Do you find it relaxing to watch a stranger sleep? Would you enjoy waking them up with a shrill noise or, better, by shocking them? These days, some people would answer yes to all of the above, and they indulge their baser instincts with sleep streamers, people who sleep with a camera in front of their beds as they live stream their sleep for an audience that watches and … does not shut up.
Who doesn’t yearn to make money while sleeping? In their early days, sleep streamers made that dream a reality. They crawled into bed, turned on their streaming station (a cell phone with a well-positioned tripod) and recorded themselves sleeping for several hours. Those who watched them sleep, many of whom were confined to their rooms because of the COVID pandemic, said that the sight of someone else sleeping relaxed them, helped relieve their insomnia and provided them with some peaceful company. Sleep streamers didn’t earn much money, but when they woke up, they could read the thousands of messages their followers left during the night. If they got a mattress or pillow company to sponsor them, business started to pick up. That’s how it was in 2020 when sleep streaming flourished, but nowadays, they must monetize the stream to the hilt; to do that, sleep streamers must allow the audience to wake them up as many times as the audience is willing to pay for, and in the most annoying, loudest and most outlandish ways possible. “The more chaos, the better. The audience loves chaos,” Jakey Boehm says.
Boehm is a 28-year-old Australian Tiktoker with over 1 million followers, and he’s a leader in the field of interactive sleep streaming. According to Wired and the Wall Street Journal, he can earn $35,000 every month without leaving his bed. Each night, at 10 p.m., he puts on his pajamas, gets into his bed, dims the lights and opens TikTok live to meet a global audience that wants to watch him sleep and tries to wake him up through different games throughout the night.
With a camera pointed at his bed, he tries to sleep while thousands of people pay to wake him up. During the broadcast, hundreds of viewers buy virtual gifts to disturb his sleep with lights, noises and loud music. One of the “gifts” is playing the spookiest line from The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson’s character says, “Here’s Johnny!” It’s a video game, and Boehm is the target. The person who can wake him up in the showiest way possible wins. For $1, one can type a message into the chat room that causes a bot to shout in Boehm’s ear; for $2, you get sent virtual glasses that squeal, “Chrissy, wake up!” (a line from the show Stranger Things, which is popular on TikTok). For $95, you can administer a shock through a bracelet he wears on his wrist. For $380, a viewer can turn on every device in his room for five minutes and cause a major ruckus. That price includes alerting all TikTok users, so that they can peek into Boehm’s room. This torture goes on until 5:20 a.m. At that point, Boehm turns off the live stream, edits the content, returns to bed at around 6:30 a.m. and sleeps until noon.
Boehm has been enhancing his offerings for the viewers’ entertainment; he doesn’t want them to be bored while he sleeps. At first, his followers could only access his printer, but now Boehm has a much more sophisticated setup. If they pay enough, viewers can activate a bubble machine in his room or put an inflatable doll in bed with him.
In exchange for his restless nights, Boehm keeps a portion of what his fans invest in gifts. He wants to use the proceeds to buy a house and support mental health charities.
The spectacle of watching people as they sleep is not a novelty of digital culture. In 1964, Andy Warhol released Sleep, a film showing his lover John Giorno sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes. In 2004, the National Portrait Gallery in London exhibited a piece of video art by artist Sam Taylor-Johnson called David, which showed a young, shirtless Beckham taking a 107-minute-long nap.
Why do we like to watch others sleep? Some sleep streamers used to have insomnia problems and claim that they fell asleep peacefully for the first time when they watched a live stream of a stranger sleeping. Apparently, in the same way that yawning is contagious, seeing someone sound asleep can help induce sleep. Two years is a short time to study whether streamers have any impact on the quality of their followers’ slumber, but some sleep and hypnosis experts, like David Spiegal, believe that we are social creatures who are programmed to empathize, so watching someone sleep may help us get into a restful state.
Successful sleep streamers don’t disclose their exact earnings, except for Boehm’s figures in Wired and the Wall Street Journal. However, we do know that they earn more when they have a sponsor, which is more common among quiet streams where a mob isn’t trying to wake up the streamer. Sleep streamers earn less for interactive broadcasts on Twitch or TikTok – which have more viewers and make the streamers more visible but require a greater sacrifice – but they can bring in enough to pay the bills and rent by doing two live streams a month, as 26-year-old streamer Mikkel Nielsen, who has 1.4 million followers across TikTok, Twitch and YouTube, told Wired.
According to Erin Duffy, the author of the book (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love and an expert in social media economics, these profit models are unstable and can be problematic. In addition, the first sleep streamers’ rapid success may attract other creators who will not have similar luck and will sacrifice their quality of life for a pittance. Duffy believes that sleep streaming is micro-niche online content; only a few will see financial rewards, probably those who have already established themselves. When the first arrived, they capitalized on the trend and had a ready-made audience that will decamp to the next internet trend at any moment.