A Holistic Look At PewDiePie's Career
He went from screaming while playing horror games, to being the epicenter of discussion on online toxicity.
Internet culture is but a sobering reflection of our most pressing woes–a sea of badness on top of which very few nuggets of clarity stay afloat. It makes much less sense to analyze internet culture’s complicity in some of the most heinous acts of emotional and physical torture against those most vulnerable away from the very people who occupy it–simply by virtue of being the only ones who create and consume content online, we’re the ones to account for its consequences regardless of our willingness to do so.
That same attitude that permeates so much of internet culture’s failures, can be aptly attributed to the style of humor it truly deems effective. It all seems innocent on the surface–until you start to poke holes in it and streams of wretched sadism start to pour. It is true that the internet has allowed some of the most constructive currents of discussion to flourish, but it has also in parallel let loose some of the vilest forms of inflammatory speech without supervision, and it had all turned out in the wake of great destruction none but a pandora’s box of tech executives’ non-existent capacity to duly deal with the issue of online toxicity from the very jump.
I used to watch gaming videos well before Gaming YouTube was ever a thing. Remember the incessant links you’d get about someone’s Minecraft or Call of Duty channel that were littered with pre-2010s-era bad graphic design, loud EDM intros, and commentary that may or may not pertain to the game played at all? It was basically the wild-west of everything and anything, and only a few channels managed emerged triumphant as the initial struggle of amassing subscribers raged forth.
Meet PewDiePie, a man who definitely does not need me to precede his name with any variation of the word “meet”. He’s by far the biggest content creator on the platform only — currently — bested by T-Series (there’s been a much publicized race between the two) and his style of delivery and the type of content he produces has been mostly shaped by what YouTube has pushing its creators to do, and what audiences were looking for on the platform. On August 16, 2013, PewDiePie became the most subscribed to YouTube channel on the planet. Tina Amini wrote for Kotaku saying “apparently the fans outweigh the haters… because PewDiePie is the number one (#1) most subscribed YouTube channel.” She further denotes “Good job, Internet. I knew I could count on you to love video games more than cheesy pop music.” And while the gaming press’ analysis of this event couldn’t be any more favorable, the implications it had for the platform were massive. PewDiePie would not only change what type of content channels would gravitate to make, but the tone of his videos defined an entire generation of gaming channels. Suddenly the stereotype of a man screaming his lungs out while playing a horror game no longer was a stereotype–it was the formula you had to follow to succeed, or further yet, survive.
YouTube is a space that cannibalizes those unwilling to change. Entire channels were left entirely in the dust as those once popular didn’t adapt–if you can’t recall channels like “Fred”, it’s because even their creators admitted defeat and were left only with the option to abandon their original niche and start anew. Many pre-Gaming YouTube channels have met the ultimate fate of desertion after their shticks no longer proved enticing enough a proposition–many of them pivoted to gaming as a way of catching pace, or left the platform altogether as they struggled to adapt.
The legend of the brofist himself left some quite useful memorabilia on the time he still used to post gaming videos. His 100k subs special comes up as first in a relevant search, and of his iconic screams, there are a lot. In fact, being very emotionally visceral was PewDiePie’s whole pitch sale–gaming videos were interesting enough on their own, but there was a lot of familiarity that Felix could immediately curtail by putting his vocal-cord-dashed spin on it.
Paul Tassi wrote for Forbes that “there’s no disputing what genre of videos has the largest presence on YouTube these days. According to data from Tubefilter, the 100 largest gaming channels on the video site now bring in 3.5 billion views a month.” He further added that “PewDiePie’s numbers dwarf even official gaming channels like Call of Duty”, poignantly remarking that “it shows that individual YouTube gaming personalities can attract a dramatically larger following than the corporate entities on the site.”
Soon thereafter of course, everyone started picking on the same trend. And PewDiePie was no longer the only one on YouTube with strong enough vocal cords who could perfectly orchestrate a scream either in response to a jump-scare, or completely unprovoked. Jacksepticeye and Markiplier were his most notable imitators, though they’ve ventured out far enough from their tendency to make haste in audience’ ears that classifying them as screaming-prone gaming streamers right now, or even two to three years ago would’ve been incorrect. As YouTube grew more competitive, the space for gamers to thrive was getting increasingly thin. PewDiePie took note, and shifted focus as a result.
