ASMR, Bob Ross and the History of Simulated Intimacy

As I touched on in my previous post, ASMR is a physical phenomenon that has been described and actualized anecdotally through online forums and communities. I previously described what ASMR is and what some of the limited research into the phenomenon has revealed in terms of how it is triggered. This week I aim to start mapping out further points of research for my topic so that I may begin place ASMR culture within the context of history and related relaxation research – whilst also connecting it with relevant cyberculture theory.

ASMR was discovered by the internet through shared knowledge, and from its discovery a culture was born. A cybersubculture, if you will. David Bell (2006) argues the nature of cyberspace predicts the emergence of cybersubcultures by allowing us to globally access, share and collectivize our obsessions and prioritize aspects of ourselves – which is necessary in order to extract meaning from the boundless streams of data that make up the internet. It can largely be explained by the long-tail effect, which describes the way niches are able to become profitable and reach their dispersed audiences over a long period of time thanks to the diminished costs of production and distribution in online dynamics (Anderson 2009).

In a study of 475 mixed gender participants, Barratt and Davis (2015) identified simulated intimacy and personal attention as strong triggers for ASMR. This backs up the host of anecdotal evidence found in the community, and is one of the more common triggers used by ASMRtist – who take advantage of role playing to simulate intimacy with their audience (see video above). In relation to simulated companionship or intimacy, it is not the intelligence or consciousness of the media or software that forges the bond, but rather the ability to push certain “Darwinian” buttons in people (eg. making eye contact) that causes people to respond as though they were in a relationship (Turkle 2013). I was interested to look at earlier examples of simulated intimacy that predate ASMR culture. One interesting example I found was a YouTube upload of a VHS tape called Rent-a-Friend which was a 60-minute role play video released in 1986 to help combat loneliness (Found Footage Fest 2012). Whilst this was an interesting and quirky media experiment to find as an example of simulated intimacy, it didn’t manage to trigger ASMR for me. Then I stumbled across Bob Ross.

Bob Ross was the painter who hosted the American instructional television series The Joy of Painting which aired from 1983 to 1994 (IMDb 2016). As you can see below, he spoke softly and slowly as he guided the audience through the process of completing an entire landscape painting from scratch. Aside from the feeling of intimacy created by the Bob in his minimalist set, the slow gentle sound of his voice and the light brushing sound of bristles against the easel triggered ASMR in me. As it turns out, Bob Ross is commonly talked about in ASMR communities as one of the earliest examples of ASMR triggering media, with many referring to him as a classic or father figure in the ASMR world (Schneider 2015). This was particularly fascinating to me because not only does Bob Ross’ show predate AMSRtist media by several decades, it also contests the idea that ASMR triggers themselves may be related to gender. I still think there are definitely gender dynamics at play in ASMR videos given the prevalence of female performers, but this may have more to do with other social conventions of masculinity and femininity than with the ASMR triggers themselves.

In the coming weeks I would like to explore the role of gender and sexuality in ASMR further. I would also be interested to test whether or not someone who experiences ASMR is able to be triggered by their own performance as an ASMRtist. I would also like to look into other forms of relaxation such as meditation, and examine other sensory phenomenon that are often thought to be related to ASMR such as misophonia and Synaesthesia.

2 thoughts on “ASMR, Bob Ross and the History of Simulated Intimacy

  1. This was super useful. As I know I’ve commented in the past, the ASMR community in my probing was overwhelmingly ‘female’ biased, with a strong view towards voices that broadly can be called women’s or womeny voices. The way that Bob Ross represents everything we consider as a form of ASMR experient without being coded in that way is quite a clever notation, where it sort of connects the current cyberculture to both a pre-cybercultural element and the subsequent cybercultural presence of that same entity.

    Did you do any digging into the Twitch Plays Bob Ross phenomenon? The way that Bob Ross has become a very Special thing to the internet’s culture, and he may indeed be a sort of mass-cultural ASMR entity?

    Liked by 1 person

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