In Depth: PewDiePie and Maker
Follow up here
The new media boom is upon us. In the grand scheme of things, it’s still in it’s infancy. We still don’t know much about its ethics or it’s general personality. Seemingly due to user generated content, there aren’t many rules. That seemed to change today when the Walt Disney Company owned subsidiary, Maker Studios, terminated their contract with one of the internet’s biggest content creators, Felix Kjellberg, or as he’s known online, PewDiePie.
PewDiePie is YouTube’s most subscribed channel, sitting at 53million subscribers, twenty million ahead of the second most subscribed channel. He joined the site in 2010 and built his audience of predominately teenagers through gaming videos. The network he joined was Maker Studios. Content creators on YouTube can join networks. These are known in the industry as MCN’s (Multi-Channel Networks). MCNs offer partnership benefits on YouTube and allow creators to earn ad revenue from their content. When signed to a network, the full ad revenue is split between Google/YouTube and the network. The network will split their share with the creator. Benefits for splitting with a network include production support, legal representation and a direct contact for any support queries.
Maker Studios is a network formed by some of the earliest popular YouTubers such as ShayCarl, sxephil (Phillip DeFranco) and KassemG. It rapidly grew to be one of the biggest networks on the site, beating long-term leader Machinima. The Walt Disney Company bought Maker Studios for $500million in 2013. The deal didn’t change much. Maker still took partners at the lower end with RPM (Maker Gen) and negotiated bigger deals with larger channels under the Maker umbrella. Maker’s in-house production has largely stayed the same. The biggest production is Epic Rap Battles of History, which has become so important for the network that it negotiated a deal in which it’s founders, Peter and Lloyd work full time on that channel as an employee of Maker. Despite being the network’s biggest name, PewDiePie wasn’t that noticeable within Maker, he occasionally used Maker’s production facility in Venice Beach, CA, but he did mostly his own thing.
PewDiePie’s contract was up in 2016. PewDiePie used his standing with YouTube and his reputation, to have a leverage over Maker and said he’d remain on the network if they entered a joint-venture on a sub-network which would help establish Felix and his favourite content creators on old-media such as publishing, TV, consumer products etc. Disney stepped in to greenlight it. Revelmode was formed and it was considered a subsidiary of Maker and not Disney.
PewDiePie continued to grow, being given a headline programme for YouTube Red, the new subscription service on YouTube. Revelmode was a success for Felix and seemingly Maker too.
As someone who follows the industry, I watch PewDiePie occasionally to see what appeals to the users on YouTube and arguably new-media audiences in general. There has been a shift in Felix’s content and personality over the last year. It’s a noticeable change from the happy, eccentric personality which built his channel in the first place. Felix now has adopted a darker sense of humour seemingly to appeal to the side of YouTube where emerging creators are commenting on modern events, often being edgy and disregarding PC culture. Of course, like these other creators, Felix does it ironically, to satirise a group of people. Felix would often use Nazi imagery in his videos to satirise the alt-right movement emerging in the US. Little did he know that his satire was being taken seriously by these groups. Which isn’t that surprising when you think about it.
Recently, Felix made a video where he used the site, Fiverr, a website where you pay someone $5 to create a video, artwork or writing piece for you. Felix wanted to see how far he could push it. He asked a creator to make a video where they hold up a hand-written sign saying “Death to All Jews” and chant “Subscribe to Keemstar”, a YouTuber who creates content entirely on internet conflicts and is known for racism, offensiveness and his support for Donald Trump. In the video, it’s clear that Felix didn’t expect them to do this.
In a video posted not long after, Felix uses the same service to convince a man who resembles Jesus to say “Hitler didn’t actually do anything wrong”.
Of course, these comments and videos are anti-semitic at their core, it could be considered satire. Satire is a form of comedy. It’s meant to mock a certain person’s ideology and point out hypocrisy by using irony and exaggeration. When I think of satire, I usually think of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report. Felix makes it clear that it was his intention to be satirical. Though this 'exposé' may be down to poor timing, with questions arising in the US about nationalism and the rise of right wing politics, not to mention how the far left are supporting violence to conservatives, calling them “Nazis”. Discourse right now is very heated and sensitive. Of course, that would be another post entirely.
Yesterday, a Maker Studios spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that PewDiePie is no longer with the network and Maker has dropped out of their joint venture, Revelmode. Following Maker’s lead, YouTube shelved his YouTube Red exclusive series and removed him from the premium advertising service, Google Preferred. A scheme where advertisers can directly advertise on a creator’s channel, giving both exposure to a brand as well as more revenue to the creator.
I spoke to a few people about this. We all agreed that PewDiePie was destroying his reputation when he started changing his personality. This is his job. His main goal to make a living it to have two things, an audience and advertisers. He had both on his side at the start of 2016. It’s unclear if Felix thought the change in content would affect his income. But as an industry insider, I can say it should be a very clear red flag. Being removed from Google Preferred and YouTube Red will have a substantial effect on his channel and career. Not being on Google Preferred means he see a large dip in ad revenue (possibly up to 40%). The money he received through YouTube Red is undoubtedly important too. Revelmode was Felix’s chance to enter old-media opportunities including his apps. To me, it was inevitable that deals would be dropped and I’m surprised Maker didn’t drop him as soon as those Fiverr videos were uploaded.
What does this mean for ethics in online media? Well, nothing much. Sites regulate themselves in most scenarios, there is no internet regulator. YouTube is somewhat of an unregulated platform. There are racist content creators on there. They use their right to free speech to stay on and YouTube just tries to draw attention away from them. It seems this is what YouTube is doing here. But in addition, driving away advertisers and support too. Maker was likely pressured by Disney to terminate Felix’s contract. Disney does not want to be associated with anti-Semitism and needs to protect its brand. The Wall Street Journal investigation was likely to have caused this whole situation. As for Felix? We’ll have to watch and find out.