Some Quick Thoughts on the Coverage of PewDiePie’s Fall from Grace

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The famous YouTuber Felix Kjellberg (known more readily as PewDiePie) has been in the news a lot lately — and not even just blog-type news but in actual “mainstream” sources like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — due to the fallout of an antisemitic joke he made in one of his videos. For those who don’t know, Kjellberg ran a video a few weeks back featuring him wreaking havoc on the web platform Fiverr. In said video, he paid virtual Jesus to inveigh people to subscribe to his alternative channel, tried to convince a hearthstone player to play another virtual game, and instructed three young men to submit a video of them holding up a sign that said “Death to Jews.” The first two were fairly comedic while the third, understandably, was massively uncomfortable — even to Kjellberg who insisted that he didn’t actually think that the individuals would actually go through with the request since he submitted equally horrible and/or ridiculous things to other users who refused to follow through with the order.

The news regarding the story has circled around the obvious impropriety of Kjellberg’s actions and the subsequent backlash that he experienced. He’s lost sponsorship deals, YouTube has announced that it would not be dropping his original series, and there has been a torrent of comments from the public on various social media sites. As someone who also makes YouTube videos (but limits his mediocre attempts at humor to just memes and cheesy animations) and who has a penchant to overthink things, I felt that I should put my opinion out there too. Because, frankly, I think the commentary surrounding the controversy has been missing a pretty big issue.

Most of the discussion has been centering around Kjellberg’s style of humor, his freedom to express whatever jokes he wants, the obvious impropriety of said joke, the evolving nature of satire and comedy in an ecosystem which values dark humor, whether or not offensive commentary for commentary’s sake can be co-opted into “satire” — things of that nature. Now, that’s mostly me paraphrasing and encapsulating the discussions in comment sections so take these categories with a grain of salt; the number of people giving the sort of reasoned, well-thought out, and deliberate arguments intimated by these broad categories is not particularly high because, you know, the Internet[1]. But people were limiting their discussion to these points because that’s largely how the playing field has been set by those who first broached the topic publicly.

What’s missing, though, is any sort of commentary or investigation into the premise of Kjellberg’s video. Although he may ardently insist that he’s an apolitical comedian, once a creative act has been published and let out into the world it’s no longer owned by the creator. It belongs to the viewers to investigate and interpret.And a clear interpretation of the video’s initial premise is the absurdity of the “gig economy” as facilitated by organizations like Fiverr and the internet in general. Now that’s not to downplay how that point was made manifest. I just want to be clear: I do not condone the joke that he made, antisemitic remarks, or bigotry in general. I am appreciative of the fact that Kjellberg has since apologized, acknowledged his culpability in the matter, and has committed to avoiding this type of shock humor in the future. It does not absolve him of the action but I can always respect an earnest commitment to change oneself for the better. But, at the same time, we cannot get overly bogged down in the semantics of his commentary because we then become blind to the substance.

Kjellberg came to this video topic because he intuitively felt that there was something ridiculous about the kind of activity happening on Fiverr. People will offer services ranging to just about any economic activity under the sun and will perform them for about, appropriately enough, five dollars. A number of them will also allow a pretty significant amount of customization in their product. The three men I was referencing earlier promised that any user inputted message would be put on their sign. Which is pretty remarkable considering that they have to film each video individually and they only get five dollars total each time. Probably less after Fiverr has their cut. So Kjellberg started the video with the idea of “hey, people are doing really wacky things — and I can even get them to do more wacky things — for just five bucks! How ridiculous is that?”

The answer: Pretty ridiculous. And it says a lot about the nature of the economy of the Internet that this sort of operation doesn’t face major push-back. I used the term “gig economy” earlier, which is appropriately evocative of the sort of things that musicians do to try to survive.

(Source) We all like to think that we’re temporarily embarrassed rock stars, so it’s a pretty appropriate term.

