PewDiePie: An Explainer

PewDiePie: An Explainer

For someone so visible, it's challenging to see hard to see where Pewdiepie's act starts and ends. Glixel/J Countess

Felix Kjellberg's journey from eccentric YouTuber to mega-successful – and now controversial – global brand

Felix Kjellberg's journey from eccentric YouTuber to mega-successful – and now controversial – global brand

To scroll through the YouTube channel of PewDiePie – the most successful and most watched personality on the platform – is to watch a history of YouTube itself. It's a journey from youthful innocence to moneyed fame, from niche gaming interest to global brand, that charts YouTube's changing landscape, regulations and audience expectations.

It records a progression from playing video games for an audience of tens of people to becoming a personality watched by millions, with all the pressures that come with it. In recent months, those pressures seem to have reached an apex of sorts. Accusations that the 27 year-old PewDiePie – real name Felix Kjellberg – might be anti-Semitic led to him being dropped by his agency, the Disney-owned Maker Studios, and his series for YouTube being cancelled. He's been held up as a symptom of "white male rage" and become a symbol of the crashing of internet culture against the social and cultural realities of our times.

In video after video over the past few weeks, PewDiePie has been railing against these reactions, made by a world that's looking in on a body of over 3,000 videos that he's uploaded since December 2010.

But who is PewDiePie? And who is Felix Kjellberg? For someone so visible, it's surprisingly hard to see where the act starts and ends. We know where PewDiePie started – with Kjellberg as a 21-year-old student at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. Watching his first videos today, you hear – though you don't yet see – him with a much thicker Swedish accent, exclusively playing games: the emerging phenomenon of Minecraft, military shooter Call of Duty and the gross-out survival horror game Amnesia. Even then he'd coined his high-pitched introductory callsign, "Pewwwww-de-pieeeeee".

Fast forward a hundred videos to February 2011 and he shows himself on camera for the first time as he celebrates reaching 2,500 subscribers. Looking right into the lens, he talks about how he cares about the support his viewers give him, not view counts. "You guys are my main motivation for making these videos," he says with a sincerity that extends out from the video window. He's dorkier than the man you see today, but the direct connection he's always been able to conjure with his viewer was certainly there as he awkwardly showed off the PC he streamed from and explained that he paid for it by making artwork in Photoshop.

Subs started to accelerate through his long-running Amnesia series, in which he screamed at jump-scares and manhandled pig corpses and other physics objects, and his audience screamed and laughed along with him. At least in part due to his success, horror games became YouTuber currency, and he branched out to others, playing The Haunted, Nightmare House and Ju-On: The Grudge (based on the Japanese horror movie series).

He dropped out of university, allowing him to devote more time to his channel, but he's adamant that it wasn't because of his YouTube career. He did it because it didn't fit: studying industrial economics and technology management would naturally lead to becoming a CEO, just like his parents are, but he had nothing in common with his classmates and all he wanted to do was to make Let's Plays. His disapproving parents financially cut him off.

After he reached 100,000 subscribers, his channel began growing fast, and in July 2012, he celebrated reaching a million. He made a video in which, after some introductory clowning, he once again looked right into the lens to thank his audience. "Unless you know me really well, I don't act out crazy like that to other people so it's funny, for some reason I really let my personality out on the internet, and that became a thing, it's popular," he said. "I'm not an attention seeker, I'm not that kind of person... I really do consider you as a friend, almost... I care about every single one of you."

Over the coming months, his crazy audience-pleasing personality came to the fore. He began to take his camera off the screen to bro-fist strangers, and he was surprised to see the appeal of videos that weren't about games, like one on the chatbot Cleverbot. He ran fundraising drives for charities including Water Aid and RED. PewDiePie was transcending videogames. Not that they've ever completely gone away, but from 2013 he began to sideline them with attention-grabbing video titles and thumbnails. "I'M GETTING A SEX CHANGE!? – Outlast DLC: Part 7 (Whistleblower)" was accompanied by an image of a woman's midriff. He was evolving his schtick from presenting straight gameplay, too – making more edits, zooming into the action, cutting, and overlaying more text for dramatic or comedic effect.

