Everyone Is Wrong About PewDiePie vs. T-Series
The Three Dominant Narratives Around YouTube’s Biggest Battle
PewDiePie’s recent loss (and subsequent reclaim) of the number-one subscribed YouTube channel spot to T-Series, as conceded in his newest diss track, “Congratulations,” has sent a shockwave through the YouTube community — and beyond.
The “Great Subscriber War” is said to have started in August 2018, when PewDiePie — also known as Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, a Swedish YouTuber that made his start playing games and now spends his time reviewing memes — first uploaded a video acknowledging T-Series, an Indian record label and film company. For five years, PewDiePie had been the number-one subscribed YouTuber, but T-Series began catching up fast to PewDiePie’s 60+ million subscriber count.
FlareTV started a livestream to document the two channels’ evolving sub counts on September 1, and suddenly things started to escalate. PewDiePie uploaded his first diss track against T-Series, “bitch lasagna,” on October 5, 2018, and Mr. Beast, a fellow YouTuber, bought a bunch of billboards to promote PewDiePie’s channel on October 26. Pretty soon everyone started throwing their hat in the ring by hacking printers, livestreaming support, creating more diss tracks, hosting parades, and even buying a billboard in Times Square.
Hmm, no, actually. No, we can’t. Because even if PewDiePie has thrown in the towel, the rhetoric around his “battle” with T-Series is still something to be concerned about. Three running narratives have emerged that are incomplete or damaging in some way — to both sides. This kind of misconstruction can lead to misinformation and, in the extreme, blatant untruths.
Deconstructing these narratives is essential to understanding the facts of the situation, rather than the stories projected by social media sites, the channels involved, and even some major news sites.
So let’s jump into it, shall we?
1. PewDiePie is David and T-Series is Goliath.
This is the most common narrative through which to talk about PewDiePie vs. T-Series, and it’s one that’s been exacerbated by fellow YouTubers and news sites alike, including The Verge, who, in their recent article about PewDiePie’s concession, stated:
“…whereas he saw it as a meme, Kjellberg’s fans, and many creators within the community, viewed the battle between Kjellberg and T-Series as the last stand on YouTube between independent personalities and corporate entities… subscribing to PewDiePie became a form of rebellion against YouTube as well as just a popular meme.”
Many popular YouTubers that viewed this battle as, well, a battle included h3h3, a comedy and podcasting duo; Markiplier, a primarily-gaming YouTuber; and even PewDiePie himself, who argued that YouTube “will be sullied with YouTubers getting influenced by commercialism and creators compromising on authenticity if large corporations start winning.”
Before the Great Subscriber War, Polygon published an opinion piece that declared that YouTube was becoming the “new MTV,” what with their lack of support for individual creators, particularly after the Adpocalypse, an advertiser boycott on YouTube that led to the widespread demonetization of videos across the platform:
“Hollywood names like Will Smith and Demi Lovato are safe bets. Same with music videos already vetted by major record labels. Clips from late night shows are another safe bet.
That’s the utopian version of YouTube the company wants to sell to advertisers.
It’s just not the YouTube that we know.”
This narrative is the same one being emphasized now in the midst of PewDiePie vs. T-Series. Some articles have even mentioned it by name, including the Evening Standard: “[PewDiePie’s] battle against T-Series has been described as ‘David vs Goliath’ since the Indian channel is the product of a company which posts Bollywood trailers and songs in a country of 1.3 billion people.”
Not to mention this article from The Quillette’s Allen Farrington:
“It was a case study in new media acting as a force equalizer between David and Goliath… There’s a sense of solidarity among YouTube’s Davids: The late surge that kept PewDiePie ahead of T-Series was fuelled in large part by other YouTube ‘creators’ — the one- and two-person shops that create original content solely for the YouTube platform.”
To give credit where credit is due, this narrative has one of the facts right: PewDiePie is one man, and T-Series is a major company. Polygon’s Julia Alexander put it best:
“Kjellberg is one person. He can’t upload six or seven videos a day, as T-Series did just yesterday. It’s like comparing Drake to all of Spotify, or Michael Jackson to all of MTV back in the day.”
But there’s a danger in perpetuating this David vs. Goliath mentality — the fear that some will take this to the extreme. Some already have, as a number of PewDiePie fans have taken it upon themselves to attack T-Series’ videos with dislikes, negative comments, or, in some extreme cases, racial slurs. As PewDiePie himself puts it:
“Sometimes, in these comments [on Pewdiepie vs. T-Series livestreams] — and you guys have told me this as well — you see comments such as like, ‘F**ck Indians’ or ‘F**ck Indians c-word.’ Just really distasteful, unnecessary comments.”
