It’s been a rough year for YouTube. It’s almost been just as rough for YouTube’s most popular and newsworthy creator, PewDiePie.
The platform’s trouble began in February after videos containing hateful content were spotted playing with commercials from major companies attached. YouTube’s rush to rid offensive videos off the main site led to the first of many panic attacks the community suffered. The “adpocalypses” as they would come to be known by YouTube’s creator base launched panic attack after panic attack as YouTubers worried they wouldn’t be able to make a living if their videos continued to be demonetized.
Things went from bad to worse for YouTube. After working to address concerns raised by critics and its user base, a swarm of disturbing videos targeted toward children, many of which contained sexually inappropriate behavior and mature content, were discovered. YouTube has been fighting to clear these types of videos from the platform, promising to have more than 10,000 contractors moderating the website and working toward building a better algorithm to catch these types of videos as soon as they’re uploaded.
Volatility best describes YouTube’s 2017, but glancing at the company’s year in review video, YouTube Rewind, you wouldn’t have guessed. Everything is peaches and cream, with some of YouTube’s biggest creators like Jake Paul and MKBHD participating; but PewDiePie is nowhere to be seen.
A quick history: YouTube Rewind began in 2010 and is essentially an advertisement for the company. That’s why it’s not surprising PewDiePie or any of YouTube’s biggest stories aren’t included in the video; choosing to not highlight the more afflicted parts of the website makes sense.
YouTube Rewind has always represented more than that for the creator base. The end-of-year video became a goal for YouTube creators. Being included inYouTube Rewind signified being enough of a recognizable face with an active and dedicated fanbase that you’ve earned a spot in YouTube’s Rewind video. Although the video itself is nothing more than marketing for YouTube, it’s an accomplishment for creators who are trying to attain stardom status.
The decision not to include PewDiePie in the video was deliberate. Between 2013 and 2017, PewDiePie represented the type of creator YouTube wanted people to see. He was still a controversial figure — people didn’t understand why he was making the seven figures he was screaming at video games — but his dedication to creating a daily video and working on longer projects was enough for YouTube to put the spotlight on him.
PewDiePie inspired a generation of new YouTubers, like jackscepticeye, shining as the go-to example of what real success on YouTube looked like. He wasn’t just a casual creator, but he was the epitome of what a little bit of luck and work could amount to.
That changed in February. After a Wall Street Journal report detailed a series of videos on PewDiePie’s YouTube channel dating back to August 2016 containing anti-semitic messages, PewDiePie was quickly dropped from Disney-owned Maker Studios and lost his YouTube Red series, Scared PewDiePie.
PewDiePie issued an 11-minute video remarking on the situation, noting he considered himself a “rookie comedian” and arguing that “a lot of people loved the video.”
“A lot of people loved the video and a lot of people didn’t and it’s almost like two generations of people arguing if this is okay or not. My intention was just to show how stupid the website is and how far you can push it by paying $5.
“I’m sorry for the words that I used, as I know they offended people, and I admit the joke itself went too far.”
Although PewDiePie tried to walk away from everything that happened to him, he became the face of YouTube’s problems. If there was an adpocalypse situation, complaints about newfound monetization issues on the platform led back to PewDiePie’s anti-Semitic videos. If YouTube was in trouble for just about anything, it was PewDiePie’s fault.
PewDiePie, a controversial figure from the minute he became famous, fell into the role of YouTube’s ultimate villain. He’s played on it in new videos, joking about having a “Christian channel” and using phrases like “Are you racist (test)?” in his video titles.
PewDiePie didn’t back down from the felon the world wanted to paint him as.
The negative attention hasn’t hurt PewDiePie’s channel. Since the initial Wall Street Journal article, PewDiePie has grown his channel by more than four million subscribers and maintains an active subreddit where he interacts with his community almost daily. The setback people thought PewDiePie would suffer from hasn’t happened quite the way they thought, but the man behind the PewDiePie username, Felix Kjellberg, is a different story.
