Parasocial Relationships Part 1: From ASMR to AoE2

For the past 3 years, I’ve been using ASMR to help me get to sleep every night. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the tingly skin-orgasm that you’re supposed to get when consuming ASMR. For me it’s just something generally relaxing that I’ve now gotten used to and can’t imagine doing without. It’s kinda like white noise, the same way certain people find it easier to sleep if there’s a nearby fan making a constant whirring sound. Total silence can be distracting. Therefore, the brand of ASMR I listen to is very specific; I don’t like ones where the ASMRtist is speaking in coherent sentences, or worse when they’re acting out a character in a scene. The role play videos are a big no-go for me. If someone is talking, then I’m listening to what they are saying, my brain follows the train of thought, becomes active, and I can’t sleep.

The ASMR videos I watch are exclusively ones where the ASMRtist makes repetitious, pleasant sounds, such as unintelligible whispers (the closer to the mic the better), brushing the mic, scratching the mic, applying lip gloss or chapstick, blowing on the mic, crinkling noises (newspapers, book pages, etc), bubble-wrap, finger-fluttering, nails tapping on various hard surfaces (my favorite being teeth), or the wet mouth-sounds they make with their lips (popping, tongue-clicking, et cetera). I particularly like it when the ASMRtist layers the sounds, imbuing the video with an echoey, hypnotic feel. There are so many triggers for me, but the one thing they all have in common is that they distract from the silence whilst also not activating my brain in any way. I’m usually asleep within minutes. But I’ve never had the blissful, overwhelming physical response that many ASMR consumers report. Maybe it’s like the Placebo Effect in my case. I just find it a vague comfort, one that’s become so routine for me, that I’d be very loathe to part from it.

When I first discovered ASMR and was trying to work out what the hell it was, I thought about the science fiction films Blade Runner 2049 and Her. I thought about the way the characters in those films developed deep, emotional relationships with artificial intelligences and figured that ASMR was the first stage of that phenomenon happening in the real world. The way the ASMRtists appeared to offer intimacy to their audiences fascinated me. When I say “intimacy” I don’t mean sexual intimacy (although there are ASMR videos of that kind). Instead, they felt nurturing in tone. If the technology were possible, I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that popular ASMRtists like Gibi and Glow were, in fact, artificial, virtual intelligences. It’s the illusion of human companionship that’s important, and someone you only know through their online video content might as well be an A.I. The function is the same. You’re forming a parasocial relationship with the digital representation of a person.

Sometimes the comments on the videos can be a useful indicator as to the relationship between the ASMRtists and their viewers. If you can filter out the nauseating memes ending with “I’m about to end this man’s whole career” or “hold my beer”, as well as the inevitable creepy comments that are standard for any woman that shows her face on the internet, you can find useful insights into the way viewers consume ASMR. One that I found particularly intriguing was a comment someone made on one of Gibi’s videos to the effect of “Gibi’s like that big sister I never had”. The surrogate role the ASMRtist plays in the life of the viewer can take many forms- a soothing grandfatherly presence, a maternal lullaby, a protective older sibling, a loving partner, a friend, a therapist, a nurse or medical professional- but it’s always intimate or comforting in some way.

I recall Gibi saying once that she ran into one of her fans on the street one day. They got to talking, and the woman said to Gibi, “My husband and I fall asleep listening to you every night. Is that weird?”

It got me thinking about my own parasocial relationship with Gibi, and the other ASMRtists I follow. It feels like I’ve allocated an intimate space in my life to these online creators, as though I’m engaging in a one-way friendship. They have no idea who I am, and yet I see them almost every day. Of course, I don’t know them- I know a curated version of them- so the relationship is further limited that way. The reason I keep coming back to the word “intimate” is because ASMR is a type of sleep therapy- especially in the way I use it. I consume it when I’m going to bed, which feels like a very intimate space for me. Unlike other YouTube videos, I don’t seek out ASMR for entertainment, information, or comedy, but simply to relax. It feels normal to look afar for knowledge or entertainment, but not necessarily for comfort. That might be why ASMR seems strange to many people, and why that fan asked Gibi if it was “weird” that her voice was so integral to her everyday routine. When I think of typical sources of comfort for people, I tend to think things close to home- a parent, a partner, a dog, or even a cuddly toy. To engage with ASMR is to engage with the inner child that lives in all of us, that vulnerable part of ourselves we’re often too afraid to admit never really went away.