YouTube’s sub-genre crazes are temporary at best–Derek Muller of the Veritasium channel recently made a video where he openly admits to his followers that the Science YouTube phase is well gone and that he’ll have to rely on gaming (aha!) the algorithm by making his videos as receptive to a good click-through-rate as possible. He demonstrated this by positing the theory that his Google Trends results, along with some of his colleagues’, is a good indication that the genre of science on YouTube is no longer getting the views it once used to get simply for lack of interest.
If you exercise the same method on PewDiePie, you can notice there’s been a steady decline since August of 2014. This meant that in order to still maintain that #1 status, PewDiePie had to turn away from gaming, but not completely put it aside as his content still remained gaming-adjacent even after it had deeply changed face. It’s important to note that PewDiePie didn’t do it out of loyalty for his core fanbase–it was rather a broad perception that those who grew watching him while they were still teenagers had matured, and so did their tastes for content. It was also the not-so-subtle impact gaming culture had on YouTube that made it really hard to not relate anything on the platform to it–hell, nowadays, it’s not even uncommon practice to see Fortnite transposed onto a video that it has absolutely nothing to do with.
It’d be an understatement to say that gaming culture had permeated nearly every single aspect of internet culture it came into contact with. It was only fit for PewDiePie’s transition out of gaming-focused content that it was going to retain much of his knack for the type of jokes gamers online tend to make. Furthermore, it meant that his core fanbase could seamlessly find themselves at home as that shift occurred. PewDiePie shed very little in making that transition, and it subsequently helped him retain his audience’s attention when a career change could’ve proven otherwise very catastrophic. The decision to pivot from gaming to variety content is by no small measure one of the smartest in YouTube business history.
So what does that content look like exactly? If you watched PewDiePie prior to his recent pivot, there’s almost nothing in common between the two. Where gameplay lends itself to political content being close to null, the focus on memes takes that and cranks it up a couple notches.
I took it upon myself to try and understand what audience PewDiePie caters to by watching 3+ hours of his content, both old and new, and much to my surprise, it was neither centrists, nor Nazis as is frequently being proclaimed. The truth of the matter is PewDiePie’s jokes very much land in a safe spot for most with any cursory understanding of internet culture–the conceit here is a good chunk of it is problematic, but usage drives it towards being either negative, or positive. If you’d assumed Felix was anyone else besides a straight white man from Sweden, a lot of his jokes still would have a very comedic flair to them, and they do end up fitting the bill of your average YouTube viewer without much issue.
One major appeal of PewDiePie’s content is how unusually open Felix is about himself. He made two videos discussing two distinct instances, one where his balls got broken (I’m relaying it verbatim) and one where his ass got that same treatment. In the “I broke my balls” video, he details his visit to a doctor after waking up with one ball swollen in very graphic detail. Whereas PewDiePie has renewed calls for fans to respect his privacy, he’s fairly open about his most personal stories in a way not a lot of YouTubers are, prompting thus some form of parasocial relationship to establish itself between him and the audience.
Felix even broke down in tears back in 2016 when he confessed to having weathered a really tough time emotionally, documenting one of first instances of what would later become more commonly known as “creative burnout”. That veil between him and what happens behind-the-scenes was momentarily lifted, just as Felix entrusted his subscriber base to respond diligently.
YouTuber Shannon Strucci made this point in her longform essay/documentary about parasocial relationships between creators and the audience with Bo Burnham and Jacksepticeye as the main subject of study, and concluded that oversharing with fans is in a certain sense a subconscious admission on part of the content creator that their base matters to them on more than a professional level. PewDiePie has this incredibly large fanfare around him that tunes in with incredible turnout each time a new video comes out, and it’d be downright foolish to deny that what granular detail Felix goes in on about his daily life to his subscribers, and how open is he with them, is not an integral part of his brand.
An extension of that is PewDiePie priding himself on being very down-to-Earth and not approving at all of the influencer-culture that’s come to dominate YouTube’s upper-echelon circles. He talks in his “Tanacon Got Cancelled” video about how utterly annoyed he is that becoming a YouTuber meant having to give up so much for peace of mind. This is all framed against a video of Casey Neistat bidding farewell to VidCon to the beats of a blisteringly loud acknowledgement by a majority female crowd. He positions himself as being the “everyday man”, while the YouTube corporate elite, wearing their tuxes, sipping French Vodka in the back of a limo, relish at the sight of their supremely-dedicated fanbase.
