Every Second Saturday between the hours of midnight and 4:20 am, 26-year-old Mikkel Nielsen is tortured with loud noises, flashing lights, and electric shocks. With a camera pointed at his cartoon bedding, the Dane tries to sleep while around 1,000 people watch live on Twitch.
Typically, around a hundred of these viewers donate money during the stream—the amount donated affects Nielsen’s environment. For $1, viewers can type a message that a bot will read aloud to Nielsen, waking him up. For $95, they can zap him via a shock bracelet wrapped around his wrist.
Nielsen is an “interactive sleep streamer,” a type of content creator burgeoning on Twitch and TikTok. In 2020, WIRED covered the rise of sleep streamers—but these early adopters simply filmed themselves slumbering peacefully, a phenomenon that seems quaintly antiquated once you’ve watched a man scream and punch his mattress while a high pitched whine rings through his speakers. This new cadre of sleep streamers don’t really sleep. They rig their rooms so that every online donation corresponds to an action—more often than not, one that is loud and annoying.
An Australian TikToker named Jakey Boehm is the sleeper of the moment—in May alone, he earned $34,000 during his streams. Other creators, such as YouTube’s “Asian Andy,” a pioneer of the format, boast about how much they earn in videos like, “HOW I MADE $16,000 WHILE SLEEPING FOR 7 HOURS.” Naturally, they’ve inspired copycats. My TikTok For You page has recently fed me a slew of amateur sleep streamers—from the man with a flour-filled balloon above his head to the woman who will allegedly have a bucket of water thrown over her for just shy of $150. One man is currently begging for 1,000 followers so he can start sleep streaming. (TikTok doesn’t allow users to livestream until they reach this threshold.)
For viewers, being able to rob a streamer of sleep is hilarious, but sleepers are drawn to further extremes to keep audiences entertained. While Boehm initially offered viewers only the opportunity to control his printer, his set-up has become increasingly elaborate—donations can now trigger a bubble machine and an inflatable tube man. How does it feel to earn money while losing sleep? What is life really like for successful sleep streamers—and should we be worried that they’re inspiring unsuccessful ones?
“Every time I do sleep stream, I’m laughing my ass off every single night because of sleep deprivation,” says Nielsen, who has nearly 1.4 million Twitch, TikTok, and YouTube subscribers combined. Nielsen estimates that he’s only ever had around six minutes of uninterrupted rest on a stream—and even then, he’s never managed to fully fall asleep. He ends his streams at 4:20 am, “plays a weed song,” processes his footage until around 5:30 am, and then sleeps until noon.
Nielsen uses the program Lumia Stream to connect his smart lights to his social media, and viewers regularly wake him up with a bright burst. The program If This Then That also enables him to connect different devices so that, for example, a donation on Twitch can zap his electric shock bracelet or blast out a YouTube video. Once, a neighbor’s boyfriend knocked on Nielsen’s door at 3 am to make a noise complaint, but after that he bought $200 of booze for each of his neighbors to apologize—he hasn’t received a complaint since.
Nielsen doesn’t want to disclose how much his interactive streams make, but he says he earns “enough.” “If I do sleep streams twice a month, I make enough from those to pay my rent, pay my bills,” he says, adding that he’s able to earn more from his regular, noninteractive YouTube videos because of advertising revenue.
According to Cornell professor Brooke Erin Duffy, this can be a problem. Duffy researches the social media economy and is the author of (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love, a book about the difficulties of digital labor. Successful sleep streamers, she says, “have drawn revenue from donations rather than ad sponsorships, and there’s a lot less stability when only one revenue stream is involved.”
I put it to Duffy that copycats may struggle to earn the figures touted by boastful sleep streamers—and that they’ll sacrifice their quality of life for ultimately very little. She concurs. “Like many microniche genres of online content, sleep streaming is likely to draw many aspirants, but only a few will reap sizable financial rewards,” she says. “Most of the streamers who have been able to earn an income began with a built-in audience and capitalized off of the faddishness of the practice.”
For Nielsen, sleep streaming is both financially and emotionally rewarding—he’s delighted when viewers reach out to say his streams helped them through tough times. “Some guy trying to fall asleep is enough to make another person happy, it’s enough to make them forget about their problems and just have a laugh for 20 minutes,” he says. For this reason, he’s not going to stop any time soon.
“My current plan is to get a house so I can do it bigger and better,” Nielsen says. He wants to put a “giant fucking subwoofer” directly under his bed. “At some point, there might be a breaking point where I say I can’t do this anymore,” he concedes, “and I’ll probably take a break and then come back to it again.”