Something that's often overlooked is the quality of his videos. Kjellberg is not only a great performer, able to reach out of the screen and entertain and get a response, but he's also a great editor. His videos are playful and tight, timed to perfection with no padding and they balance slickness with the air of homespun authenticity that YouTube thrives on. And he's plugged in, with a sixth sense for what will appeal, what the trends are, and how to present his own take on them.

In 2015 he started removing game names from video titles entirely while also doing more vlogs, covering holidays in LA. He added skits, apps and trivia in formats which followed what other general YouTubers were doing, all the while adding his own schlocky and provocative headlines and thumbnails to grab attention and push for reaction. Alongside all this he began commenting on YouTube itself, assessing platform policies and trends, with a voice that verged on activist. He railed against the way comments worked, which had allowed accounts to take his name and avatar and dupe other users into thinking they were him, prompting him to disable comments on his account for several months. He spoke about the incredible strain creators faced, having to appear to be happy all the time. He made fun of calling for subscribers and the importance of subscriber counts, and of other YouTubers padding out their videos to 10 minutes in order to meet changes in YouTube's advertising timing policy. And he addressed the myriad sensations and micro-scandals around himself, from the money he was earning to whether he'd properly disclosed sponsorship deals. He complained of being continually singled out among YouTubers for shady marketing practices, for "always getting the shit".

The root of this uneasy relationship with the world outside his enormous fanbase lies in a time way before these controversies. It was when he started to be recognized by that world, on Swedish TV and beyond. As he observes in a 2016 video, "REACTING TO OLD VIDEOS", in which he watches his first subscriber celebration video and then an early news report about himself, "Making videos back then was so different, it was just me and those 2,500 people but now it got so big that it's me and people who don't watch my channel who know about me, and that's so strange and that transition was really hard to get used to."

Suddenly, the public were exposed to PewDiePie without having watched his videos, and when they experienced in snapshots his swearing, bro-culture bluster and liberal use of "bitches", silly voices and screaming, they couldn't understand its appeal. His videos are made as a continual stream, sometimes two a day, and to pick out little pieces is not to experience them in the way they're made or meant to be watched. While fans can penetrate the thick irony that armors everything he does, clips of his videos shown in the Wall Street Journal take on a different meaning, losing their dense and sardonic commentary on media culture.

There's little evidence that Kjellberg is really anti-Semitic. But it's certain that he's made a lot of dumb mistakes. There's never a good time to be throwing around Nazi imagery, and particularly not now. He's owned up to a lot of mistakes, but perhaps not to his unavoidable responsibilities as someone who invents and reinforces the ways his young fans communicate. It's dangerous to think you can read real emotions in a performer, but PewDiePie seems to wear his frustrations on his sleeve. He hates the mainstream media's focus on the money he earns and its bemusement with his actual work. He's irritated with not being taken seriously and yet becomes angry when he feels he's being taken too seriously. He admits his mistakes but in the same breath is aggrieved that this jokes aren't taken as such.

His channel has changed as a result, becoming inward-looking and intensely self-referential, and over the past few weeks it has been dominated by him countering, explaining and protesting criticism. There's a sense that his channel is almost eating itself. Is he still in control? His assured poise in the videos themselves suggests he is, still wryly laughing at being pilloried by the wider world. And in terms of the video views and subscriptions the controversies are attracting, he's only winning. But you keep watching in case the moment finally comes when he shatters.

Whether the pressure gets to him or not, where is he going with it all? Can he maintain this run and continue to depend on the cold machinations of a platform like YouTube, where subscription numbers dictate his fortunes, where database bugs and changes in terms and conditions can alter his career? Can he continue to find creative interest in the form in general? Perhaps Kjellberg would love to return to his bubble, to being that 21-year-old streaming games for the love of it to a like-minded audience – invisible to the rest of the world. But it popped a long time ago.