Article begins

Slime play is gaining in popularity and slime content dominates the satisfaction internet. Could this sticky, oozy substance provide relaxation on demand?

Doomscrolling social media, have you found yourself mesmerized by kinetic sand or a slimy substance? If so, you may have experienced autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), the psychophysiological sensation from various stimuli and basis for a diverse online subculture. Slime, an oozy substance between liquid and solid made from glue and other everyday household materials, also a toy, hobby, and community, provides insights into technologies of self-care to mitigate stress and induce a pleasurable state of slimefulness.

Imagine an overhead shot of disembodied, manicured hands, slowly dipping two fingers into a 12-ounce clear plastic storage jar of brightly colored slime, resulting in sticky and squishy sounds. After initial poking, prodding, and stretching, the hands pull and pour the slime onto a marble countertop where it quickly spreads. They add a chunk of air-dry clay on top of the blob and knead it into the mixture. Akin to pulling taffy candy, as it is stretched, folded over, and then squeezed, stretched, and refolded over and over again, this kneading action aerates the slime, producing air bubbles that pop and sonically punctuate the scene. As the hands warm up through transfixing repetition, the video slime-lapses to an expanded and expressed puffy foam, further pulled and refolded, forming smooth lines and contours, climaxing into the most satisfying slime swirl.

ASMR is a perceptual phenomenon, known for inducing tingling or other euphoric effects, and can occur through sensations or synesthesia from visual imagery, sounds, or touch. During live performances and spa treatments, the body, technology, ritual, and commerce intersect to promote calmness, relaxation, and a psychologically comfortable state. Studying the emotional and psychological response of watching ASMR videos online and in lab settings, psychologist Guilia Lara Poerio and colleagues found that participants who experienced ASMR had observable physiological reactions such as reduced heart rate and heightened skin conductance levels (2018). Regardless of trigger, the shared sensory response is most closely attached to a growing online video genre that has amassed followers over the past decade. A subgenre of “oddly satisfying” videos, ASMR can result from watching (and listening to) people loudly eat copious amounts of food, cutting or shaving bars of soap, or participating in asynchronous role-play delivered through comforting whispers. What began as niche Youtube material has produced ASMRtists and social influencers, ranging from toddlers to adults, on Twitch, Instagram, and Tik Tok, in a lucrative digital economy that values content creation and consumption. Absurd millennial internet humor meets do-it-yourself culture.

Slime flies when you’re having fun!

Before the pandemic and a boom in virtual spring break slime-making classes or slime-themed birthday parties over Zoom, the slime community was thriving. Exemplifying creative entrepreneurship and e-commerce, this global culture celebrates making, buying, and selling homemade slime, including participating in slime events in person or online. Ready-made seasonal varieties or a limited release “collab” with other slime shops or brands may sell out minutes after they drop. The pastime’s expansion has resulted in staff Instagram accounts, backup shop accounts, fan, or repost accounts. All work to uplift the brand, sell slime or slime-making supplies, and gain followers for Youtube ad revenue. The rare progression from amateur slimer to professional Youtuber elevates emerging slimers to the influencer market through paid sponsorships with Elmer’s or partnerships with Target to distribute slime product. For purists, this poses an issue in terms of slime quality and ethos, sentiments publicly available on Instagram accounts such as @slimeconfessions: “WHY MAKE THIS ACCOUNT? This wasn’t intended for drama, or anything like that. Just a place where you can let out what you wanna say.” The hundreds of anonymized social media posts of critical reflections from slimers show the shifting norms of the subculture and the ongoing tension between the promotion of affordable self-care through free, satisfying slime video content and homemade product, and the competitive slime toy market. For these slime aficionados, the making and playing with slime is all about achieving personal sensory satisfaction, whereas in-person events and online interactions are contexts of socialization into the cultural norms of what makes slime and slime videos valued in terms of the oddly satisfying market.

In spring 2019, on the outskirts of Chicagoland, I attended Global Slime Con (Schaumburg) and Maddie Rae’s Slime Bash(St. Charles), as lines of adoring fans of all ages (although most slimers are kids and teens) waited to take pictures with slimers, hoping to make it onto their Instagram Stories, accumulate more followers, and possibly promote their own budding slime business. These produced encounters encourage positive sensory experiences and inclusiveness by supporting in-person fellowship within the slime community, with events championing mental health and social causes, such as Slime Against Suicide.

Despite the expansion of these large group events, most slime activity occurs on social media or in solitude. Hate is not tolerated, and slime prides itself on being welcoming to queer slimers and slimers with disabilities. ASMR video content often reflects current events like holidays, social justice movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, and pandemic-related stress. While reactions to slime are subjective, integral socialization into slime culture can be seen in the metapragmatic activity on social media. Examples of this digital discourse primarily emerge semiotically through reactions to slime occurring by liking, sharing, or commenting on the quality of a video, the aesthetics of slime, or choreographed hand routines playing with slime. Over time, I found myself giving preference to certain slime videos over others and developed my own slime palette. I began to accumulate a collection of designer slimes and experimented with recipes. As the algorithms began to take effect, I soon was following and eventually unfollowing slimers and their social media accounts.