The Internet promises no stable income and many of the opportunities that are out there for people to earn semi-regular amounts of money have incredibly low return on investments. I can speak from experience. I would often write as a freelancer to try and make a few bucks in undergrad. I was getting paid about a penny per word. Fortunately, I got quick enough that I could write about 2,000 words in about an hour/hour-and-a-half so I could at least have some walking around money. But there are a number of people who are reliant on gigs like this to supplement their income or even to be their primary means of income. It’s a system where, as producers, we really didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. I get that I could have sought better employment opportunities elsewhere (believe me, I understand how supply and demand works) but not everyone can. And when you have an international marketplace, people can offer pennies for work because that’s actually a reasonable request if you’re working from some countries. There’s no viable competition with that.

I’m not here to talk about my experiences with that sort of “gig economy” or even to write about its many problems or faults. There have been people who are way smarter than me who have deftly handled the issue. Both those who feel that it’s immoral and those who feel that it’s a great example of capitalism’s ability to drive economic innovation. I implore you to read people who argue both of these perspectives because there’s a lot of good reason to buy either. The point is, though, that these weren’t the conversations that came up from Kjellberg’s actions.

No one in the mainstream press even put their pinky toes in the topical waters. There was no investigating into how the things like Fiverr can engender activities that its users may morally disagree with. It doesn’t talk about how these activities can reduce moral dilemmas to a paycheck and how the Internet is driving down the amount that must be cashed in. Nothing about the insane amount of leverage that service-requesters have compared to producers. Nothing about how YouTube, itself, is a part of this gig economy and on the pressures that Kjellberg has to face to maintain a stable income in a world driven to click on things promising shock, awe, and outrage. I promise you that such a discussion could be navigated without condoning the actions that inspired it; I know personally people who are smart enough to explore its contours. Shoot, not even that much about the state of antisemitism around the world. Most of it has been in the context of this “rise” in the West while ignoring how pretty damn casual it has to be globally for three people to look at a request and say “you know what, yeah, that looks like an OK thing to do.” There are systems embedded in systems at play here — and we’re just focusing on the act itself and the fact that it was instigated by a YouTuber.

I’m reminded of an event that happen in 2015. Former President Obama went on a podcast to discuss the deeper issue of race relations. During which he said:

“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

His comment was to make the point that there are deeper structures of racial issues that exist well bellow the day-to-day “politeness” that comes from not using a racial slur. (How that’s considered polite and not just human decency is beyond me, but that’s another topic). However, what do you think that most of the media, and the Internet more generally, reacted to? The fact that the president was discussing deeper patterns of racism? Or the fact that he used the N-word? If you guessed the former, you have a little too much faith in the kind of discourse that will take place in the 24 hour news cycle[2].

To be clear, I believe ardently in the goods of capitalism. In the innovations that it facilitates, economic, technological and cultural, and in the benefice it can provide. However, I am not blind to its shortcomings either. And I second the notion made by none other than Adam Smith, the founder of what may be called “modern capitalism,” in insisting that a free market system unrestrained by common decency and moral rectitude is ultimately bankrupt. And I think that conversations surrounding the juxtaposition of the such views, the Internet, and contemporary free market dogma are what are sorely missing in the aftermath of Kjellberg’s actions. We need to address bigotry. We need to address the casual forms that it may take. But if we solely tread the deliberative waters and ignore the deeper issues, we may find ourselves unprepared when their social repercussions finally bubble up to the surface.

This post was originally posted on A Wild Political Nerd Appears.

Peter R. Licari is a Graduate Student in Political Science at the University of Florida specializing in American Politics, Political Behavior, and Political Methodology. The opinions expressed are his own. He can also be found on his website, on YouTube, and on Twitter(@prlitics13). What little spare time remains is dedicated to long-distance running and to oddly productive one-sided conversations with his cat, Asia.

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[1] Although, to be fair, I am always struck, in the best of ways, by the amount of people of all backgrounds and ideological positions who want to come together and civilly discuss an issue — even if they disagree. You don’t need to be the most articulate, well-researched, or “philosophical” to have the best points. Just a willingness to think, to explain one’s thoughts, and do so with civility.

[2] There were a number of high-profile outlets that did spend the space to discuss the deeper issue. However, this was largely limited to written stories and editorials and, at least from my experience, did not reflect the preponderance of television and/or social commentary.

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