Though YouTube is primarily a video sharing website where content can be uploaded both by individuals and by media corporations, it has also been an important platform to share news, promote change, and engage in competitions. YouTube’s intellectual side has even contributed to the digital presence of humanities and academia through educational channels such as Easy Languages and ASAPScience. But the channel with the most subscribers since 2013 – at a steadily increasing 85 million – has been Pewdiepie, which started as a gaming channel run by the now well-known Felix Kjellberg.
Also going by the names ‘Pewdiepie’, ‘Pewds’, ‘Poods’, ‘Pewdie’, and even ‘Gloria Borger’ (a Swedish news anchor in his comical series Pew News), Kjellberg is a Swedish YouTuber, comedian, and video game commentator. He now lives in Brighton, England, with his fiancée Marzia Bisognin, an Italian fashion designer and former YouTuber. Pewdiepie’s top spot on YouTube’s subscriber count was only surpassed very briefly in late 2013 by YouTube Spotlight, and he’s remained in his throne ever since. Despite his high subscriber numbers, Social Blade, a website that tracks social media statistics and analytics, reported that the view count on his channel was surpassed by Indian record label T-Series on February 14, 2017. Thus began the arguably hilarious and flamboyant YouTube feud: Pewdiepie versus T-Series.
“The internet war is simple enough: Pewdiepie wants to keep his number one spot as most subscribed channel on YouTube, and T-Series is maybe slowly overtaking him”
T-Series is an Indian music record label and film production company that has a multi-channel network on YouTube, and there are many reasons as to why they are gaining popularity. Of course, the Indian population is nearing 1.35 billion, but much of the channel’s increase in subscribers can be attributed to the media coverage of the feud. The internet war is simple enough: Pewdiepie wants to keep his number one spot as most subscribed channel on YouTube, and T-Series is maybe slowly overtaking him. What makes it a war is the considerate, albeit fun-spirited, effort that Pewdiepie’s ‘side’ have put into maintaining his position. Efforts included hacking over 50,000 printers to print “Subscribe to Pewdiepie”, though not at Pewdiepie’s own request, releasing a rap diss track aimed at T-Series entitled ‘Bitch Lasagna’, and fellow YouTuber Mr Beast promoting “Sub To Pewdiepie” on T-shirts at the Super Bowl.
Now, there are reasons to support T-Series of course: it is riveting to see a newcomer potentially beat a long-held record, and it would surely be an achievement for India and for YouTube’s diversity to have the most subscribed channel not be a white, now rich, man. But this feud has been gravely misunderstood by many, and this misunderstanding is exactly what should push us to start supporting, or keep supporting, Felix ‘Pewdiepie’ Kjellberg.
The first noticeable difference between the ‘opponents’ are their diverging profiles: T-Series has made no attempts to hide its corporate and serious nature. Its chairman and managing director, Bhushan Kumar, has responded to Pewdiepie’s efforts with ambivalence in a BBC article. “I am not really bothered about this race. I don’t even know why PewDiePie is taking this so seriously. He’s getting his people to push him, promote him. We are not competing with him.” What is being portrayed as a desperate attempt to remain relevant seems rather to be a hilarious battle for what is arguably a largely insignificant title, and even Kjellberg seems hyper-conscious of this reality.
Even if it were a real battle, no one scorns a serious competitor for maintaining their top spot. We’re all tired of Federer winning Grand Slams, but no one is wondering why he’s putting effort in, because it’s obvious. T-Series come off as bitter, claiming they are “not bothered”, though they have of course exploited the dispute massively by gaining more subscribers than ever. Instead of being light-hearted about the apparently non-existent quarrel, their use of impersonal, commercial language in referring to “his people,” as well as their refusal to participate in the individuality and creativity that YouTube represents, show T-Series’ true corporate colors.