Will it slime?

Starting with the accidental discovery of Silly Putty during World War II by engineer James Wright, who tried to design an alternative to costly synthetic rubber by mixing boric acid with silicone oil, the bouncy and stretchy substance inspired other toys such as Flubber, Super Stuff, Green Slime, Gak, and Floam. Slime is a part of American popular culture: the iconic “gunge” or green gelatinous goop from the Canadian sketch comedy series You Can’t Do That On Television that featured youth contestants getting slimed throughout the 1980s and 1990s; the ghostly character Slimer from the Ghostbusters movie franchise; and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze. Fast forward to Minecraft slimes and screen-free occupational therapy sensory tools like fidget toys that help with focus, concentration, or emotional de-escalation through touch. Some therapists now prescribe ASMR video content as a new form of digital mental health treatment to alleviate symptoms of anxiety or sleep and eating disorders.

While materiality varies, slime forms through chemical reaction of a cross-linked polymer resulting in a non-Newtonian fluid. Arguably the best slime-making glue is a polyvinyl-acetate (PVA) or washable school glue made of long chains of polyvinyl acetate molecules. Slime materializes when glue is combined with a boron slime activator like borax powder, saline solution, liquid starch, or Elmer’s own proprietary blend of Magical Liquid. As with other interstitial fluids like honey or ketchup, the viscosity of slime is unstable and can change due to ingredients, temperature, or humidity. Slime consistency also depends on tactile manipulation. The rule of thumb holds that slime should be slowly played with and stretched, so as not to sever, but encourage and support the chemical bonds of the recipe. Different ingredients can also result in various chemical reactions of color, scent, or texture combinations. Slime can be smooth and creamy or clear, crunchy, “cronchy,” color changing, and even magnetic. There are sand, galaxy, fish bowl, unicorn, iceberg, and food-themed clay-based slimes, to name a few. Depending on the mix and how it sticks, slime can smack, thwop, twomp, crackle, and puff. The material limits of slime are frequently tested through new recipes and trends such as adding odd ingredients to see, Will it slime? Of the myriad slime varieties, cloud slime is reportedly preferred by adults, “as it’s not nearly as sticky as some other textures,” according to the New York based Sloomoo Institute, a multisensory ASMR museum experience focused on slime. Slime also requires ongoing care. The average shelf life for slime is approximately three months, although with some attention and supplemented ingredients, its consistency can be sustained and extended. Slime care requires frequent hand washing to remove dirt and oils, certain storage conditions (extreme temperatures will change viscosity and consistency), and usually a designated clean surface for optimal slime play.

Cleanse your mind by using slime

Slime can stimulate sight, touch, smell, sound, and also taste in the case of edible slime. Creating and interacting with slime is an embodied experience that gets at the essence of our corporeal existence, whether through direct contact, digital simulation, or witnessing slime play. Slime video content usually focuses on overhead shots of hands mixing or playing with slime for a matter of seconds to hour-long compilations. This can be a messy endeavor and potentially an emotional process for some.

Any seasoned slimer knows that making slime requires patience, as it is often only after repeated trial and error with recipes that one achieves a slime able to maintain physical integrity while allowing for manipulation through play. But what counts as good or bad slime varies based on a combination of personal sensory preference and slime cultural norms. Slime scents, texture, and color transform through squeezing and massaging with the hands, encouraging mindfulness of the present moment. Aural effects from poking, inflating, and squeezing slime are best experienced in a quiet, dedicated room. Essential oils like lavender, vanilla, or citrus scent slime serve can combine with acoustics and kinesthetics to achieve the sensory state of slimefulness—calmness achieved while playing with slime or vicariously through the slime play of others. Whether branded as “therapy dough” or “mood bundles,” slime aromatherapy lines from Calm Me Down to Relax to Bye-Bye Stress are now an integrated branch of the satisfaction internet and expanding wellness industry.

How do certain sensorial activities induce ASMR experiences that mediate embodied interactions?

In the first peer-reviewed study of sensory experiences associated with ASMR media consumption, psychologists Emma Barrett and Nick Davis (2015) suggested that achieving a flow state—completely absorbed in a positive experience—may be necessary to perceive the triggers of ASMR effects. Flow states can be reached and sustained through any activity, like meditation or sports, but can lead to extreme focus of some stimuli over others. They also identified that ASMR has phenomenological similarities to mindfulness—mental presence, embodied awareness, and connection to the perceivable world—a finding supported by Beverly Fredborg and colleagues’ (2018) survey of sensory-emotional experiences associated with ASMR. Whether through tactile play or watching others, slimers enact a multisensory self-care practice that allows them to generate an internal sense of calm.

