s going there.”
The popularity of ASMR should not be entirely surprising: semblances and imitations of intimate experiences have been part of American culture for nearly a century. Popular magazines of the 1920s such as True Confessionsand True Storybegan openly dishing on adulterous affairs and the woes of a boring marriage. The radio soap opera portrayed the experiences of other people’s lives “so that millions of housewives knew they were neither alone nor unique in their problems,” as historian Warren Susman wrote in his classic account of the era. And advertisers depicted relatable interpersonal worries: a print ad for Williams Shaving Cream featured a suave yet anxious-looking mustachioed man with the all-caps warning, “CRITICAL EYES ARE SIZING YOU UP RIGHT NOW.”
But it wasn’t just advertising and magazines that were forging a sense of cultural closeness in early 20th-century America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered American living rooms via his radio broadcast Fireside Chats in 1933, moving the remote world of Washington politics and far-flung foreign policy into millions of homes. For the first time since the country’s founding, citizens had a real sense of being close to their executive: “Dear Mr. President, […] You have a marvelous radio voice, distinct and clear,” praised a listener after the first airing, on March 12, 1933. “It almost seemed the other night, sitting in my easy chair in the library, that you were across the room from me.”
Two days after Pearl Harbor, roughly 62 million listeners tuned in to hear FDR’s Fireside Chat. He spoke with Americans throughout the war, using the most effective means of mass communication available to conjure a sense of social cohesion and executive care, particularly for families who had loved ones fighting in Europe and the Pacific. FDR’s 30 broadcasts were included in the first 50 recordings that formed the Library of Congress’s National Registry of Recording, which noted that Roosevelt had “utilized the media to present his programs and ideas directly to the public and thereby redefined the relationship between the President and the American people” (it’s no huge leap to see the same kind of redefinition happening over Twitter today).
Black-and-white TV was the standard broadcast medium after World War II, but when color television entered the American household, on May 22, 1958 — on a live NBC broadcast with President Eisenhower — it altered notions of intimacy forever. What was once abstract, drab, and far away became concrete, vibrant, and near, collapsing Americans’ sense of distance and heightening their sense of interpersonal proximity. By 1968, roughly 25 percent of US households had a color television, and the TV medium as a whole had gained a firm foothold as the most effective medium yet available to politics. That year, 28-year-old media consultant Roger Ailes wrote in a memo about Richard Nixon’s TV performance that the candidate’s “eye contact is good with the panelists, but he should play a little more to the home audience via the head-on camera.” Nixon lamented, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” to which Ailes, now-famously, responded, “Television is not a gimmick.”
In the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, daytime talk shows such as Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin, Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, and Montel Williams encouraged audiences to excavate the intimate lives of strangers. They did so under the guidance of a charismatic and empathetic host (a more recent and fitting example is Dr. Phil) who would deploy the strategies of pop psychotherapy to prompt revelations about trauma and personal suffering. This, in turn, would lead to a confrontation, usually with a family member. This would all play out not as entertainment but as a form of detoxification. Secrets would be aired, and that would, at some point, lead to greater happiness and freedom. In order for these revelations to be curative, they were performed in front of a group and/or live studio audience. More than any modern device, television created Americans’ sense of, and desire to achieve, increased closeness with strangers — however illusory — because closeness was deemed psychologically healthy in and of itself.
The cultural longing for intimacy has become more eclectic and diffuse over the past decade. The viral 2014 video “First Kiss” features 20 strangers making out; the photo book Touching Strangers snaps them awkwardly hugging. The show Dating Naked featured strangers stripping down for a first date; Married at First Sight legally bound them; Date My Mom let the kids decide. Nationwide “cuddle services” offer “trained professionals” who will canoodle with you for $80 an hour, and Cuddle Party, founded years earlier in New York City, aims at bringing strangers together for “non-sexual, consensual touch.” It is now available worldwide.
For the more cerebrally inclined, there is a recent spate of popular confessionals: Benjamin Anastas’s Too Good to Be True, Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, anything touched by Lena Dunham, and, of course, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle — to name just a few works that permit intimate entry to private life — trauma, depression, anxiety, body-image fears, cheating, pubic waxing, minor surgery, self-loathing — recounted with varying degrees of ironic detachment and literary innovation. Comedian Marc Maron’s podcast WTF began as the go-to place for on-air disclosure about deep personal trauma. In fact, many other podcasts, led by the whispery, confessional aesthetic of Ira Glass’s This American Life, draw in audiophiles with hushed tones that sound exactly opposite of the impersonal projections of a 1940s radio announcer — or FDR. Perhaps foreseeably, there are already 55 of them under the ASMR mantel.
Semblances of intimacy have reached their zenith on social media. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and the digital world generally are saturated, as a recent Los Angeles Review of Books piece by social critic Stephen Marche contends, [with] displays of intimate scenarios: family vacations, graduations, ninetieth birthday teas, Christmas morning with the boxes unwrapped, everybody’s family out in the open. There’s Birthtube. There are unprecedented masses of pornography of the most graphic nature. Digital connectivity has fundamentally altered as ancient an intimate practice as masturbation.