Felix also takes it upon himself to be the policeman of reason when no sign of it is within close proximity. In his commentary video on the FouseyTube fiasco, he made repeated jabs at the creator calling out his ill-guided aspirations for wanting to become a superstar on the level of Drake and Kanye West. He’d also taken the opportunity to swipe at other attempts of organizing meetups and concerts as part of a fraudulent attempt at pillaging their superfans’ chests clean, while running with this nebulous idea of “positivity” and “spreading good around the world”. PewDiePie calls out the hypocrisy of these creators while setting himself a safe distance for the chaos to ensue thereafter.
PewDiePie sees himself as the antithesis to YouTube’s pro-corporate message. In the aforementioned Tanacon video, he made a very passive comment that was quite revealing about what type of content creator he perceives himself to be. And I do empathize with his concerns–VidCon, and YouTube as a whole feel as what corporate entities want to project their brand being as, as opposed to what it actually is. You see creators mostly from NYC and LA, and there’s very little hint of creators outside of what YouTube deems to be “unproblematic”. Some of these names barely exceed the million subs mark currently, and it further perpetuates this notion that PewDiePie is one of the last standing vanguards of authenticity on the platform, as big and popular as he is.
His stature is further bolstered by what many perceive to be a level-headed approach to assessing YouTube’s morally-defunct eagerness to capitalize on drama. PewDiePie repeatedly takes shots at other creators for fabricating drama and doing the “corporate” thing by chasing after views and clout, while he — presumably — does not. The clip above of him talking about Jake Paul staging an encounter with one of his critics is very telling about the YouTuber PewDiePie perceives himself to be, and what he sees as a genuine problem by many multi-million sub accounts who hinge their entire presence on the grief of others.
But here’s the thing: I can’t quite take PewDiePie seriously when he has done what he accuses Jake Paul of doing, to people who are far more helpless than the high-profile targets he usually picks out for commentary. Vox Media reporters Julia Alexander and Aja Romano were notoriously buried under an avalanche of hate messages from PewDiePie fans after he’d taken issue with what he perceived to be misrepresentative of his own brand of content, and I’ll be the first to say it–branding PewDiePie as Nazi-adjacent is erroneous, it’s not true. But to deny that he’s not been involved in behavior that ranges from emotionally disturbing to downright dangerous in rhetoric terms, is simply disingenuous.
PewDiePie does appear to pull a trick — perhaps unknowingly — that is very common in personality-lead media, which is that he portrays himself as a patron to the masses’ demands even when his actions occasionally contradict his self-professed virtues. Carlos Maza made this great explanatory piece talking about Tucker Carlson specifically, and he did mention a term that rang very true to a most pertinent analysis of PewDiePie’s behavior: False consciousness.
False consciousness in Tucker Carlson’s case is pretending to be about a set of virtues when doing his show, and slipping a very different understanding of his own identity among his closest friends. This would’ve been a great analogy to help explain why PewDiePie’s popularity is unfazed despite the decidedly perturbing schemes he’s underwent in the past, but for Felix, it’s not about professing a side of him in private that he does not want his followers to see. What’s tricky about his case, is that all the receipts are readily available for everyone to examine and make a correct judgement about, which is why profiling Felix’s audience as “the average YouTube” user isn’t all that inaccurate after all — YouTube’s most-popular channels all have been through the thick of controversy at one point or another, and it’s not out of bounds to conclude the average YouTube viewer has had just about enough of YouTubers exploiting their fanbase for emotional and material gain.
Functionally, Felix is the younger generation’s new favorite news anchor–he’s incredibly in-tune with their sensibilities, and he does understand them on a much higher level than TV’s decaying statues ever did. But just as Tucker Carlson’s public image before his fanbase is spot-clean and devoid of all flaw, PewDiePie elicits the same emotional response out of his core fanbase who’d go to hell and back to defend him even when he acknowledges a blunder.
But obviously, this is all a façade–YouTubers do rarely portray their real self on the camera, and it’s even moreso PewDiePie’s case. That aura of genuineness Felix projects is at best artificial, and at worst specifically concocted to elicit a falsified sense of trust between him and the audience. And what makes this even worse, is that this issue is far from being PewDiePie’s own. It is damn-near uniform across all the most popular content creators on YouTube.
The platform now caters exclusively to its highest-paid creators. It is by no means concerned with the well-being or prosperity of its smallest channels. There has been repeated uproar from content creators about YouTube’s lack of quick response to their most pressing concerns. The Adpocalypse left many channels wondering whether there’s a future for their content on the platform at all, and issues of mismanagement keep cropping up from YouTube’s leadership that it’s almost comical how many times they’ve managed to screw up and still maintain a steady stream of profit as major advertisers continue to quit under the threat of their presence becoming a PR liability.