How do certain sensorial activities induce ASMR experiences that mediate embodied interactions? Slime aesthetics, character, and semiotic qualia—the subjective experiences of sensuous qualities of physical characteristics (colors, textures, sounds, smells, tastes)—affect the ways in which these material properties afford what anthropologist Nicholas Harkness describes as “the feeling of doing” (2015) that nurtures psychological effects of stress reduction and mindfulness. Over time, slimers recognize and value these reactions largely through the dialectic triangulation between fellow slimers, objects, and media, refining their craft to shape the composition and state of slime, and impacting those who interact with the substance, whether online or offline (see Paßmann and Schubert 2020 for a comparative analysis of displaying aesthetic taste by liking ASMR videos, memes, and tweets). To extend anthropologist Susan Gal’s point that everyday objects like porcelain “are enregistered indexicals that signal social identities” (2017), when it comes to slime you are how you slime. Through attention to interactions with slime video content, slimers are socialized into the sensory language ideology of what is considered #OddlySatisfying in the context of international social media culture and how to engage in sensorial taste expression, especially in relation to their trigger preferences. Even sensations of perceptible qualities that appear objective, like hardness and darkness, linguistically index subjective cultural associations that are valued as positive or negative. Qualia emphasizes experiential meaning-making of qualities in social life. With research into the mechanism of ASMR ongoing, slime might have something to teach us about the semiotic qualities that are shared through material culture to achieve this sensorial satisfaction for those who use and value them.

The neurodivergent community’s “stim blogs” were where early slime videos circulated on stimboards, akin to a moodboard on Tumblr. Stimming refers to self-stimulation through repetitive body movement. For some, stimulating with sounds, textures, pressure, color, or other elements can be soothing and calming, including digital stimming through watching people play with slime. For others, sensory avoidance may be more manageable through a computerized screen, should particular multisensory aspects of playing with slime lead to possible sensory overload. Volume control for example, can help mediate the experience to avoid negative reactions while still administering slimeful self-care.

The internet delivers our desires for instant gratification and demand for continual new content that captivates. Slime videos came as part of the second wave of oddly satisfying video content portraying scenes or processes that depict qualities such as order, symmetry, and patterns through repetitive events or actions that viewers might find unusual but relaxing. For those who anticipate the sensory response, this form of observation-mediated ASMR can provide relief or pleasure (see biologist Craig Richard’s research at his website, ASMR University). This sensory work can be accomplished collaboratively across media platforms to meet different sensory ends with the same slime activity. These modes of interaction are further enacted, reenacted, or altered in not only the creation and circulation of slime and slime videos, but also in the variety of virtual and in-person encounters in which they are used and referenced.

Slimy self-care is also an in-person phenomenon, particularly for the adult slimer community. There are National Alliance on Mental Health events such as “Slimefulness for Mood Enhancement” workshops and guided slime meditation sessions. Institutional and clinical acceptance of the therapeutic possibilities of slime has mainstreamed in both client-provider and client-only care settings. Slime is used for corporate team building and college campuses sponsor slime-themed self-care events, often around final exams.

At the CBD (cannabidiol) + Slime Night that I attended prior to stay-at-home orders in winter 2020, participants mingled while sipping CBD-infused smoothies and enjoying the complete multisensory ASMR pop-up experience at Sloomoo. The federally legal hemp-derived product paired well with an evening of relaxation and sensory stimulation centering around slime, while also raising funds and championing mental health awareness. Participants could learn about slime history, measure their stress levels through an electroencephalogram machine to show brain activity “on slime,” engage with ASMRt installations (artworks designed to stimulate ASMR), take part in tactical play with large vats of freshly colored and scented slime, and walk barefoot across a huge bed of slime. For an extra fee, the “enhanced experience” included being doused in a cornstarch-based biodegradable slime waterfall. Embodying my childhood fantasy, I willingly paid someone to cover my body in slime that was ooey gooey and oh so satisfying.

Like coloring books for adults, squishy slime stress balls—palm-sized, slime-filled spheres used to alleviate feelings of stress—are another example of the slime self-care trend, whether store bought or homemade. As one colleague and friend recently posted about their elementary age daughter on Instagram, “Very thoughtful of Ruby to leave this stress free balloon on the table for Z and me to utilize it. I used it and kind of like it. Squeeze and squeeze!” This caption accompanied several photos featuring a deflated blue balloon filled with slime and tied to a matching blue carabiner keychain with a handwritten message: “Random from me 😛 (use the gift if you are stress[ed]!) → totally helps! :-)”

Sensationalizing a sticky situation

Whether finding relief in watching the playful manipulation of slime materials online or nestling into a slime routine for tactile physical play, this children’s toy turned anti-anxiety product offers technologies for taking care of the self. Through glutinous communicative processes slimers enact pleasurable self-care as they transform everyday household items into #satisfying experiences. Slimefulness requires no trip to the doctor and may not require getting messy at all, for on social media, stress relief is instant, satisfying, and on the house.

Authors

Matilda Stubbs

Matilda Stubbs is a lecturer at the University of Chicago, Crown School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. Her research focuses on the materiality of communication through technologies of social organization and resource allocation. Topics include the semiotics of social service administration in US child welfare and ASMR slime culture.

Cite as

Stubbs, Matilda. 2021. “Slimefulness as Self-Care.” Anthropology News website, June 23, 2021.