The PewDiePie Problem

Once again, the “face of YouTube” PewDiePie has found himself in hot water – and once again we have a throng of people ready to rip out his proverbial throat and a throng of people ready to defend him to the grave, and seemingly very few people understanding the actual issues that are coming about as a result of this.

I’ll be very clear: I don’t like PewDiePie’s brand of humour. I did, however, used to watch some of his videos when I was younger, as the style of humour appealed to me more then than it does now. Felix – his actual name, for those unsure of who I’m talking about – would probably do well to keep this in mind in the future. Because you see, the problem with Felix calling somebody a “nigger” on his PUBG livestream is not, in fact, that he called somebody playing a pixel avatar a nigger. And I’d like to dub this the “PewDiePie Problem” because, frankly, he’s the biggest face of this problem that we actually have.

So caught up in the problem at face-value – with the virtuous warriors of self-imposed social justice feeling the need to demonise Felix for being a racist in their eyes, and the mass of people thinking that their favourite YouTuber has done nothing wrong and most certainly isn’t a racist for his actions – nobody seems to be focusing on what this means in the bigger picture, here. And that bigger picture is a lot bigger than anybody seems to give it credit for.

Firstly, I think it’s deplorable that Felix said what he did and has no control over his mouth. Do I think that his use of the term “nigger” as a direct insult means that word probably falls out of his mouth easily in real life? Yes, I absolutely do. Is that any of my business, though? No. But what is my business, and what is the business of anybody that plays video games and (in particular) streams or uploads to YouTube is the effect this has on us. For years, “gamers” have dealt with the constant rhetoric that we’re basement dwellers, or are a violent people because we play violent games. The argument is and has always been that video games make people violent – and although we all know this is false, plenty of people believe it. After all, people are willing to believe the earth is flat, so they’re definitely going to believe that people who play games about murder are probably violent people, the facts be damned.

So Felix is, whether he likes it or not, a representative of both gamers, and YouTubers, because this is what he built his brand on. Nobody else is going to bother looking for other gamers that also upload to YouTube so that they can try and see what the community might be really like. And I think that Felix knows this; he has to know this, because he’s been in trouble for very similar borderline-racist actions in the past with the Fiverr stint. Felix has to know that he:

  1. Has an extremely large audience of younger and more impressionable human beings that watch his content regularly, in some cases admire him, and in others even aspire to be like him
  2. Has an even larger group of people that are aware of his presence and treat him as something of a figurehead, and that his actions represent far more than just his business model when they go so viral and spread so far
  3. That the second group of people – the people who don’t watch him but know who he is and see him of something of a figurehead – will also hold him accountable for the image he portrays to the first audience – the younger people watching his content.

This, this is the PewDiePie Problem. The problem isn’t that Felix might be a racist; that’s bad, and I don’t condone it, but I’m never like to meet him in real life and I already don’t support his content, so there’s little else I can do. The problem is that Felix sets a huge example to two very large groups of people, and the example he sets has a ripple effect on every other gamer and every other video-game YouTuber. Now, is it Felix’s fault that he’s a figurehead like this? Well, no. No, I wouldn’t say it is, and I would say that there needs to be some leeway for Felix because he didn’t elevate himself to this level of fame intentionally – though I’m sure he enjoys it. He shouldn’t have to be responsible for other people’s teenagers or children, and I agree with this. But that doesn’t change the fact that he does, absolutely, need to be responsible for his actions owing to the size of his channel and the average age of his audience. He does set an example, and he needs to be aware of this in the very same way any big business needs to be aware that their actions have potential to set a precedence for every business in that sector.

A lot of people defending Felix use the argument of free speech, and that it’s just a word – and they’re right. Felix can say whatever he wants to. He also needs to be held accountable for what he says based on his platform, his audience and the sheer scope of his business – it is right for people to call Felix out on his language and to tell him to do better. A promise he has, in fact, already made previously after the Fiverr problem earlier in the year that saw him cut away from Disney like a tumour.

Again, I will reiterate: the problem is not that Felix may or may not be a racist and may or may not be calling people niggers in real life. Let those real people deal with those real events when they happen. The problem is that Felix seems to either forget, or intentionally ignore the fact he acts as the face of not just gaming for some people, but also the face of YouTube. We’ve already seen YouTube’s so-called “adpocalypse” – where big businesses didn’t want their brand to appear on videos with vile and disreputable content – and YouTube didn’t care enough to have humans work on a good process for filtering these videos which in turn resulted in a net loss of revenue across huge numbers of big YouTube names that had content not disreputable at all, as an automated system flagged their videos as inappropriate with no humans to check and balance the process. Incidents like this help contribute to that knee-jerk reaction of “pull my advert from that channel” and this, in and of itself, is another beast of a problem that would take a whole other post to talk about.

The problem with Felix being unable to control his mouth is that every small pebble problem – like him calling somebody a nigger with the obvious intent to use it as an insult – is thrown onto a pile of thousands of pebbles just like it. Except Felix’s pebble, in particular, is more like a boulder and it carries a lot more weight. The things that happen as a result of this don’t just effect Felix, they have the chance to effect everybody, and that’s why it’s such a big deal. When Felix does this, he isn’t just shooting himself in the foot, but that bullet is then ricocheting into the feet of everybody else on YouTube, and it is a problem. And I would also agree that the image he portrays to an impressionable young audience is also a problem, but that is, again, not the same problem we are discussing here, and is something for another post.