Felix, however, is a fun-loving individual with a whole personal backstory to his arrival and rise on YouTube. Though he attended the reputed Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, he reportedly dropped out because he simply was not having fun (having fun is his purpose; his name ‘Felix’ is the Latin for ‘happy’!) Many assume that Felix blossomed when he became Pewdiepie, or that he chose YouTube over Chalmers, but in his Draw My Life video, he reveals that “In one of [his] physics exams, [he] scored highest out of 200 students” and that Chalmers was his “first choice of university.” Not only that, but his Photoshop artwork was exhibited in an art gallery. Only after dropping out did he decide to support himself by selling hotdogs and art, whilst working on his YouTube channel in the meantime.
“Pewdiepie is arguably one of the best players in that he actively engages with his audience”
I first discovered the brilliant wit and relatability of Felix Kjellberg through his YouTube Let’s Plays of Amnesia, a first-person survival horror video game by Frictional Games that I myself am too wimpy to play. The ‘Let’s Play’ format, where viewers watch someone else play a video game, can seem dull to some. But it embodies the concept of togetherness for many watchers. Pewdiepie is arguably one of the best players in that he actively engages with his audience, references his viewers directly by saying “you”, “we”, “us”, or by calling them the “Bro Army.” He names the objects he encounters in the game, such as Frenchman ‘Stephano’, a small statue prop he finds in Amnesia’s Brennenburg Castle whom he jokingly refers to as his ‘guide’. At the end of his videos, he has frequently signed off by fist-bumping at the screen to say goodbye, a gesture he has termed “bro-fisting.” Nowadays, Pewdiepie has branched into several more YouTube series, such as You Laugh You Lose (YLYL), Pew News, Last Week I Asked You (LWIAY), and even comedic commentary on episodes of Dr Phil.
What makes Pewdiepie special is not just unfiltered commentary and gameplay, but his grounded personality. He is not primarily on YouTube for monetary profit – though it surely is a benefit – and even his brand deal with the energy drinks company of eSports G-Fuel comes off as carefree at best: he’s not exactly a fitness ambassador. His non-profit nature also allows him to easily speak his mind and criticize YouTube when need be, adding to his candidness. Coupled with his good heart and the unavoidable mentions of his charity donations, Pewds frequently engages in self-deprecating jokes. He allows others to butcher his last name, even butchering it himself, and often slips into a purposefully heavy Swedish accent. Dubbing his following “the 9 year olds” or “the 14 year olds,” he makes a clear reference to his viewer demographics, and perhaps content which sometimes verges on the immature. Even his own YouTube editors, Brad Woto, and Sive Morten (derisorily referred to as Brad 2), poke fun at him by breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly to the viewers in the videos’ captions.
As a Dane myself, and considering there is no top Danish YouTuber, it only makes sense to be unequivocally bound to the next best Scandinavian. That being said, it also strips me of any real nationalistic motivations and comfortably allows me to quickly criticize him before signing off. In an exposé on Pewdiepie, it would be impossible and unfair to skim over his purportedly abrasive personality, which has led him to be accused of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. Unsurprisingly though, much of Pewdiepie’s controversial remarks can be attributed to his jokester nature, or simply making a terrible mistake, again, and again, and again – a lot, basically.
Though it does not excuse Pewdiepie’s occasional tactless remarks, it’s crucial to remember that he has always offered genuine apologies paired with a vow to change his choice of words. It’s also reasonable to keep in mind the near-impossibility of public personalities being presented in an unmediated manner. The press has been relentless in its coverage of Pewdiepie, which has no doubt at some point or another taken its toll on his well-being. Wired has claimed that “he [has] peppered his videos” with slurs, when to many of us, it is clear that he is merely showing his audience his unfiltered life and self, which includes his humanity. To demand genuineness from Pewdiepie is to demand these mistakes. It is as simple as that. So, support the humanity of YouTube, and, as the T-shirts command, ‘Subscribe to Pewdiepie’.
Flo McQuibban is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.