Watching someone sleep is intimate and a little creepy. In movies and television, when people wake up to discover they are being stared at, they rear their heads back, cover up their morning breath, and giggle awkwardly, scanning the covers for cover. When we sleep, we’re vulnerable. Also, maybe, we’re drooling. If it’s a little odd to study the face of a sleeping intimate, what does that make it to watch the face of a sleeping stranger?
You can do just this on YouNow, an app that allows users to broadcast video of themselves live (just profiled in fascinating detail by Slate’s Amanda Hess). In a YouNow channel called #sleepingsquad people, largely teens, record themselves sleeping, lounging in bed, getting ready for bed, or using YouNow to put off going to bed.
“Who is in here,” one teen in New Jersey asked another at 9:40 on a Wednesday night. “Me, you, and a new person,” his friend replied, in her pajamas. “I gotta wait until that new person leaves,” he said. I realized I was the person; I clicked out so they could go to sleep. A few minutes later, when I checked back in, the lights had dimmed and they were both in bed, a red lava lamp pulsing in the corner. I was still the only person watching.
On #sleepingsquad, you can watch about a dozen people at a time sleeping or performing some sleep-adjacent behavior. If a user has lots of fans, as Tyler Knight does, maybe when he sleeps—face smashed into a pillow—the chat room will be hopping with other users discussing how cute he is, wondering if he is hungry, declaring him a bae, or bickering about the stuffed animal, Toby, peeking into the frame. “y dos he sleep with the stuffed Nimal,” one user asked, only to be swiftly set straight by another, “Because Toby is gr8,” and then still another, “its toby and cause he wants to.” Are they really strangers if they know the name of your transitional object?
But most users only amass a significant number of viewers—by which I mean, more than 10— when they are awake. I saw one girl streaming herself lying in bed, reading her iPhone, while, in the background, The Polar Express played on a TV she was ignoring. Another woman lay in bed silently, sometimes playing with her hair, at others reading on an iPad she held so it entirely blocked her face. Watching people on their screens through a screen: It sounds like end times, but it feels more like watching a yule log burning, ambient background motion dependent on our lizard brains’ fascination with the movement of fire and other people.
#Sleepingsquad, like so much about technology, conflates our vanity and our vulnerability, our self-obsession and our sharing instincts, in confusing ways. Broadcasting oneself sleeping, like tweeting about one’s breakfast, seems like the height of self-involvement: Who could possibly care? But what kind of vanity is it that invites people—potentially predatory ones—to see you at your most exposed, most pedestrian, most mouth breathing? If this is narcissism, it’s a narcissism that doesn’t put forth a polished, perfect face but an actual snoring one. What better way to proclaim that you woke up like this than to actually show yourself waking up?
Katie Notopoulos, writing about #sleepingsquad for BuzzFeed this past March, proffered a number of plausible theories as to why tweens might broadcast or watch themselves sleeping: boredom, fun, the thrill of constant feedback and stimulation, or some combination thereof, along with complete unconcern about potential lurking perverts and creeps. Zach Clayton, YouNow’s most popular broadcaster and the guy who first streamed himself sleeping, told Hess, “I actually started sleepingsquad. A couple months ago, it was a much bigger thing. There would be like 200 people on the hashtag. When I first did it, it was like 12 o clock on a school night, and I just wanted to get on, but I was so tired. I actually got requests, like, ‘can you sleep on broadcast?’ And I was like, ‘I’ll try, but I don’t know how that would work out.’ I haven’t done it in a long time. Months after I started it, I looked back on it and thought, ‘That’s so weird. Why did I even make that a thing?’ ”
I direct messaged with a teenager who had just guested on a friend’s #sleepingsquad broadcast, and he too thought it was a pretty strange channel. (When someone guests, the stream turns into a split screen, and you can see the original streamer and their guest side by side.) “To be honest I don’t think it’s a hashtag that should be present, as it could possibly endanger you with regards to potential pedophiles on the site,” he wrote. “People broadcast on it as a way for them to gain more experience points and level up. In my eyes it really is quite creepy.” (Apparently a guest broadcast is not an endorsement.)
It is very, very easy to write off #sleepingsquad—if not YouNow more largely—as an ill-conceived, time-wasting, under-regulated, possibly dangerous way for teens to act out their goofy, insecure, fame-seeking ids. But trawl around YouNow for even a little while and you will find some surprising stuff to go along with the inane, dull, squicky, and otherwise unwatchable. Take, for example, Dr. Greg, a middle-aged pastor who faithfully reads through his chat room and assembles a list of people asking that he pray for them, and all the while, a line of text crawls across the screen declaring this a non-hateful, LBGTQ-accepting space.
Unexpectedly nice things can happen on #sleepingsquad. A girl, in bed, invites a friend to guest and they talk for a few minutes, in the sort of incoherent way people do when they are both paying attention to something else—in this case, the chatroom. For a while the girl can’t even be heard because her mic isn’t set up properly. The boy, who has an Australian accent, says he went to an Ed Sheeran concert earlier that night. She asks him to play her something, a request he seems to ignore, until, suddenly, minutes later, he takes out his acoustic guitar and begins to sing. He has a small, sweet voice. Not too bad to fall asleep to, really.
Read more from The Drift, Slate's pop-up blog about sleep.