It’s 8PM on a Saturday and a YouTuber named Super Mainstream is already in his pyjamas setting up microphones, cameras, lighting and monitors by his bed. He’s about to livestream himself sleeping for thousands of viewers, who send cash donations that land straight in his pocket. Essentially: he makes money from sleep.
No longer just an essential bodily function, sleep has been monetised by content creators; interest in sleep streams on YouTube reached an all-time high in the first week of January 2021, with search volume up by 426 percent compared to the same period last year. Over 170 videos appeared on the service in the first three weeks of January, compared to 500 overall last year. It seems that paying to watch someone sleep is increasingly popular.
The concept is simple: Super tries to sleep while his fans attempt to wake him up by playing messages, videos and songs through his Alexa speaker, which is activated using text-to-speech messaging. Viewers pay upwards of £2 to operate the speaker, asking it to do anything from revealing Super’s address, to purchasing his Amazon basket, or even calling the police. The 21-year-old tells VICE that he makes over £2,000 from doing a six-hour livestream once a week.
Super, who gained 2,000 subscribers during his most recent sleep stream, puts the growing interest in his videos down to the pandemic, which is leaving people with little to do at the weekend.
“I do mine on a Saturday night because that's when people would be out buying drinks, having fun doing their thing. My role is Saturday night entertainment.”
Far from being the first content creator to cash in on their sleep, these unconventional streams have a long history. The trend originated in 2017 when former Twitch streamer Ice Poseidon made $5,000 from filming himself overnight. It was popularised among livestreamers on YouTube the following year when Asian Andy - a vlogger with over a million subscribers – created his first sleep stream through a happy accident.
“I opened candy I found in a P.O box and I ate it - I didn’t realise they were edibles,” Asian Andy admits over Messenger. “I passed out high, and my viewers kept trying to wake me up with donations. I made 800 dollars, which was more than I ever did being awake. I thought it was hilarious.”
For Asian Andy, the success of sleep streaming was unexpected, as was watching the craze grow: “I think it’s awesome that sleep streams are so popular on YouTube, but I was surprised. It’s kinda stressful streaming [myself sleeping], because I don’t know how I’m possibly going to make sleeping entertaining.”
While many of the current YouTube streamers were inspired by Asian Andy, the format has started to evolve. Videos featuring minimal interaction between creators and viewers, which include long stretches of unbroken sleep, are increasingly the norm. So, why are people tuning in?
Lupita, an 18 year-old from the US who regularly watches sleep streams, says part of the attraction comes from talking to other viewers through a live chat which stays active all night.
“If we can't go out and keep ourselves busy, we usually tend to stay up whether we're tired or not and browse YouTube,” she tells me. “Since sleep streams are still going on late, I tend to click.”
Other viewers say they find the intimate experience of watching someone sleeping therapeutic.
Abby – another 18-year-old American – waits for her favourite YouTuber to start his sleep stream each night. Rather than trying to wake him up, she prefers “being able to look over at a screen and see and hear someone sleeping peacefully.”
This increasing demand for human connection in online spaces is allowing even smaller YouTubers to profit from their sleep. Milow Stream started his channel on December 23rd and amassed over 40,000 views and $1,200 in donations over a few weeks.
His videos were all about being natural: “I sleep how I wanna sleep and I try to forget about the cam,” he explains. This approach allowed Milow to appeal to a variety of viewers, mostly between the ages of 18 and 35, some of whom enjoyed “the silence, the comfort, the feeling of being with someone” and others who watched him sleeping as a form of “voyeur fetishism”.
“What people like about it is the tease. They love getting teased,” Milow, who tends to stream in a vest and pants, muses. “They don’t wanna see me completely naked or doing sexual stuff – there are already sites for that.”
In the end, Milow’s streams got on the wrong side of YouTube’s strict rules on nudity and sexual content. But this no-tolerance policy was previously part of what Milow liked about streaming on the platform, as the rules reduced pressure from thirsty viewers asking him to expose his ass, penis or feet in videos, and they helped to keep the majority of comments respectful.
Interest in sleep streams has picked up in 2021, but these videos aren’t merely a fad. They exist on a broad spectrum that ranges from straightforward prank videos to titillating voyeurism, giving them durable appeal. Plus, as long as there’s money to make, YouTubers will keep milking this cash cow.
“I don’t think sleep streams will go away when lockdown ends,” speculates Super Mainstream. “I don’t want to do them forever, but I’ll keep going until I gain a following – I just like to make people laugh.”