Each day, about 300 million photos are posted to Facebook and 95 million to Instagram. About 530,000 “snaps” are sent per minute on Snapchat.
Of course, it’s not just imagery. The overwhelming majority of Facebook’s content is made up of a mélange of textual snippets from the everyday lives of its two billion active users — to the tune of 510,000 comments and 293,000 status updates every minute. Clearly, social media has become the largest quasi-public repository for intimate images and commentary in the history of the world, even if we also allow for the reality of social media’s mishmash of actual and performed intimacy, affect, sincerity, and staging. Nevertheless, “[p]eople have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” Mark Zuckerberg said at the 2010 Crunchie Awards. “The expectation of privacy is no longer a social norm.”
The development of this hulking cache of digital intimacy is not without its attendant problems. Social critics like Jonathan Haidt, Geert Lovink, Sherry Turkle, Evgeny Morozov, Jaron Lanier, and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya have been worried that confusing intimacy and publicity is having harmful effects on individual reputation, self-confidence, notions of virtue and vice, and personal boundaries. They argue that we expose our intimate selves online — sharing photos, videos, and thoughts with thousands of strangers or partial strangers — for a less than noble reason: we want attention. We give away our privacy in the hopes of receiving affirmation that our self-promoting lives are worthwhile and interesting. Users who otherwise feel invisible or undervalued might at last achieve online the kind of affection or affirmation they seek.
Social scientists have been fascinated by why so many people seek online attention too, and they have come up with similar findings. In “Facebook Therapy: Why People Share Self-Relevant Content Online,” Jonah Berger and Eva Buechel found that sharing emotions and experiences via social media boosts a sense of well-being through the perceived social support of Facebook “likes” or positive comments on one’s status update. The most frequent users of Facebook were people who most needed this sense of validation — people “who have difficulty regulating their emotions on their own.” Sharing private life on social media — even when that private life is performed — and receiving positive feedback provides affirmation of one’s decisions about a partner, clothes, parties, pets, consumer products, vacation destinations, and so on. Facebook is a fast and free form of therapy.
ASMR videos quench this thirst for attention perfectly, of course, since ASMRtists give viewers — and social media users — what they ultimately crave: immediate affection. Likes, thumbs-up, hearts, and positive comments arrive unpredictably and at random intervals. ASMR videos, on the other hand, guarantee a positive response as soon as you hit play. Here, you are at the center of attention. You alone are treated with gentleness. You are the special person to whom a young woman, hidden in your laptop, gently whispers sweet nothings.
This historical development of intimacy in American life — from magazine ads to on-air confessionals to Facebook to ASMR — leads us to a curious contemporary dilemma: as the proliferation of intimate scenarios has swelled, social trust in America has plummeted. Billions of scenes from private life fill social media channels, the web, and popular culture, but, according to a recent Pew Social Survey, a full two-thirds of Americans no longer trust each other. Only one-third of Americans trust their government. Trust in the media has also declined. These unhappy statistics are borne out in multi-decade studies by the Saguaro Report and Trilateral Commission, polls by Edelman, Pew, and Gallup, and in books by social scientists Karen Cook, Francis Fukuyama, Nan Lin, Laura Pappano, Adam Seligman, and Robert Putnam, to name just a few. MIT’s Sherry Turkle and Columbia University’s Tim Wu, among many others, suggest that this decline stems in part from the regular intervention of the digital world into our everyday lives: social life on screens instead of in the flesh; shopping online instead of in stores; tweeting opinions instead of having a conversation; watching movies at home instead of venturing into the theater; and so on. We have swapped social trust for mediated intimacy — moreover, we have started to confuse trust and intimacy. We are intimate with many but say we trust few, when, in fact, it should be the other way around.
And that is why, here, it is important to make a distinction: intimacy requires trust; trust does not require intimacy. A thought experiment: How many people are you emotionally intimate with but do not actually trust? I don’t mean intimate sexual relationships with partners you don’t yet know well enough to trust, or family members with whom you are intimate but who you do not quite trust. Think instead of the people with whom you have chosen to have a longstanding, meaningful emotional, or romantic relationship — individuals or groups who know your history, secrets, predilections, ticks, moral views, and intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities. The number of people in this category — people you are intimate with but that you do not trust — is likely near zero. Why would we choose to be really close to someone but not trust them?
On the other hand, there are scores of people you actually do trust — or should be able to trust — but with whom you have no intimate relationship whatsoever: police officers, judges, ambulance workers, bank tellers, school teachers, colleagues, neighbors, utility companies, public-transportation drivers, local institutions of politics, law, and commerce, and, despite the man currently atop its executive branch, the United States government and its multitude of administrative offices and departments that keep the country running, its food safe, mail delivered, roads built, financial markets overseen. The entire social and administrative world is built upon thick networks of trust, responsibility, norms, and reciprocity, relations so habituated and reliable they are discussed only when something goes wrong — when fraud, malfeasance, bribery, abuse of power, unfair practices, graft, or other crimes indicate maltreatment of established networks of trust, that breaks democratic institutional norms.
