Postdoctoral researcher at King’s College investigating the online culture of ASMR

Dr. Rob Gallagher is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College in London. He has his Ph.D. in Humanities and Cultural Studies and is involved with a group research project investigating the influence of the internet on identities.

Dr. Gallagher is specifically looking into how the culture and language of ASMR developed, how people integrate ASMR experiences into their online identities, and how those who feel “tingles’ describe their experience.

Dr. Gallagher explains how interviewing ASMR artists gave him great insight into the art of ASMR, gives examples of how the media and academics approach ASMR differently, and shares information about a forthcoming podcast about ASMR.

Below are my questions in bold, followed by his replies in italics.

What inspired you to begin a research project about ASMR?

Dr. Gallagher, “In 2014 I was working on a project about online gaming culture at Concordia University in Montreal. As part of this research, I became interested in videogame roleplay videos, where players of games like Skyrim speak to viewers from the perspective of their avatars.

Around the same time I happened to have a conversation with a friend of a friend who, as it happened, used to run an ASMR site. I was talking to him about these videogame roleplay videos and he told me I should look into ASMR – which I started to do.

When I had the chance to come back to London to join a research project about the internet and identity, it struck me that delving further into ASMR culture might make for a really fascinating case study.”

How would you summarize the goals and methodology of your project?

Dr. Gallagher, “In terms of method, it’s probably important to reiterate that I’m not coming at this from a scientific perspective – I’m not running organised trials, harvesting big data or looking to produce empirically verifiable findings.

I was trained as a literary critic, so my methodology is more about working through texts, interviews and videos, paying close attention to emergent patterns and striking details (which I sometimes think is itself a very ASMR approach) and looking for clues as to how particular media and movements shed light on broader cultural and historical trends.

All this theorising is backed up by a lot of background reading – about the internet and society, about bodily sensation and ‘affect’, about art, aesthetics and acoustics. While there hasn’t yet been all that much written specifically about ASMR, there’s plenty of academic work out there that’s proven relevant and thought-provoking.

Which brings us onto the issue of goals. ASMR is often dismissed (or exoticised) as something strange or abnormal, but I want to argue that ASMR culture is bound up with all sorts of broader issues and questions.

Not everyone has ASMR, but more and more people are using digital devices to manage their moods and to more or less literally ‘medicate’ themselves with media – whether that’s chilling out in front of a boxset, letting off steam in a virtual world or using online meditation videos to help manage anxiety or insomnia.

ASMR culture is also a fascinating example of how communities, ideas and genres emerge online via processes of searching, tagging, linking and liking, and I think that’s relevant whether or not the videos happen to ‘trigger’ you.”

What information and perspectives did you gain about ASMR from this project?

Dr. Gallagher, “I’ve learnt a lot, talking to ASMR artists Whispers Red and Muted Vocal, about the ASMRtist’s craft – I say craft because I think a lot of people fail to appreciate just how much time, know-how, effort, preparation, specialist equipment and technical skill go into some ASMR videos.

I also feel like, having spoken to them, I have a better sense of how ASMR fits into everyday life and how it manifests itself in term of a sensitivity to particular atmospheres, spaces and sounds – as I say, I don’t experience ASMR, and I in fact find some ASMR videos viscerally unpleasant (they make me feel claustrophobic and aggravated rather than relaxed or euphoric) but there’s a comparable attention to textural detail in a lot of art that I love.”

You have given several public presentations about this project, how were they received? Were the audience members familiar with ASMR?

Dr. Gallagher, “Yes, I’ve talked at a couple of seminars and conferences about this research. Only a few people had heard of ASMR, and most of those who were familiar with it had learned about it from the This American Life podcast, where the novelist Andrea Seigel gave a great account of her history of ASMR.

In both of my presentations, the audiences were really responsive – academics are, by and large, pretty open-minded and inquisitive.

A lot of media coverage of ASMR gets hung up on a few quite boring questions (as you know, you see the same pieces time and again about whether the whole thing is just a sexual fetish or a psychosomatic delusion) but here, by contrast, I got some really intriguing questions and comments – I had a historian who wanted to talk about how Medieval hermits’ descriptions of religious transcendence sometimes sound very ASMR-esque, scholars who work on celebrity culture asking about ‘star’ ASMRtists and the mechanics of attracting subscribers on YouTube, musicologists who wanted to talk about the parallels with different kinds of sound art.”

Do you experience ASMR?

Dr. Gallagher, “I don’t – that’s partly why I’m so interested; other people’s descriptions and comparisons are the only access I have to this sensation.”

What is the biggest personal or scientific curiosity about ASMR to you?

Dr. Gallagher, “As I say, I’m less interested in the neurochemistry of ASMR, for example, than I am the cultural questions – stuff about identity, genre, creativity, taste and habit.

For example, some ASMR videos are pretty similar to certain kinds of underground and avant garde music, where the emphasis is on ambience and sonic grain rather than melodies or lyrics.

But where those kinds music are often considered boring or difficult or self-consciously ‘arty’ and pretentious (as if someone could only pretend to enjoy such sounds) ASMR videos are enjoyed in a very direct, visceral way by thousands and thousands of people, in a manner that, for me at least, opens up all sorts of questions about the difference between noise and music, ideas about artistic skill and cultural value, entertainment and therapy.

I’m also curious about ASMR outside of English speaking cultures – I’d love to know more about what (if anything) is going on in other parts of the globe.”

Do you have other ASMR projects planned or currently going on?

Dr. Gallagher, “The discussion with Muted Vocal and Whispers Red is going out on Resonance FM in the next few weeks, and will be posted as a podcast too – I’m also writing a paper about ASMR and online video that will hopefully see the light of day at some point”

What advice would you give to someone interested in starting an ASMR research project?

Dr. Gallagher, “I would say I’ve found members of the community to be very supportive and very willing to talk about their experiences. I’d also suggest that there are plenty of questions still to be asked in relation to ASMR. Mainstream journalists and bloggers have tended to fixate on a few issues so far – what this sensation is, whether or not it’s sexual, what ‘triggers’ it – but there are plenty of other questions to be asked, both about the sensation and about the creative and therapeutic dimensions of ASMR video culture”

Click HERE to learn more about Dr. Gallagher and to follow his progress with the ASMR radio/podcast production as well as his future presentations and publications on ASMR.

Click HERE to learn more about the ASMR artist Whispers Red.

Click HERE to learn more about the ASMR artist Muted Vocal.

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This post brought to you by ASMR University.  A site with the mission of increasing the awareness, understanding, and research of the Art and Science of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.

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