Can PewDiePie grow up without alienating his fans?


The biggest star on the internet is sad. “This is going to be a hard video to make,” Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, said to the camera in a recent video. “This is going to be a hard video to make because I am already kind of upset. I, uh, I’m not going to cry. But I think you can tell that uh, uhm, that this is important to me.”

Over the last five years the self conscious Swede has accumulated 42 million YouTube followers, making him by far the most popular creator on the platform. He has plenty of experience with anonymous rage directed his way, but this is different. “It’s not like ‘haters’ are bringing me down,” Kjellberg explains. “The reason why I’m upset is I feel like it’s coming from my fans. If people write a dumb hate comment, I couldn’t care less, but when it’s from you bros that’s when I get upset.”

Kjellberg's fans are mad because he’s no longer quite the same guy they fell in love with. Like many early YouTubers, Kjelberg began as an amateur enthusiast, offering silly, foul mouthed commentary alongside footage of his video gaming exploits. Sitting home alone in front of his computer, talking about upcoming titles he wanted to play but couldn’t afford, PewDiePie was a character fans — “bros,” as he likes to call them — could relate to.

But over the last few years, Kjellberg has become a wild success. He wrote a book, starred in a videogame, and reportedly earned around $12 million in 2015, more than enough to buy every game he desires. The anxiety he is expressing in his recent vlog, bluntly titled "Catering To Your Audience," is about his efforts to enjoy that success and experiment with new ideas. Kjellberg is growing up and leaving things behind. "A lot of you have asked why I’m in this new office," he says in the video. "The internet here is really fast." Change can be hard, and bros have been lashing out.

That same tension is playing out for YouTube as a whole. The service has gone from being the butt of jokes about the poor quality of internet video to a powerhouse of online entertainment with billions in annual revenue. And with the launch of YouTube Red, an ad-free subscription service that charges users $10 a month, it’s trying to mature into a profitable business. Kjellberg, as the network’s biggest star, is also the face of its tentpole programming.

Fear Factor for the E-Sports Crowd

This morning YouTube debuted four new "Originals," videos that sit behind the Red paywall, designed to entice superfans into becoming subscribers. There is a documentary about the world tour of YouTube comedian Lily Singh and a feature length action film, Lazer Team, that is actually screening in theaters.

The biggest budget production is Scare PewDiePie, made with the producers of The Walking Dead. It’s an attempt to amplify the shtick that made Kjellberg famous, and to charge a premium for it. Instead of reacting to scary video games, Kjellberg has to navigate his way through real life sets filled with actors and props: Fear Factor for the e-sports crowd.

Scare PewDiePie will be closely watched as an indicator of just how much demand there is for "premium" original content from YouTube. Its first stab at sponsoring premium content didn’t pan out very well, in large part because it used tried to bring a lot old media brands from the world of television and print. Most of the "original channels" it paid to create in 2011 and 2012 ended up struggling, and it eventually stopped highlighting the program altogether.

The interesting lesson of that experiment was that throwing money at a YouTube production didn't end up capturing a bigger audience. This time it's focused on financing the established stars that are native to the platform.

YouTube is on the edge of its biggest transformation to date, and Kjellberg is clearly ready for a change. "Maybe I should play this game I wouldn’t normally play, because it fits that quota and people will be happy...but it’s not what I want to do," he explained in the "Catering to Your Audience" clip. The big question is whether fans are interested in something polished and new, or eager for more of the same.

A few days after Kjellberg posted that emotional message to his audience, another old school YouTuber joined the conversation. Hank Green, one half of the popular Vlog Brothers duo, also rose to prominence with a direct, confessional style. As their channel grew, the brothers built a business around a stable of YouTube channels, podcasts, and events. These days Green finds it increasingly difficult to speak honestly to his audience about the things on his mind while remaining relatable to the fanbase that he built.

"The roots of YouTube is different from what YouTube is now," Green explained. "I think there is a certain amount of frustration, and that frustration is part of what happened with the Fine Brothers just now." He was referring to an attempt by the Fine Brothers, another pair of fraternal YouTube creators, to trademark "reaction" videos, a well-worn genre that has become a stable format for creating a clickable piece of content. That move led to a furious backlash from other creators and casual consumers, eventually culminating in a series of mea culpas and retractions from the Fine Bros.

Youtube's success is at odds with its soul

The founding spirit of YouTube, in other words, is increasingly at odds with its own success and professionalism, its creeping corporatism. "Two of the big things in online video have always been relatability and authenticity. And now there is this place where it is hard to remain relatable while also remaining authentic," says Green. "If I’m going to be authentic today I have to say to my audience, I’m going to work now, where I will be managing 30 employees. That’s not relatable. I have a lot of the same problems as everyone else, but I also have annoying payroll problems that nobody wants to hear about."

Green says the best parallel is the music industry. "There is this cred that you have from being not a giant wealthy superstar. And once you are, you can’t write songs about striving anymore while remaining authentic."

Kjellberg made a similar comparison a few weeks earlier when he launched Revelmode, a network of video creators. YouTube networks are sort of like labels, or collectives. They are backed by a central entity which leverages the combined scale of the creators in its stable to better fund, distribute, and cross promote all the content. Kjellberg has long been backed by the biggest network, Maker, which is now owned by the ultimate entertainment industry goliath, Disney. With Revelmode, he was essentially trying to create an indie imprint backed by a major label. He admitted that it was a bit odd, joking that it was bound to cost him some "hipster cred."

"You Might Not feel like You're on the side of good anymore."

More serious fare, including a feature length documentary on the journey of a transgender YouTuber, is coming later this year. But for now, Red Originals feel a lot like MTV. I watched the first episode of Scare PewDiePie a few days before it was released, and what stood out the most was the fact that, despite the professional actors, buckets of fake blood, and animatronic wheelchair, Kjellberg never seemed as comfortable or as genuinely frightened as he had sitting alone in his living room playing a $60 video game. The gleeful abandon that defined his relationship with video games felt a bit forced inside a massive Hollywood set. Reviewers have not been kind.

The best part of Kjellberg’s channel over the years, at least for me, was the sly, self-deprecating edits he made. The cheesy smash cuts, slow-mo zoom ins, and cartoon sound effects made the absurd, over-the-top nature of his PewDiePie personality more palatable. It’s easier to enjoy a grown man ranting about wanting to smear his own diarrhea onto the TV screen when you know that he is fully aware how silly his obsession with video games is.

I asked Green what he made of the tension between production values and authenticity on YouTube. "It’s a tension in my life and I think it’s going to be a tension in online video in general," he said. "I’m kind of looking forward to dropping the relatability when I have to. Welcome to my life. You might not feel like you’re on the side of good anymore, that you’re helping this scrappy little channel. What’s better, that feeling, or honesty?"

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