Remaining Unknown in a Viral World: Popularity, ASMR and Celebrity Status

Earlier today, I was examining the statistics on my website and realized that I have about 1.5 million hits on my site since I started it. That appears to be a lot, but then I started to think to myself that not a lot of people comment on it or send me messages based off of my web site (or its blog). So, this tells me that I seem to get a lot of traffic but apparently nothing seems to be going on with it. And yes, that opens up a lot of thought on a subject I’ll probably take up at another time (what do to with traffic when it gets to your site, as I don’t seem to be doing a whole of good with that area).

Last night, I was watching the latest episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is still one of my favorite police procedural types of shows. And in this episode, an Instagram star hooked up with a MMA fighter and was raped, but it turns out the whole thing had been set up by a young woman who was a follower of both of their Instagram feeds. The prosecutor mentioned that a motive for the set up was that the Instgram model had tens of thousands of followers, the MMA fighter had 2 million, and the young, geek girl had 6. Therefore, this was vengeance against the two well known Instagram stars from someone who felt that she had an important voice but no one was listening to her.

That resonated quite a bit with me because I think a lot of us who aren’t big stars often feel the same way. Not that we’re about to set up someone famous like the plot line of this story, but at the same time the realization that there are people who are seriously famous for a sex tape, or for just looking good in pictures, can be a hard thing to face when one is trying really hard to become known as well, but doesn’t have that advantage those pseudo celebrities have.

Recently, I’ve been following a bunch of ASMR artists who I find to be very good at their craft. In case you’re not familiar with ASMR, it stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which according to Wikipedia is “is a term used for an experience characterised by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. It has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia.” And even with that definition, you’d be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how many news agencies just don’t understand it, which you can see when they start to make statements that suggest watching President Trump gives “ASMR tingles” or when some celebrity posts a Youtube of her just staring at the screen and the media goes ga ga over her “ASMR video.”

In reality, ASMR is difficult to achieve and very few artists succeed at it. There’s a reason that there are a few very popular ASMR artists out there, and almost none of them are celebrities known for other things.

Which brings me back to my original subject, and that’s that viral popularity has a bad habit of creating an atmosphere that wasn’t intended in the first place. For those not completely familiar with ASMR, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking ASMR is nothing but people whispering and making sounds with inanimate objects. And that’s because a lot of it comes from doing exactly that. But it also comes from a stronger understanding of how those actions can trigger the audience into feeling something more than just simple reactions. As a result, quite a few artists sometimes push the envelope and create what I’ve started to characterize as PG-13 ASMR. What I mean by that is ASMR that is designed to arouse rather than “tingle”, and for those not initiated in what ASMR, it can be very easy to mistake one for the other.

This happens quite often because the models who do ASMR are almost always attractive. Both male and female ASMR artists are generally above average in attractiveness and in their social tools for attracting others. This should be expected because this is a video environment where an unattractive artist is going to be avoided or ignored, and an attractive one is going to cause people to click the image being presented on the Youtube reception screen. This often resonates in the comments section of their videos where the anonymous nature of the Internet can cause trolling behavior you’d expect in a darkened strip club environment. To make matters worse, a number of ASMR artists chase the elusive crown of traffic and subscriptions (people subscribe to their personal channels), which leads to a revenue stream from Youtube. This causes the perpetrators of the more adult environment to keep pushing the adult envelope and the non-sexual artists to feel the need to participate because of loss of viewer clicks.

Youtube has somewhat cracked down on this phenomenon, but has done so with broad strokes that hurts mostly the non-sexual artists because they demonetize mostly based on viewer feedback, and the business has become somewhat cutthroat with an almost mob mentality towards those who are actually trying to comply and do the right thing. As usual, those are the ones who suffer the most, whereas the ones who are crossing the line are rewarded because none of their fans are ever going to turn them in for breaking any of the rules.

Which kind of brings me full circle in what I was originally talking about, and that’s the problem of trying to achieve any level of popularity in a bread and circuses environment where controversy, sex and violence are the things that attract the largest audience. How does the unknown artist achieve notoriety in a mostly celebrity driven world? In a free market mentality, one would think that the quality rises to the top and everything else remains at the bottom. But that’s rarely the case. Quite often, celebrity status is more than enough to create buzz so that its products remain at the top and everything else is left grasping for scraps. As a writer, I find this problem emblematic in the field because some really bad celebrity fiction gets serious attention when it’s not very good and it’s written by people who have about twenty years before they’ll actually ever write anything significant (if they were to work on it full time and not just in between movies or photo shoots). But the people who put in the work in hopes of one day becoming discovered may do so their entire lives and never get a nibble beyond a table scrap thrown their way.

So, the question is: Is there a balance, or is it just not worth the effort? I’m kind of on the cusp of this myself, as I’ve been writing for most of my entire life, creating computer games that were popular but too early for the industry to ever recognize, wrote music back in the day when such music was seen as too experimental, and any number of other creative tasks that have fumbled, fizzled or just never took off. People keep saying “Just keep at it and your day will come”, but part of me wonders if it’s just a crap shoot and my time might better be spent catching up on the latest season of The Walking Dead.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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