If you ask many ‘old’ people (read over 30) like me (!) who PewDiePie is, most will surely be scratching their heads. Yet, to his YouTube subscriber base of predominantly male teenagers (popularly called ‘bros’), he is an internet sensation. To be honest, I had not heard of PewDiePie till a few months ago and would not have been any bit the wiser, had his name not cropped up in a random conversation with my young digital evangelist friend, the 22-years old Sumedh Chaphekar, the founder of NoFiltr, the social media label that incubates young talent and makes them famous on the internet. Chaphekar had a live digital counter running on his mobile about PewDiePie, just like a live score-board which left me both intrigued and flummoxed. More on that later.
To the uninitiated, PewDiePie is a Swedish YouTuber - comedian/jokester and video game commentator - whose real name is Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, and who since 15 August, 2013 has been the most subscribed user on YouTube, with the most-viewed YouTube channel in the world - with over 19 billion video views as on November 2018.
In the last few days, PewDiePie has grabbed media headlines in India because his numero uno position on YouTube stands threatened by none else but our very own homegrown T-Series music label. It is expected that by end November, T-Series will dethrone PewDiePie to become the most viewed YouTube channel in the world. The ascent of T-Series to the pinnacle of video viewing has shocked the tight-knit online community prompting a worldwide effort to rally behind PewDiePie and delay T-Series’ ascension. While claiming the most subscribers on YouTube is largely a symbolic achievement, and T-Series already has the most monthly views, the end of PewDiePie's five-year reign is a watershed that reflects important changes as internet usage gets more global. Today, as Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg put it recently, ‘more than half of the 10 most popular channels on YouTube in terms of monthly views are from outside the US, and many of them belong to professional media companies. YouTube's previous champions have been young, male amateurs like the video blogger Ray William Johnson and comedy duo Smosh. But after years as a mostly Western site for pranks and cat clips, the Google-owned company has lured most of the world's largest media giants to the site, blurring the line between professional and amateur’. The race to the top between PewDiePie and T-Series has been so engrossing and engaging for interneters that for many months now there has been a live counter running on the stats of the two competitors, and this is the live score that Sumedh Chaphekar had shown me some months prior.
My blog today is not about how T-Series got to the crown. This blog is about how the miracle called PewDiePie got created and how loyal fans of his have fought a valiant battle over past months to protect his supremacy on YouTube. Born in Sweden on 24th October 1989, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg grew up in a professional family who encouraged him to take a degree in Industrial Economics and Technology Management at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. However, young Felix got bored with his studies, preferring to make films rather than write essays on the economy. He created a YouTube account in 2010, initially in the name of ‘PewDie’, and then after losing the login details to that account started again with a new account, adding the ‘Pie’ to the end and thus creating the name he would soon be known to the world as - PewDiePie.
It was in 2013 that PewDiePie’s YouTube success really took off. He reached 5 million subscribers in February of that year, and people began to take note of his success. The New York Times even profiled him, although, at that stage, he was just one of six YouTubers featured in the article. Four years later, in 2017, he was receiving whole articles in the New York Times devoted to him alone. By July 2013 he had the second most subscribed channel on YouTube. It only took one further month before he had that coveted No. 1 spot, overtaking the then-leader, Smosh. According to the Wall Street Journal's estimates, PewDiePie made USD 4 million in 2013. By the end of that year, he had reached 19 million subscribers. Twelve months later, he had reached 33 million subscribers, and during 2014 he had 4.1 billion video views. According to Money Nations’ estimates, PewDiePie’s Net Worth skyrocketed to USD 55 million that year. By September 2015 his YouTube channel became the first to receive 10 billion video views. He made an appearance the next month in the Forbes list of Richest YouTube Stars (a feat he repeated the following year). By the Forbes estimates, he received USD 12 million in earnings in 2015. Time magazine included PewDiePie in their list of 100 Most Influential People in 2016.
The YouTube war spilled out into the real world in recent months, thanks to a number of grassroots campaigns to raise awareness of Kjellberg’s channel, and aimed at delaying (if not denying) T-Series the epithet of the No. 1 YouTuber in the world.
