The PayPal ASMR banning shows us that tech companies don’t understand their users

It’s become increasingly clear that tech companies are banning content to the detriment of their users, without understanding what they’re actually banning. 

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Last week, Engadget reported that PayPal had banned and frozen the accounts of ASMR content creators using the service, citing alleged violations of the company's sexual content policy prohibitions as the rationale. Engadget explained that many of the creators banned had been targets of a campaign by 8chan (an online forum notorious for its seedy content) that has been attempting to punish “whores” online. Sexually explicit content has been in the crosshairs of not just PayPal, but YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. However, the laughably inevitable problem behind the PayPal ASMR banning is that these ASMR content creators weren’t actually creating sexual content – nor, as Engadget points out, are 97 per cent of ASMR accounts.

For the uninitiated, ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response”; technically speaking, a sensation you feel in your head and neck when exposed to specific audio or visual stimuli, most often certain pleasant sounds . However, the term “ASMR” has been co-opted in the last five years; effectively morphing into an umbrella term for videos that feature a “satisfying” noise. Mainstream ASMR videos are built for purpose, ie built to trigger that meridian response, and typically include things like sounds of people whispering, slime being squished, surfaces being scratched, and even soap shavings being crunched. While a small niche of ASMR-labelled content could be considered sexual, ASMR is, in and of itself, in no way a sexual feeling, purely a tingling you might feel when your foot falls asleep or after putting on a VapoRub.

Many creators use these platforms as a way to make money, and ASMR is not just a niche part of the social media firmament, but the foundation of some of YouTube, Instagram, and Twitch’s most popular channels. Some of the ASMR YouTubers calling out PayPal for banning ASMR accounts, such as Rose ASMR and Sharon Dubois, have tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

As Sharon Dubois put it on Twitter, “Millions of people earn their revenue through internet nowadays. Just imagine having your hard work being frozen for 6 months when you were counting on it to pay rent, school, or bills.”

“It’s their salary,” she added.

In the case of PayPal and the ASMRers, Engadget later updated the piece to say that PayPal had “unbanned” several of the ASMR creators who complained about their accounts. But even though this is, obviously, about ASMR and, obviously, about Pay Pal, it’s not really about either of those things. It’s really about a larger, systemic problem with our technology platforms.

This problem is not new, but it is being exacerbated by the demands on platforms to monitor their content. It’s the same factor behind YouTube’s drive to demonetise LGBT content, Twitter suspending trans people, and Instagram’s obsessive removal of images of women’s nipples.

At its root, it is about tech companies failing to understand the digital cultures growing on their platforms. YouTube removing videos because it doesn't understand that gay people are using its platform to educate young gay people. Twitter suspending users en masse for using the acronym “TERF” without understanding the different ways it is used by that community. And now PayPal failing to grasp that ASMR can merely be someone conducting a fake, whispery eye exam. Tech companies are making grand, sweeping, and regularly clueless changes that affect the online communities they host – often to the detriment of not just influencers’ lives, but their livelihoods.

While PayPal has unbanned these ASMR creators, the fundamental failure by tech companies to understand the communities they are trying to police is a problem that seems here to stay.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.