It can be reasonably argued that PewDiePie was the original precursor to what would become a recurring story on YouTube. Felix posted a video where he reacted to two men holding up a sign that says “Death to all Jews”–this led to many advertisers pulling out of the platform and for YouTube to take drastic measures to earn them back. Even then, the ad revenue creators make from YouTube pales in comparison to what they used to make even when monetization was still in its very infancy. Despite all of this, YouTube’s main staples, and a major part of the platform’s audience continue caping for PewDiePie because for them, he represents a symbol of corporate rebellion, and a vying to an old era where YouTube used to be more about person, than corporation.
This was most evident in the battle for the #1 spot between him and T-Series. The music label/film production company aimed at a majority-Indian audience, was in fierce competition for the top spot against PewDiePie, and the campaign to get Felix to prevail donned the infamous slogan of “Subscribe to PewDiePie”. This saw a massive number of social media posts, as well as YouTube videos made — including ones by Markiplier and Jacksepticeye — and the battle between the two was long seen as a living struggle between the hold of capital interest, versus candid engagement on the platform.
But counterintuitively so, PewDiePie is part of the elite. He’s getting paid lots of money through commercial deals, his presence on YouTube does yield some non-insignificant gains, and his preferred targets of commentary tend to be YouTubers with millions of subscribers and social media clout to boot.
That eternal struggle between the common man and powers unseen can be a very appealing narrative, but it hides behind some of the nastiest layers of internet humor one could conceivably think of. It is a trope of Marxist analysis to perceive PewDiePie’s knack for edgy humor as a symptom of a larger trend rather than the sole individual responsibility of Felix himself, but in this case, I’m mostly compelled to agree.
Because humanity — and by extension the internet — is sorta kinda bad, PewDiePie is also sorta kinda bad. There’s nothing Felix does that I haven’t seen so much worse than just by scrolling on Twitter–even sometimes from those with closer political views to mine. PewDiePie is but a mere reflection of what internet culture has grown into.
This is why when the Christchurch Mosque shooter said “Subscribe to PewDiePie”, it didn’t strike me as particularly surprising or somehow an indictment on Felix’s decorum. He’s turned into this behemoth of a cultural icon when all he did was play video games and scream his way into stardom. If anything, it’s egregious that right-wingers’ ability to co-opt benign symbols of identity far outweighs that of any on the rest of the political spectrum. PewDiePie did eventually came out renouncing the symbol, realizing too late that it had taken on a much bigger form than his channel could ever possibly contain. The act of subscribing to PewDiePie became thus a sign of shared virtue, rather than legitimate interest in what he does.
Felix in this way, is left alone to his own devices cultivating a following in this fairly uncolonized space of YouTube–that of freshly-brewed memes, coupled with self-referential humor, a round of news, topped-off with a side-dish of personal anecdotes and brief moments of emotional sobriety. There’s nothing quite else on the platform that’s as conscious of the space it occupies. PewDiePie’s greatest triumph is arguably having transcended that enclosed environment of YouTube, well into the wider consciousness of humanity, so much so it compelled a criminal to utter him words of support.
YouTube is no longer the video-sharing platform where content’s affect is insular. It has now morphed into this global-wide network of radicalization where seeing something as innocent as a meme, can be the gateway to yet another tragedy. “Subscribe to PewDiePie”, PewDiePie himself, his content, his videos, his social media presence–they’re all part of this one feature of group identity that some find is very helpful to signal their belief in extreme ideological currents without being revealingly explicit. That is further compounded by YouTube’s inability to pick apart the nuances of being interested in PewDiePie’s specific type of humor, in contrast to it having cross-appeal with right-wing punditry. As EJ Dickson put it for the Rolling Stones:
But it’s undeniably true that YouTube provides ample opportunity for people to access white supremacist content on its platform in the first place. “The problem isn’t PewDiePie, the problem is these hard-right fringe communities that are PewDiePie-adjacent,” Lorenz says. “The fact that when you watch PewDiePie videos, you’re maybe led to Ben Shapiro [a far-right commentator who has appeared in a PewDiePie video], and those lead to more and more extreme content. PewDiePie isn’t the problem. The system and the algorithm are the problem.”
Felix’s content is not so much interesting on its own as much as it is useful meta-commentary on the current state of YouTube. The platform continues to widen the rift between its smallest and biggest creators, and as that vacates a space for the majority to compete over limited attention, it pushed them to adopt some of the very tactics Felix is usually berated for using.
