PewdiePie has started a book club. Once a month, the YouTuber sits in his box room studio, bathed in soft pink light, and critiques a set of texts for his audience. The choices so far have tended towards sci-fi – I Am Legend, Brave New World – but also included The Picture of Dorian Gray and American Psycho. “For me to discover how much joy you can get through reading”, the 28-year-old Swede said, “It’s been so much fun.” This month, he wants his viewers to join him in ploughing through Moby Dick.
A readalong of Herman Melville’s opus is unlikely to generate the same interaction as more common YouTuber fare like playing a violent prank or dissing a rival. That said, the first PewdiePie “Book Review” has still been watched 3.5m times. Right-thinking individuals may have struggled to engage young people with classic literature for decades. Felix Kjellberg just turns up and does it from his closet.
Those kind of viewing figures are a minimum for Kjellberg. His channel, to which he posts daily, reached 60m subscribers in January. It’s now 61m. That makes him the biggest creator on the site by far. To put it in context, Logan Paul - the frat boy YouTuber who made headlines last year after filming a suicide victim for clicks - has 16m subscribers. Add his total to those of Justin Bieber, CNN, Nike and Coca Cola and you still haven’t got Kjellberg’s numbers. Pewdiepie is not only the biggest celebrity on YouTube, but probably the entire internet.
Given the scale of his audience and his influence, not much is written about PewdiePie. Tech sites like The Verge and Polygon report on him and often critique him severely. But in the mainstream media, his name has broken through only either as a result of novelty or scandal. He was profiled several times by the British press when YouTubers entered the public consciousness in 2014 (no doubt helped by the fact Kjellberg lived in Brighton at the time). Last year he made news globally after paying two Indian men to hold a sign saying “Death to all Jews”. Three months later he drew headlines again after using the “n” word while live-streaming a video game.
PewdiePie’s content is written about even less often. In a way it reflects how we in the media still classify YouTube as a tech rather than a cultural phenomenon. It’s also perhaps because adults have a fixed view of what YouTubers are; narcisssists with a webcam and a sponsorship deal. PewdiePie is not immune from such behaviour; he has his own brand of ergonomic chair, ideal for gaming, that he sells for $399. But Kjellberg’s videos are more largely concerned with critiquing the internet.
Each week, alongside reactive content like his savaging of Logan Paul’s suicide video, PewdiePie posts three different “shows”. In the first, You Laugh You Lose (YLYL), Kjellberg watches a stream of supposedly humorous, or perhaps laughable clips. He mocks them and tries not to laugh. On Last Week I Asked You (LWIAY) he sets his audience challenges and reviews the output. Those challenges largely involve creating memes and in the third show, Kjellberg reviews the more popular memes on the internet. This show is called Meme Review.
If this sounds like TV to you, you’re not wrong. From Clive James on Television to The Soup via Candid Camera and You’ve Been Framed, people on TV talking about watching TV is a tried and trusted staple. Filming in his small room, decorated with Japanese figurines and a poster of A Clockwork Orange, Kjellberg eschews the aspirational locations of many of his peers. He relies on the footage and his own deeply ironic sense of humour to make the shows work. In this way he emulates those TV shows of old; one man, one desk, one wry remark.
The format has been updated however. The internet provides Kjellberg with a near infinite supply of material. He also swears an awful lot more than James ever did. More than many of his peers he plays around with form and visual effects (he has a team of editors who work on each piece). Sharp cuts, interpolations, green screen scenes and filters which warp the image or subvert the sound are standard. The combined effect is to turn one man and his desk into something both hyperactive and psychedelic.
Pewdiepie has come a long way since he posted his first YouTube video in 2010. His style has developed considerably. He gained his celebrity from “Let’s Play” videos recording himself gaming with a commentary of yelps and curses on top. He rarely posts such content any more. His first non-gameplay video came in 2011, a short clip in which he apologised for taking time away from his channel to go on holiday. In that video he is shy, demurring and can barely look the camera in the eye. That clean shaven cutie pie is now a man with a hefty beard, a shock of peroxide hair, and great deal more confidence.
Why are YouTube stars so popular?
Read moreBecause of the way that YouTube (a company owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) guards its data, it’s unclear precisely who watches PewdiePie’s content. Data provided to Kjellberg by the company, which he screenshotted and posted during a 2017 video, suggested his largest demographic was among the 18-24 age group, followed by 25-34. It seems unlikely that he is not also very popular among teenagers, however. It has been observed that you can pretend to be older than you are on the internet. Many of the fans who engage with PewdiePie by posting content either on YouTube or Reddit are under 18.
When Kjellberg was confronted about his anti-semitic prank and his offhanded use of racist language last year, he apologised. In another short clip he said “It’s not that I think I can say or do whatever I want and get away with it. I’m just an idiot.” However it remains unclear whether his experience has led him to question his behaviour. Always inclined towards the type of humour common on the forums of 4Chan and murkier subReddits, Kjellberg has nowadays doubled down on material that is, to put it gently, anti-PC.
His ironic tone means he rarely says anything explicitly offensive. But the themes and memes that recur in his videos are consistent: images of famous African-Americans (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Barack Obama) captioned with the wrong names; a meme to which the punchline is “respecting women”; African voices sampled and replayed in incongruous situations; recitations of English language posts on Indian Facebook. Pepe the Frog will also make appearances. As for Book Review, the final item on last month’s edition was Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Kjellberg gave it a rave review. “I really enjoyed this book,” he said, “it made me understand people around me better.”
Felix “PewdiePie” Kjellberg is funny, intelligent, innovative and highly charismatic. He also has one of the world’s biggest public platforms and a remit restricted only by YouTube’s terms of service. To call him an alt-right agitator would perhaps be unfair as he has never publicly identified with the proto-fascist movement. But he shares much of their culture and amplifies it across the world. People should pay PewdiePie more attention.