Right as the great battle commenced, The Verge directly called out this kind of narrative: “…rivalries play a huge role on YouTube because they give viewers narratives where pseudo-heroes and villains exist with low (if any) stakes… It’s internet kayfabe of the highest order.”
This doesn’t necessarily harm anyone if it isn’t extreme, as The Verge is quick to point out, but it can skew the narrative and make one side out to be a cold-hearted villain. It unbalances the situation and makes it harder to objectively examine what’s happening here: a music company and an independent YouTuber are neck-in-neck for the top subscriber spot on YouTube. No judgments, no heroes or villains.
It doesn’t help that the language often used around the situation — “battle,” “war,” “fight,” “king” — all imply an almost-militaristic view as well. They indicate that this is something to be “won,” and that there will be a “defeat,” a “loser.”
In actuality, subscriber counts change every day, and as the whole event has shown, no one channel can necessarily stay on top forever. T-Series has passed PewDiePie over 12 times now, and even before T-Series was in the picture, Smosh used to be the #1 channel before PewDiePie overtook them.
The Internet is full of these changes of hands, these passes of the baton, but the baton can flip back and forth or go flying across the room to someone completely different. Nothing’s really set in stone, and no one can truly win. To take that at face value, and especially to take it to the extreme, is skewed thinking — but it’s not the only narrative at play here.
2. Supporting T-Series is an important act of nationalism.
This is the flip side to David and Goliath — the side that says that, by supporting T-Series, you’re supporting your country. In this case, India.
There are tons of YouTubers that have shown their support for T-Series, whether through diss tracks or touching videos of support. T-Series supporters have also shown their outrage toward the more offensive PewDiePie fans. Bilal Ahmed tweeted, “Don’t worry Guys All The Dislike On #TeraHua Video Is From @pewdiepie New Video,” and Indian singer Amaal Malik replied, “Yes it’s a scam, just give all your love to #TeraHua.”
Neeraj Kalyan, President of T-Series, voiced his support in a statement to DNA: “It’s a matter of pride for all Indians that an Indian YouTube Channel will soon be world’s biggest channel on YouTube.”
This is a fair assessment — there’s a certain degree of nationalistic pride when your country achieves something like becoming the world’s most-subscribed channel. As someone who comes from an Irish family, I have to say that I’m pretty happy for Jacksepticeye, an Irish gaming YouTuber, for becoming such a huge figure on the platform.
But some folks have taken it to an extreme through their language. In a street interview with Indians by Asian Boss, two unnamed interviewees in particular held strong nationalistic views:
“At the end of the day, I’m an Indian, and patriotism lies within me.”
“People should follow T-Series not only for the Hindi music, but, I think… T-Series has done a lot for… the country also.”
This kind of corporate nationalism is a bit concerning, especially when companies can have just as tumultuous pasts as individuals. PewDiePie himself called out T-Series for various controversies that have gone relatively unnoticed during the battle, including the allegations of “evasion of huge tax and siphoning off hundreds of crores to foreign countries” against Bhushan Kumar, the chairman and MD of T-Series. This came a few months after Kumar launched the #BharatWinsYouTube campaign in support of T-Series in a short video on Twitter and Facebook:
What has been forgotten in this narrative — and over-exaggerated in the first — is that T-Series is a company. It’s not just one person, though it was founded by one, and it has different intents and practices than an individual. It works within India, but T-Series in and of itself does not represent India as a whole, despite its dominance over the Indian music business and film industry.
Supporting T-Series does not necessarily mean supporting India, nor is it “essential” to do so as an Indian resident. What’s great about the Internet is that we can make our own choices about who, in this case, to subscribe to.
If you want to support T-Series, go for it! I won’t begrudge you at all. But don’t support them mindlessly with pure nationalistic intent, much in the same way I encourage PewDiePie fans to give their support with the same critical eye. They’re both public figures that can be critiqued, and that fact is missing from both of these initial narratives.
And guess which other narrative that crucial detail is missing from?
3. PewDiePie is a Nazi.
Uh-oh! Is she really going to go there?
Yes. Yes, I am.