The most aggressive, visible and high-profile advertising campaign in Kjellberg’s support happened late last month, when equally famous YouTuber Mr. Beast transformed his entire city into a PewDiePie ad. The YouTuber, who regularly gives away huge swaths of money to his subscribers, bought billboards, local television spots, radio sound bites, and more, all urging people to subscribe to Kjellberg. It worked: the PewDiePie channel started seeing a huge boost, eventually allowing the Swedish content creator to be the first person to reach 69 million subscribers. By the way, Mr. Beast himself is no less an interesting phenomenon than PewDiePie. His most popular video is a compilation video of the worst intros ever among different YouTubers and the video currently has over 20 million views. He is also known for doing outrageous stuff in his videos such as counting to 100,000 in one video, donating money to attractive Twitch streamers, tipping pizza delivery guys USD 10,000, buying a car using pennies, stop a bullet with 10,000 pieces of paper, doing over 2,000 miles in one Uber ride and many others!
It’s hard to tell how much of that growth came from viewers who saw Mr. Beast’s ads in real life, and how much was, say, from people who saw the video of the stunt on YouTube, and were amused enough to subscribe to PewDiePie. Whatever the case, Mr. Beast’s video as of earlier this month has 11 million views, and has set off a chain reaction among other fans, who are competing to publicly promote him.
Meanwhile, PewDiePie himself often uses his videos to urge fans to raise awareness of his channel so he can remain ahead of T-Series’ subscriber count. Since the past six months, PewDiePie has proactively started to highlight and praise fans who are lobbying for his cause. In a video uploaded earlier this month, he showed footage of people who bought newspaper ads and posted fliers that asked bystanders to subscribe to him. PewDiePie has also featured fans in his videos who tell strangers online to subscribe to his channel. That phenomenon is apparently becoming common enough to draw responses from YouTube users who claim multiple people have approached them recently, asking them to subscribe to him.
The push to support PewDiePie has even spread to India, where YouTuber Saiman Says also purchased billboards around Mumbai to help his idol retain the No. 1 spot. “For the sake of YouTube, please subscribe to PewDiePie, because if you subscribe to PewDiePie you are saving YouTube”, Saiman pleaded.
The ‘Let’s do our part to save YouTube’ is at the heart of this feud between the PewDiePie and T-Series channels. For some fans, it is important to maintain an independent creator’s channel as the ‘face’ of YouTube, because the platform is supposed to be a self-made community. Although T-Series is ostensibly buoyed by the support of the general public in India, it represents corporate interests on YouTube. Some YouTube diehards feel that a company shouldn’t be able to reach number-one subscriber status by uploading footage made by other people, and by weaponizing huge budgets and marketing teams. In their view, that represents a loss of what YouTube is supposed to be about.
This relentless campaigning over past months explains why PewDiePie’s channel has picked up more than 3 million new subscribers in the span of just a single month in the last 30 days. It’s not a race any longer between two channels, it’s a John Henry-style fight for YouTube’s soul. Or so interneters worldwide think.
Right now, both T-Series and PewDiePie’s channel have around 70 million subscribers, but the Indian company is expected to surge far ahead in the days to come. The reasons for that are not far to seek.
T-Series has thrived by taking advantage of India's size and diversity. The country is home to hundreds of languages, including at least 13 spoken by more than 10 million people. T-Series operates 29 channels that offer videos in regional tongues and different music genres, including one for devotional music, with 13 million subscribers, another in the Telugu language, with 2 million subscribers, and Bollywood classics at 6.5 million. They all feed into the main channel.
PewDiePie may have been vanquished. Well almost. But his legend will continue to thrive and grow as one of the biggest influencers of all times. And those of you who do not know enough about this internet sensation, go watch his videos and shave off a few years from your biological age!
Sandeep Goyal actively tracks new trends and new happenings in cyberia. To him, PewDiePie has been one of the most significant phenomenons on the internet in recent times.