“Why does it feel so good to be touched?” asks one of the most popular ASMR bloggers Olivia Kissper in her YouTube video. ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, shows the changes that the notion of physicality, intimacy and identity has undergone in recent times. It has become a specific phenomenon of Web 2.0 (the transition from text-centric to multimodal software), linked to the massive proliferation of technologies and the emergence of blogging platforms or social networks with the main motto “broadcast yourself”. This term is meant to encompass feelings of low-threshold euphoria, “chills” or ringing in the head as a particular response to auditory, visual and tactile stimuli generated by video bloggers. Slow speech, whispering, mouth sounds, hissing, clicking, tapping, pointing and groping objects in front of the webcam are its characteristics. The artist Tasha Bjelica speaks of “digital intimacy” as a self-satisfying tool of late capitalism designed for a population without a secure health care system, alienated nomads who experience only a distant intimacy built on heteronormative gender roles of care, i.e., the idea of the mother-carer.
ASMR culture also reflects the breadth of the extent to which it has become a self-diagnosis. Any one of the thousands of viewers who accept the community protocol can have a very intimate experience with an ASMR blogger but would never recognize them on the street. ASMR videos are usually praised for what they mean, but what they “do” to certain bodies. It is a mode of mediation that emphasizes aesthetics and not semiotics, instinctual affective impact and not a coherent statement. Therefore, to understand online video culture, we should not be so much concerned with decoding the images on which individual videos are built, but with understanding the interfaces, databases and algorithms through which media are accessed and arranged. All the motifs that are often understood as accidental or unintended phenomena (sounds like shuffling, breaking, exaggerated intonation), obvious errors (monotony, muffled and unintelligible speech, the presence of the static or intermittent) take on a new meaning – the video becomes a “black box” (a system or instrument that we can only observe within its inputs and outputs, without seeing into its inner workings, which are opaque to us). Its apparent content or intent is encapsulated so that it only works through its effect.
ASMR is not meant to be read as a message that wants to be explained and interpreted but as a specific aesthetic ability to elicit particular affective and somatic outcomes. These are in turn measured by feedback mechanisms that connect viewers with Uploaders – the likes of which allow for the planting of better inputs that would yield desired outputs. However, as part of the huge proliferation and popularization of the ASMR phenomenon, there is a constant infection of the “black box” of diversionary content that disrupts the schema of the accustomed consumer. Examples include the user Mediawitch Media, who embedded a political advocacy of Bernie Sanders, or the artist Jiří Žák, who through his unattributed Czech ASMR profile produces videos with information about the export of Czech arms factories to undemocratic countries in the Middle East and Africa while infiltrating aggressive images of gun stroking. Various artistic and activist strategies thus contribute to the hybridization and specific forms of the ASMR community in order to subvert the norms of the apathetic consumerist Western society.