A battle has been brewing over the past few weeks on YouTube for the illustrious title of the most subscribed channel on the platform. Since December 23rd 2013, that crown has been on the mantle of Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie. Kjellberg is a Swedish vlogger best known for Let’s Plays and comedy skits. His style — loud, over-the-top, profanity laden — is especially popular with YouTube’s key demographic of teenagers, and soon PewDiePie’s fame spiralled to levels that the site had never seen before. Soon, he was profiled in major newspapers, cameoing in South Park and appearing on talk shows with Stephen Colbert. According to Forbes, his 2018 earnings are estimated to be somewhere around $15.5 million, placing him at number 9 on the list of the highest paid stars on YouTube. These profits came in spite of a controversial couple of years for Kjellberg, wherein Disney cut ties with him after several videos were revealed to feature Nazi references and anti-Semitism. Later in 2017, he would apologize for using a racial slur in a live stream, although he would also claim that a lot of his comments were taken out of context.
All in all, Felix Kjellberg is doing fine. He remains at the top of YouTube’s most subscribed list as of the writing of this post. His main competition is T-Series, an Indian record label and film production company founded in 1983 that releases several videos a day, mostly trailers and music videos. The cause has become a hot button issue for YouTube, with fellow big-name vloggers on the site like Markiplier and jacksepticeye speaking in favour of keeping PewDiePie’s numbers high enough to retain number 1. One fan went so far as to hijack over 50,000 printers to send out a message urging people to subscribe to PewDiePie. The battle has been posited as one of corporations versus people, wherein PewDiePie represents the ‘real YouTube’ while T-Series is the business giant of soulless worth. To ‘save’ YouTube, fans are encouraged to be Team PewDiePie.
I’m not sure I even have to explain to you all why this is an utterly ludicrous idea, but it still summarizes the torrid relationship we have with YouTube as well as the site’s own myriad problems. How does a multi-millionaire with 73 million subscribers become the scrappy underdog? PewDiePie is the creation of YouTube and they don’t know how to deal with that.
When the scandal erupted last year over PewDiePie’s bad behaviour, racial slurs and anti-Semitism, many people who frequent YouTube weren’t in the least bit surprised. I know I wasn’t. Like many people, I was already familiar with his shtick, the language he used and the 4Chan devolved shock jock routine that defined his mega-millions persona. He wasn’t a unique case either. You didn’t have to hunt hard to find a vlogger who used racist language or a streamer who slid into bouts of casual sexism. Last year, YouTuber Jon Jafari, better known as JonTron, was part of a debate stream wherein he argued that ‘we don’t need immigrants from incompatible places’ and ‘nobody wants to become a minority in their own country.’ It didn’t affect his popularity. As of the writing of this post, the latest video on the JonTronShow channel received over 4.9 million views in one day.
PewDiePie was fine too. He lost Disney’s backing but he was never really punished by fans or YouTube alike. Sure, a YouTube Red show he worked on was cancelled but the real money was never in that show. Look at Logan Paul for another example: A major YouTube star who the platform had supported and cultivated as part of that promotion of an aspirational goal to audiences — you too can be YouTube famous! - whose controversies were but a blip on the road to greatness. Logan Paul, following the very public scandal wherein he visited Aoikagahara in Japan and videoed a suicide victim, his work was briefly demonetized and he lost some sponsors but those subscriber numbers did a-okay. He has never been more popular.
Of the top 20 most subscribed channels on YouTube, six of them are channels of what would be considered YouTubers like PewDiePie, although he is the only one whose primary language is English. The rest are channels for musicians like Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry or televisions series like The Ellen Show. This is where a lot of YouTube clicks go to. Think of how every late-night talk show engineers a major amount of their series to to fit YouTube, from interviews to skits to gaming videos. YouTube is a business that still retains the sheen of accessibility to its users. Everyone can do what PewDiePie does, they promise. If you have a good webcam and basic editing software, you can make the leap into vlogging. Who knows? Perhaps you’re exactly what audiences are looking for, be you a gamer, a make-up lover, a toy collector, or just someone with photogenic children. You can do it and remain totally independent too, with no meddling from outside corporations or pesky publicists. It’s us against them and that remains at the heart of this notion of ‘PewDiePie the underdog’. Disney dropped him but he kept fighting. It’s a fun narrative if you ignore everything else.
Few YouTube celebrities make their living from videos alone. The ad revenue the platform offers is nowhere near as easy to earn as many think it is and even the top viewed pages aren’t pulling in the kind of cash one would assume a million views would garner. The big names all have sponsorship deals, merchandising, television appearances, modelling gigs, and side-hustles that are decidedly of the traditional trappings of celebrity. PewDiePie is not bereft of these, but for those who see YouTube as the anti-establishment alternative to traditional media, the democratic opposition to the supposed elites, he’s easy enough to paint as such. But he’s still the multi-millionaire with over 73 million subscribers and a track record of bigoted language.
There are decent cases to be made by YouTube users in favour of keeping the site ‘for the people’: The site’s algorithm has screwed over many people and there is the increasingly impossible to ignore problem of the site’s potential for right-wing radicalizing of its viewers. Ultimately, the site doesn’t want to lose captive audiences. It can’t afford to. So, a battle between giants that borrows a weak underdog narrative keeps the lights on and it helps to perpetuate a long-dead dream about the site’s aspirational value. For many of its fans, the celebrities of YouTube will always be the small fry, no matter how much money they make. If that dream dies, YouTube may go along with it.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.