Trust requires no knowledge of personal life but rather of individual or institutional character, reputation, and reliability — a history of their doing what they said they would do, without deceit or dissembling, with adherence to defined ethical principles and agreed-upon methods of conducting rational discourse, such as a basis in the world of fact and reality, not in falsehoods and propaganda, a recollection of promises and statements that have been made before, and an adherence to the principles of intellectual honesty — fallibility being perhaps foremost and most democratic among them. Trust also requires a faith that future actions will reflect those of the past.
And thus, the dilemma: Given actual declining levels of social trust, why are there so many “scenarios” of intimacy on social media that in real life would indicate the presence of trust? Is trust declining because these portrayals of intimacy are widely understood to be mere performances of intimacy, thus warranting that mistrust? Or, alternately, could this excessive staging of intimacy be a way of expressing a deeper desire for trust? Or, finally: Given the reality of declining social trust, might the explosion of intimate photos and texts be a desperate attempt to win trust back for ourselves, to perform the kind of trust we wish to achieve? I would suggest that it is, and that the reason this attempt is misguided is because we no longer know the difference between trust and intimacy; we no longer know how to detach our public selves from our intimate lives, assuming that fusing the two is the ultimate moral or interpersonal ideal — authenticity. In this conflation, our public masks, even when they’re on, still seek to reveal our own and others’ innermost vulnerabilities.
How has this happened? Over the past several decades we have placed too much value on authenticity, intimacy, and private life and not enough on sociability, impersonality, and intellectual detachment. A complex democratic society necessitates a distinction between the private and the public, both of which have a valuable and worthwhile politics. (Think of the equal rights and LGBTQ movements, which have made great strides by publicizing forms of oppression that might typically be walled off in the private spaces of the home: the family, the couple, marriage.) But there can be no true private self without a public one; each delimits the expanse of the other. The self in public is fulfilled by civility, excellence, sociability, rituals, performance, and achievement; the private self by intimacy, sincerity, openness, and warmth.
Up until recent decades, adults could comfortably separate these two selves without feelings of guilt or inauthenticity. Victorians, for example, did not have difficulty finding and expressing a “true self,” because they believed that that self was always present and only to be entrusted to a person worthy of its revelation. But over the past century — budding alongside the mediated expressions of intimacy cited above — an “ideology of intimacy” has promoted the idea that social relationships were only real and meaningful the closer they approached a person’s inner life. This ideology grew from intertwined roots in Christianity, romanticism, industrialization, egalitarian philosophy, and psychology beginning in the late 19th century. The ideology of intimacy encouraged closeness and decried distance — the latter as cold, fake, or aloof. The ideology of intimacy whispered a mantra, ASMR-like, throughout the 20th century: It is better to feel close to people; social distance is bad and should be overcome. I have only become aware of this mantra after moving to Berlin a decade ago; the assumption runs so deep in American life that it becomes visible only when one is no longer there.
Perhaps we should now aim for a reinstatement of the public mask — of an acceptance of a sociable engagement that is not private, of a sense of outwardness and generosity of self that has nothing to do with our intimate lives. Not because we pine for some Victorian or 1950s notion of oppressive propriety or bourgeois uprightness or wish to become superficial robots à la The Stepford Wives, but because these modes of being social are based on two increasingly outmoded virtues: respect and humility. The former generously honors the full humanity of others from a distance; the latter permits us escape from our own pride and self-centeredness. It’s easy to imagine how practicing either of these virtues more regularly would contribute to a more healthy, kind, and robust social life.
To be sure, there is not more intimacy now, in the digital age, than there was in the past — no more and no less than in the analog age. We simply see more intimacy now because a retreating public sphere has left bare its existence, like a wave receding from the beach. Curiously, as digitalization has enabled more of our privacy to be pushed into public, we have become more private when we are in public — tethered to mobile devices that are linked to the content of our private lives and personal consumer preferences. This widespread inclination to wall oneself off from public life bespeaks a deep desire to keep public and private separate, even if to the detriment of the former. “This enlargement of the private […] does not constitute a public realm,” Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition. “[O]n the contrary […] [it] means only that the public realm has almost completely receded.” She published that book in 1958, the same year that color television brought the public world into millions of American living rooms.
A half-century and nearly half-a-million programming hours later, a curious reversal is underway: 3.8 billion internet users — over half of the world’s population — are uploading over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day, 90 percent of it over the past two years. Four hundred and thirty-two thousand minutes (7,200 hours) of video are uploaded daily to YouTube, where users watch 4,146,600 videos every minute.
This data, of course, is not solely comprised of scenes and notes from private life. And yet, as we do propagate those scenes and notes from private experiences into the digital universe, we’re sending along with them qualities germane only to the private world, transforming them into mediated shadows of their originals. In this way, ASMR videos offer a way for us to sense what intimacy feels like in this digital age, in a society increasingly devoid of trust and in desperate need of attention.