The idea of a one-way relationship is by no means exclusive to ASMR- it’s the same for any content creator we follow online. Whether they’re fitness influencers, Tik Tok dancers, esports players, Twitch streamers, vloggers, lifestyle gurus, or booktubers, we form important- yet limited- emotional connections to them. When I think about the online personalities I follow most often, I know that I have a not insignificant amount of emotional currency invested in them. I want to know what they think about certain things, I want to know that they are doing well, I want to see what they’ll do next. I check in on them regularly; not just for their content, but the way you check in on a friend. These kinds of parasocial relationships predate the internet, but the internet has no doubt made the phenomenon more prevalent. And I think that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated their importance. Since the outbreak of the virus, many people- including myself- have found themselves cut off from their friends. For many, this has increased their dependence on parasocial relationships.

To give an example from my own experience, the online personality I’ve followed the most closely over the past year is American streamer T90 Official. He’s a caster and tournament host for the RTS game Age of Empires 2, and you can find him on both YouTube and Twitch. When examining what draws me to his content, I realized that while I initially came for Age of Empires 2, I stuck around because of his personality. To me, this is the most important tool for building an online brand. Content creators don’t want a viral video so much as they want recurrent consumers. You need the consistency to make it, and the best way to achieve that kind of staying power is to have a genuine, engaging personality that you can market front and center. If you do something with passion, people will be drawn to that energy. I keep returning to T90’s AoE2 streams because of the uniquely-personal way he commentates on the game- from getting overexcited at a player going for a high-risk strategy to being horrified at the moment of a fatal mistake. I like his self-deprecating humor, his wholesome “dad jokes”, and his sentimental speeches. He comes across as authentic. When you watch his videos, you’re partaking in his passion for the game. That’s why people who try to become YouTubers simply because they want to become YouTubers will always fail; the authentic passion is the key ingredient to cultivating parasocial relationships. And parasocial relationships in this way are just like the non-digital ones we make in everyday life. We can tell when someone is being authentic or not, and we gravitate towards passion. A wise man told me once “If you want to get a girlfriend, then invest in yourself and devote time to what you’re passionate about. If you’re honest with yourself and allow your creativity to flourish, then people will naturally become drawn to that energy.”

Just like normal relationships however, parasocial ones have the capacity to turn toxic. It’s all too easy for vulnerable people- whatever the underlying factors- to become excessively attached to someone online. In some ways, it’s easier, because an online personality, however open they might seem, is still nonetheless an incomplete picture that lends itself to being pedestalized. Eminem wrote a song about this in 2000, “Stan”, which has since entered the online lexicon to refer to obsessive fandom. Stanning. People susceptive to this phenomenon create an idealized version in their heads of content creators, and if anything contradicts their version of the creator, they will lash out. This can involve doxing or sending death threats to people that criticize the creator they follow, or it can even entail abusing the creator themselves. To return to ASMR for example, there are two types of recurring negative feedback leveled against female ASMRtists by their stans that strike me as particularly interesting. The first is that whenever they mention or involve their significant others in their videos, there is a backlash from a sect of their viewers. The second is that if they dress differently, change their hairstyle, swear, or are in some perceived way “unladylike”, then there will be a similar backlash. In both cases, the ASMRtist has shown a glimpse of her off-camera persona, and it conflicts with the idealized image that this sect of viewers has created of them. I’ve seen this with both Gibi and Glow. It might go as far as abusive messages and comments, or it might be as subtle as a drop in viewer engagement, or perhaps a spike in dislikes. The obvious answer is that the people reacting this way are simply jealous- but that feels too easy to me. I feel like there is more to unpack about the nature of the parasocial relationship, gender norms, pedestalizing, loneliness, and so much more. But I’m not sure where to look, or what this subject might be called. If you have any recommendations for further reading, please comment below or send me a private message, because I’m very interested in this sort of thing- particularly as it pertains to online personalities.

And do let me know if you have any insights or interesting examples relating to this topic, especially if it is from a behaviorist perspective. I’m planning on doing a follow-up post in the next few days in which I’ll cover things like “simping”, online misogyny, and some recent news stories.

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