“Oh! There are other people just like me? I’m not so weird after all”: the transformation of identity in the digital age

The internet was integral to the formation of the asexual community. While the details are slightly messier than such an account suggests, the sociologically important aspects of its history can be summarised as follows:

  1. Individuals who don’t experience sexual attraction are made to feel ‘broken’, ‘damaged’ or ‘fucked up’ by a culture which places great stress on sexual activity as a marker of personal fulfilment. While they recognise that they are different in relation to a given reference group (often peers at school) the nature of this difference is assumed to be pathological – they deviate from norms they observe and assume that this deviation means that something is wrong with them. 
  2. If they try and explain these differences to others then what were previous observations of norms endorsed become encounters with norms enforced. Rather than just observing that others orientate themselves towards sexual activity in certain ways (both attitudinal and behavioural) they encounter the expressions of these norms. Commonly individuals who try and explain a lack of sexual attraction will be told by others that they are ‘late bloomers’, ‘haven’t met the right person yet’, have a problem with their hormones or their minds (etc).  What was an interior self-directed assumption of pathology becomes one encountered from others as well. 
  3. However when the internet came along, it became possible for people with this experience to talk. Initially this wasn’t a case of ‘I am X’ and I want to find others like myself because there was no sense of what X was. However the sheer communicative possibilities afforded by the internet, to express oneself and encounter the self-expressions of others enabled a convergence of experience [note for those who know asexual history: I’m simplifying massively here for theoretical purposes] as people recognised aspects of their own experiences in the accounts of others.
  4. These dialogues give rise to the emergence of the sense of an X. People generate labels to describe what they share, as well as labels to express their differences. The dialogue the internet affords affirms commonality but also elaborates differences. Not only does a community form but it becomes internally differentiated.
  5. The growth of the online community makes it easier for people to come to define themselves in this way. Whereas many older asexuals spent years or decades searching for some workable understanding of why they were different, many younger individuals simply type ‘do not experience sexual attraction’ into a search engine and find themselves at a n asexual discussion forum. This online growth fuels ‘offline’ media attention – it comes to the attention of journalists eager to document the novel and surprising, which in turn helps the community grow as further individuals encounter the label and find it online, fuelling the trend which was deemed to be newsworthy in the first place.

Now consider a very different group: people who experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response:

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and is a physical sensation which can often be felt as a tingling feeling which begins around the scalp and can often travel all around the body particularly down the back and into the persons arms and legs.

Most people descibe it as a tingling in the head.

What can trigger ASMR?

ASMR can be brought on through acts known as triggers. These can be visual or through sounds.

Watching another person complete tasks can induce ASMR with activities such as:

  • Nail tapping
  • Scratching
  • Drawing
  • Coloring in pictures.
  • Whispering
  • Hand movements
  • Brushes
  • Haircuts
  • Massage
  • Handling items

When triggered ASMR can be very relaxing for the person and can help them feel a lot calmer and in some cases can be so relaxing that some people may fall asleep.

There are some striking similarities observable here. Internet culture was integral to its recognition. The phenomenon has received media attention and the group who recognise themselves as having the experience has grown as a result. Both directly (“oh, so that’s what that is!”) when encountering such coverage and indirectly through friends and acquaintances who later recount what they have read. In essence it constitutes a label which has only come into social circulation via the internet. The label doesn’t create the experience but nonetheless it renders it both easier to recognise (i.e. to acknowledge something it is necessary for it to have a label to constitute it as a thing) and articulate, either in internal conversation with oneself or with external others. Once it becomes an object of internal deliberation, people form plans and projects on the basis of it. Until ASMR was identified as a ‘thing’ it wasn’t going to occur to anyone to make any of the thousands of videos on youtube relating to it.

Some people who felt weird about it suddenly feel relieved that they have a label with which they can now identity, rather than the experience being a site of anxiety and confusion. Those who didn’t feel weird but didn’t understand the experience simply find some interest in recognising that it is a ‘thing’. The parallels can be overstated – crucially, it doesn’t seem particularly likely to me (though I’m not 100% sure) that anyone experienced massive distress about their ASMR experiences. Sure, it perhaps made them feel a bit weird if, for contingent biographical reasons, they were prone to dwelling on it. But it’s unlikely to have given rise to the feelings of social erasure and marginalization which many asexual people experience. Nonetheless there are some converging elements and I think they are very interesting. Crucially they apply much more broadly. This post is hopefully the first step in branching out (meant non pejoratively) from this aspect of my asexuality research – how is the internet reshaping the biographical dynamics of normativity? Or in other words, how is the internet changing how our sense of who we are and how we differ from those around us unfolds over the life course?

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