YouTube’s algorithm is the main driving force of a perceived degradation in ethical standards. Creators have now to resort to tactics most-convoluted just to get their existing audience interested enough so that their click-through-rate doesn’t fall through the cracks, thrusting them thus into oblivion.
Many YouTubers have already done a pretty good job breaking down the systematic issues of the platform, but one that almost always gets overlooked is just how vulnerable the state of the average user is to being exploited by the algorithm, and in this particular case, carried from watching a meme review of PewDiePie straight into a hellish dimension of right-wing commentary where the message pushed is a stark departure from the image projected. PewDiePie is not a bad person by any means–he’s just woefully ambivalent about the ways in which his content ends up inadvertently supporting the very worst in internet behavior, and in the case of a recent tragedy for the global Muslim community, the prospect of being killed at your preferred place of worship.
For the sake of this story, I asked my mom does she know about PewDiePie. She said she didn’t. I fully understood why and chose not to press. But for us who have the privilege of understanding what PewDiePie does, and why his message is so appealing to a youth’s great majority, why is it so that his content still gets muddled in this modern politically-polarized societal scheme of ours? The key to unlocking that is realizing that PewDiePie, the phenomenon, is now much bigger than PewDiePie, the man.
Longform editorials could be made about PewDiePie — being racist, a Nazi, or whatever — until the sun swallows the Earth whole, but by assigning him personal blame for a predominant culture of toxicity on YouTube, we fail to look at the big picture. One where we’re mostly powerless until YouTube can take closer reign on its leadership and penalize parades of hatred on the platform, and one where our powerlessness doesn’t serve nearly as a mean to fuel into a narrative where PewDiePie is ostracized by lefty meanies. YouTube must strive to serve its userbase as equitably and as fairly as possible, and until it rids its platform of extremist right-wing content, there’ll be no happy ending within easy grasp.
The regimen of waiting until YouTube does something about its most foul creators has become almost of a carbon-copy of most-familiar stories–advertisers pull out, YouTube reacts (in abysmal ways), creators rise in indignation, and YouTube apologizes for a problem of its own making.
PewDiePie decidedly understands the issue very well–he even made a video about it when everyone accused him of setting YouTube on a path to self-destruction. But what Felix fails to understand is, since he’s the biggest individual creator on the platform, he carries an unspoken responsibility to lead where YouTube might’ve failed. Not just sit at a safe distance, make fun of it, and wash his hands clean of any responsibility.
When hate and vitriol is uttered under his banner, he should make a more concerted effort to make it known that he does not agree with these ideas. Sure, he flirts with Elon Musk or Ben Shapiro the same way your average internet user does–it’s funny to entertain the validity of their ideas for a split-second, but once the you dig deep into it, it quickly starts to collapse under a heavy weight of intellectual dishonesty. It’s an easy thing for the culture critique community to say, but it is a much harder thing to assert on an individual level, especially for kids for whom PewDiePie might be the first exposure for any online content at all. The fact one of their first videos could be one of a right-wing commentator or a morally-corrupt billionaire stripping them of negative media attention and painting them as somehow cogent, clear-minded, and composed figures, is very disturbing.
Anna Maria Ward perfectly articulated the unforeseeable consequences of such a let-loose attitude with promoting hateful rhetoric. Her opinion column for the Daily Dot reads: “Casual bigotry leads to violent hatred; people have died because of that very hatred that PewDiePie mocks and, casually or otherwise, promotes and validates.” But because PewDiePie presents his ideas as popular and merely what “the people want”, he can get away with a lot. And I can’t exactly say I object to such a conclusion either–there’s a lot of people for whom Felix’s videos are the pinnacle of comedy, and while they were mildly enjoyable for me, I don’t see the creative genius in them as almost a hundred million do to justify honoring the “Subscribe to PewDiePie” meme. I simply don’t do subscriptions out of spite.
The greatest strength, and one rarely brought up in PewDiePie’s case, is how culture-agnostic his content is. Anyone, from anywhere around the world can just, sit, relax, and not have to worry about a million culture-specific references they don’t get. It’s accessible, it’s very easily digestible, and it dwarves in quantity almost anything else in its weight-class. PewDiePie is not only the quintessential YouTuber–he also makes the quintessential YouTube videos. And it is that, which makes him near-impossible to rival in any measure of notoriety or cultural relevance known to man.