YouTube’s Monster: PewDiePie and His Populist Revolt

It makes sense that YouTube would become home to such a performatively self-aware economy. It is, after all, one of the most mature of the major social platforms. It is extremely culturally productive, and can claim genuine stars as its own. Above all, it pays. And in the people who depend on the platform to pay their bills, it inspires a peculiar mixture of paranoia, desire, gratefulness and disdain that shows up clearly in their work. YouTube’s peculiar relationship with the economy within it is fraught, promising and poorly understood. It’s also unique among social-media platforms — but maybe not for much longer. For now, most of the biggest internet platforms are understood as venues for communication, expression and consumption. YouTube has given us a glimpse at what happens when users start associating social platforms with something more: livelihoods.

Watch enough YouTube programming on any subject and you’ll gradually come to understand the struggles of starting and maintaining a channel. You’ll become familiar with the mementos Google sends creators at subscriber milestones — a silver “play” button at 100,000, around which time your favorite YouTubers might start talking about quitting their day jobs, and a gold one at a million, when they are more to likely have done so. You’ll hear plenty about conversations with YouTube support, many of which contradict one another. You’ll develop opinions about YouTube’s copyright rules, age restrictions and advertising policies. You’ll get an intuitive sense of the YouTube attention marketplace and how people try to take advantage of it, and you’ll hear about advertising rates. You’ll hear conspiracy theories — some rooted in daily shared YouTube experience, others rooted in less visible fears, desires and resentments — some of which gain considerable traction.

And why shouldn’t you? YouTubers are not employed by YouTube, but they are paid by YouTube, because it matches their videos, automatically, with advertisers. The platform and the video-makers share a clear and common goal: to persuade audiences to watch more videos in order to make more money from ads. But even with a unifying cause, creators inevitably discover smaller ways in which their goals and YouTube’s are at odds. It is in YouTube creators’ interest, for example, to understand the best practices for getting the most YouTube subscribers, or the best strategies for making videos that YouTube might algorithmically recommend. But it is in YouTube’s interest for the inner workings of its platform — including recommendation algorithms, the way it calculates advertising rates and the precise locations of its boundaries — to remain at least somewhat secret, to prevent creators from gaming the platform’s quirks at the expense of either YouTube’s user experience or its bottom line. Criticism from its creators is one of the many things YouTube tolerates to maintain this arrangement, which is otherwise clearly working to their benefit.

Emergent politics of social platforms differ in scope and character and sit along peculiar axes, some familiar, others new. On Twitter, which does not pay popular users, they revolve around matters of speech and harassment; the platform hosts a range of progressive movements as well as an extremely visible and openly racist reactionary movement, and they have been at war. On Facebook, which is bigger and less combative, they focus on censorship and governance. But on any major platform, they tend to grow from the same fertile place: the gap between the structures built by the company and what users are allowed to do within them. Inevitably, this leads users to fundamental political questions: Who gets what, and why? Who gets to do what, and why?

Kjellberg’s December video drew responses from other YouTubers, debunking or explaining or affirming the claim by YouTube’s biggest star that the platform just wasn’t what it used to be, some gathering millions of views of their own. In retrospect, though, one brief moment in the original video was especially notable. As he wound down his rant, he hinted at a different sense of victimhood, drawing from the same sense of umbrage but directing it in a startling direction. After criticizing the platform for not understanding the realities of working on YouTube and wondering aloud if he was being punished, or somehow demoted, he affected a sincere voice and said, “I’m white.”

“Can I make that comment? But I do think that’s a problem,” he continued, before a smash-cut and a return to a mocking rant about not letting YouTube winanother assurance to viewers that, as always, he was just kidding, and that the offensiveness of the prior claim was the reason he’d made it.

Here, again, it is helpful to situate Kjellberg properly. He initially rose to popularity within the video-gaming subculture, which, beginning with the “GamerGate” movement and continuing through the American presidential election, became surprisingly and darkly politicized. His core audience is young, and his sensibility clearly appeals to a masculine teenage impulse to shock and provoke. The YouTube platform plainly incentivizes such attention-grabbing behavior, right up until the point that it becomes a liability to its operators or their other partners — a familiar dilemma in the entertainment world, sure, but one that plays out quite differently on YouTube, which is considerably and deliberately less hands-on with its talent. It’s telling that YouTube’s biggest star portrayed the platform as distant and capricious. It’s alarming that following his performative hostility led him to where it did: attempting to rationalize the use of anti-Semitic speech under the guise of transgression.

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