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YouTube creators are trying to move on from ‘subscribe to PewDiePie’

A community split into two camps

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Ethan Klein of H3H3 talking about “Subscribe to PewDiePie” in wake of the New Zealand tragedy.
Ethan Klein of H3H3 talking about “Subscribe to PewDiePie” in wake of the New Zealand tragedy.
H3H3 Productions/YouTube

About 12 hours before a gunman told people watching his live stream to “subscribe to PewDiePie” before killing 50 people in New Zealand, popular sketch comedy creator and podcaster Ethan Klein posted a video called “Subscribe to PewDiePie for revenge.” Klein’s video was a sketch based around the popular meme. But in the wake of the terrorist attack, Klein declared the long-running meme over and deleted his video.

Klein was one of thousands on YouTube who joined the biggest community phenomenon on the platform of the last six months: an ongoing “battle” between Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg and the Bollywood music label T-Series to claim the most subscribers on YouTube. The fight, largely considered facetious, has become a meme everywhere from YouTube to Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and more. “Subscribe to PewDiePie” messages line every social media platform, but the phrase has also been chanted by teenagers marching through the streets of Estonia and played during halftime shows at basketball games.

It’s also been used to deface a World War II memorial statue in Brooklyn, and cited in global hacking pranks. Now, following the massacre in New Zealand, it’s become increasingly apparent to some creators that participating in this meme isn’t acceptable anymore.

It affects everyone

Klein says he felt awful about having posted a video about the meme. “I think that meme is just not funny anymore,” Klein said on a podcast this week. “There’s a lot to process. I’m just gutted about it.”

Other figures on YouTube have begun pushing to end the meme as well. Gregory “Onision” Jackson, a popular and controversial sketch creator himself, tweeted that people should stop participating in the meme, saying “it’s not funny, it’s not cool, and marks one of the most horrible mass shootings in history.”

“There’s a part of this that I really, really don’t like.”

Creators acknowledge that the meme has morphed into something darker. It’s similar to what happened with Pepe the Frog, Matt Furie’s comic book character who was an innocuous cartoon figure before he was co-opted by the alt-right as a symbol of hate. This is the first time, however, that YouTube’s creator community has dealt with a popular phrase coined by one of their own being weaponized.

Like Furie, Kjellberg has disavowed people using the meme in hateful or illegal ways, including positioning it beside anti-Semitic imagery or carving it into the World War II memorial. He’s also tried to use the phenomenon for good, raising more than £170,000 (roughly $230,000 USD) for an orphanage in India during a charity drive in December. It’s a way for Kjellberg to reiterate to his audience that everything about “subscribe to PewDiePie” is a joke, not a call to arms. Kjellberg’s team had not responded to requests for comment at press time.

“There’s a part of this that I really, really don’t like,” Kjellberg said in a video from December 2018. “And it’s a shame because it isn’t the vast majority of people. But sometimes ... you see comments [on live streams] like, ‘Fuck Indians.’ It’s really distasteful, unnecessary comments. I’ve obviously made jokes about Indians, but I make jokes about all countries, and this is not what I’m about.”

Still, some critics are asking for Kjellberg to take a harder stance. Jimmy Wong, a popular gaming YouTube creator, asked Kjellberg to disavow the meme following the attack. He’s also concerned about “subscribe to PewDiePie” continuing to be used as a white supremacist dogwhistle, masked as trolling.

YouTubers can’t necessarily control their fans

“I am not blaming PewDiePie, but I believe it is his responsibility, like it or not, to use his massive platform to help in the healing process,” Wong tweeted. “He has a worldwide audience and people who will listen to his every word, including incredibly young and impressionable kids. There is no better time than right now to help unpack this entire scenario and make it crystal clear what is wrong and what is right. Be a role model.”

Conversations about whether Kjellberg has control over his millions of viewers aren’t new. The question is asked time and time again when Kjellberg’s name or channel is brought up as a reason for a particular event in news stories, like a hacking attack on The Wall Street Journal. Een (who asked not to use his full name), the host of popular commentary channel Nerd City, believes that Kjellberg has done his part to acknowledge and disavow acts of violence or hate being committed in his name, but says it’s impossible for YouTube creators to have complete control over their audiences.

“It’s important that people realize that creators do not control their fan base at all,” Een says. “Not even close. In fact, the more that you squeal over something you don’t like, the more you’re going to get that every day.”

It’s not just an issue that affects Kjellberg and his channel — it’s one that affects the whole community, Een says. Kjellberg is “the king of YouTube,” according to Een, meaning that “anything that affects him is going to have an impact on us all.” Watching how Kjellberg reacts to the situation, and being aware of what YouTube does in the coming weeks, shapes how creators will deal with the meme — and other situations like this — in the future.

What happens next?

Don Caldwell, managing editor at Know Your Meme, believes the “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme will eventually stop, but it won’t happen until T-Series definitively takes over Kjellberg. Right now, the two channels have gone back and forth; it seems to change every few hours, amplifying the community’s support for Kjellberg. But Caldwell says there’s really no predicting whether a meme will die — he thought Pepe the Frog wouldn’t stick around either.

“It was doomed anyway.”

“I don’t know if PewDiePie would be able to divorce the T-Series subscriber battle from this incident,” Caldwell told The Verge. “It seems like it would definitely be a challenge for him, and I have no idea what would be expected of him to be able to handle this.”

Unlike Matt Furie, who quite literally killed the Pepe character in a separate comic and has pursued legal action against those who use the frog’s image, Kjellberg hasn’t distanced himself from “subscribe to PewDiePie.” He retweeted a popular Twitter account that keeps tabs on the battle just yesterday.

Many in the YouTube community don’t believe Kjellberg will address the attack in a video. The thinking seems to be that addressing it would just give the shooter more attention, Een explained.

“It was doomed anyway and we were probably reaching the point of fatigue,” Een says. “But I think the fatigue is here, for everyone.”