It’s rare that the real Kjellberg is seen. Like almost every other creator on YouTube, Kjellberg plays into an exaggerated character; PewDiePie has been an incredibly successful venture for him. When he does get serious, however, and does talk about his feelings on a subject that impacts him greatly, it’s a rare glimpse into who Kjellberg is.
When PewDiePie was caught using the N-word during a YouTube Live stream in September, he issued a response video to apologize. He explained that while he doesn’t expect people to believe him, he hates how he “personally fed into that part of gaming as well.”
At one point, Kjellberg gets visibly upset about this incident, tying it into his past controversies and admitting that, “it’s not that I can think I can say or do whatever I want and get away with it … I’m just an idiot. But that doesn’t make what I said okay.” He ends the video noting that he can’t keep making excuses and he needs to be better.
Kjellberg’s apology was brushed off. The argument was made that if Kjellberg didn’t feel comfortable using that word in his own private life with friends than it wouldn’t have slipped out so casually during a stream. By the time this incident happened, public consensus around PewDiePie had reached a point where his apologies stopped meaning anything; he was being judged for what he did and the content he created, not the apologies he offered after the fact.
2017 was a year of apologies, and Kjellberg’s ongoing response videos to things he said or did fed into a narrative: He wasn’t sorry for the words he said or videos he uploaded, but was regretful that he got caught.
I’m not here to defend Kjellberg for what he’s done in the past. Kjellberg did some stupid, hateful things and it’s going to take a long time before people forgive or forget. He’s tried to brush off that it doesn’t bother him, using his fanbase’s adoration and growing subscriber base to revel in the notion that he’s the untouchable outsider. It’s a role portrayal that’s easy to play into when other popular YouTubers, like Smosh Games’ executive producer, Dave Raub, are offering the same comparison.
“He is one of those untouchable YouTubers that he’s at the top and he’s kind of looking for something and things to do,” Raub told Polygon. “We know that he does things for shock value, which is something that he’s been doing for years.”
The notion that PewDiePie is bigger than YouTube isn’t accurate, but there’s no doubt that he’s the most recognizable name on the platform. The issue with being the only person at the top, however, is that loneliness accompanies isolation and Kjellberg is finally, kind-of-sort-of feeling the bite.
PewDiePie uploaded a react video — a popular YouTube trope in which a creator reacts to another popular video and offers their own commentary on it — to YouTube’s 2017 Rewind project and offered some illuminating insight into what’s going through his head as he watches the community come together, leaving him in the cold.
“It wasn’t because I said no,” Kjellberg said. “It was because I wasn’t asked…2017 has been quite the year. It’s sad in a way that I’m not part of it, but like, I understand why. Like I’m not salty at YouTube for not inviting me or something.
“But, at the end of the day, I care more about YouTube. I care about what’s good for YouTube, what’s good for the platform than me being in it and I don’t know … pissing people off? I don’t know.”
It’s a rare moment of genuine honesty from Kjellberg before he jumps into the PewDiePie persona, calling out YouTube for the company’s liberal views and political statements. By the time he gets into the heart of the video and calls out creators that he notices in Rewind, it doesn’t take long for him to refer to Jake and Logan Paul, easily the two most influential vloggers on YouTube this year, as “cancer.”
It’s these moments that make PewDiePie seem like an irredeemable figure on YouTube. There’s certainly no defending the words he uses to describe other YouTubers. There’s also no way to defend his actions meant to antagonize those who are already mad at him. These videos act as a reminder to YouTube, the community and himself that he doesn’t need to be loved or respected by other people on the platform; he just needs to continue to be able to do whatever he wants.
As PewDiePie approaches 60 million subscribers, continuing his reign as King of YouTube, his future on the platform is secure but the direction of his channel is uncertain. Will Kjellberg play into the villainous role he sees himself in? He’s too big for YouTube executives to ignore and too big for them to do anything about his channel.
It’s evident that Kjellberg misses being a member of YouTube’s top creator community, but it’s unclear whether he’s willing to do anything about it going forward.
2017 was a problematic year for PewDiePie and YouTube-at-large; 2018 will mark a turning point for both the creator and the company he’s the unofficial face of. It’s just a matter of whether that decision isolates him further or sees him reign over all as the King of the Community once again.