This is a long-running story that started about two years ago when PewDiePie first ran into his bout of controversies. It began with PewDiePie making a “Death to All Jews” joke in one of his videos in order to make a point about extreme requests on the freelance service site Fiverr. Immediately following the incident, The Wall Street Journal published an article on the incident while also claiming that PewDiePie had included anti-Semitic jokes and Nazi imagery in nine separate videos, rather than just the one.
PewDiePie responded via a Tumblr post, in which he clarified that he did not support “any kind of hateful attitudes” or “hate-based groups,” and a video in which he criticized The Wall Street Journal for taking many of those assumed Nazi references out of context.
Then the snowball started to gain traction. Though PewDiePie has worked to maintain his distance from these events, on December 9, 2018, he gave shout-outs to smaller YouTube channels at the end of a video, including one channel that used clips from the Charlottesville car attack in one of their videos. This brought the controversy back in full force, despite PewDiePie’s apology for the incident, his 18-minute deconstruction of the issue, and his removal of the controversial channel’s recommendation from his original video.
Some news sites have warned against PewDiePie’s potentially “harmful” rhetoric in a similar fashion to The Wall Street Journal, including Vox, whose hit piece was given the doomsday title, “YouTube’s most popular user amplified anti-Semitic rhetoric. Again.”
In addition, a Change.org petition recently circled around that boldly claimed, “It’s Time to remove PewDiePie from YouTube permanently,” despite its apparent stated intention to remove all “white supremacist content” from YouTube — not just PewDiePie’s. But I won’t get into that here — PewDiePie already countered each of the petition’s points in a recent video.
As much as this narrative has spread to other sites, Tumblr seems to be where it thrives. Multiple posts have circulated around the website about PewDiePie’s past controversies or how he’s “a n-word spewing jackass who was once embraced by a Neo Nazi news organization.” I’ve seen many of these posts cross my own Tumblr dash in the past few weeks, despite the fact that the last controversy happened over five months ago.
But the narrative goes deeper than rehashing old news. The language used often refers to PewDiePie as “trash,” “a goddamn nazi,” “baby’s first step to white supremacist radicalization,” and an “Alt-Right YouTube overlord.” This same language is used against PewDiePie fans, where one user said, “if youre still subscribed to and defending pewdiepiss at this point, youre a piece of shit and you have blood on your hands.” Another user simply asked fans to “choke bitch” and “die.”
This type of accusatory, sometimes-extreme rhetoric is a frequent sight on Tumblr, which is known for its intense, “no problematic individuals allowed” attitude. Another Tumblr user asked fans to “Kick [PewDiePie] out” and “Shut him down, before it gets worse.” A different user has even said PewDiePie “could burn in a trash fire and the world would be a better place for it.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone on Tumblr shares this view, but those posts often have hundreds of notes, so there’s an awful lot of users out there who share this sentiment. Then again, some of those notes include people defending PewDiePie, so it’s hard to tell exactly how many users are perpetuating this narrative.
Either way, this kind of thinking is frightening. As Farrington puts it:
“PewDiePie recommended a rapidly recited list of 28 little-known channels to his subscribers, one of which was later discovered, by Vox, to have old Nazi-sympathetic content in its archives. Which means PewDiePie is a Nazi, and you are probably a Nazi, too — because that’s how the Internet now works.”
The thing is, though, it’s dangerous to argue with people on Tumblr. Really anywhere on the Internet, but Tumblr especially, as they’ve shown through their tumultuous past. I was legitimately afraid to address this narrative because of its inherently-volatile nature.
But as with every one of these narratives, it’s important to note that public figures — just like anyone — can be critiqued. It’s essential to do so, especially when voicing support for one.
Being critical, though, does not equal shutting someone down completely, ignoring their points, accusing them of being too “problematic,” rejecting them forever, and calling it a day.
So Maybe We’re All Wrong. Now What?
PewDiePie is worthy of criticism. T-Series is worthy of criticism. That does not mean that we should burn either of them and forget they exist. After all, PewDiePie is still one of the most-subscribed channels, and he has a wide reach. He has continued cultural impact, and that isn’t something to be dismissed with extreme rhetoric. And T-Series is a huge, growing platform for music and film that has reached the global stage. They’re having continued cultural impact, too.
Dismissing either of them, lauding one while demonizing the other, just leads to miscommunication and hostility. Being objective and critical when need be is what leads to understanding — with anything, really. Being aware of the narratives that are constructed to skew any which way is as much a part of that as anything else.
And by the way, Tumblr? I’m not a Nazi. Just wanted to make sure you knew that before you flood my inbox.