The Rise of T-Series and Youtube’s Revenge
The rise of T-Series was a long series of actions orchestrated by Youtube as a punishment to Pewdiepie, and to replace him with a more conforming top creator
Apocalypse, October 2018
In the last days of October 2018, a significant milestone became the talk of the mainstream media. The Youtube channel of the Bollywood company T-Series was about to overtake the channel of the top Youtube creator, Pewdiepie in number of subscribers. There was talk of the Indian company using sub-bots, or artificial subscribers, to boost the rankings of its channel. There was also talk of Youtube becoming corporate and changing the landscape of the platform by allowing companies to overtake and overwhelm independent content creators.
But at the heart of the struggle is not the entire base population of India against one juvenile Youtube creator. At the core of it is the rather Machiavellian maneuvering of Youtube not only to punish their top creator, but to render him irrelevant altogether. Yes, the rise of T-Series was subtly orchestrated by the social media platform itself.
The beginning of the end for Felix Kjellberg was at the early days of 2017. Back then, he was still the poster child of Youtube, inking deals with Disney and other companies, guesting in talk shows (where he, at one point, made the infamous handshake with TV host Conan O’Brien, which haunts him to this day). There was some controversy with the platform, as the months before a Youtube glitch dropped the subscribers of creators, and the regular algorithm change forced Youtubers, Pewdiepie included, to make daily videos worth 10 minutes.
He was a success story, and was hardly a blip to the mainstream media. But even back then, he entertained his followers not only in playthroughs but also in juvenile antics and humor that were basically parodies of other creators or of existing culture at the time. He made Hitler and Nazi-jokes, but at that time comics played with crossing the line in their humor, as one can see when comic Sarah Silverman once dressed up in a Nazi costume during an interview, complete with mustache. The problem with Felix lay in the execution of his joke, as in his many skits he keeps a straight face and it isn’t comical enough to be indicated as a joke.
But back then, he was still just a comic playing with shock humor. That all changed when in January 2017, as part of a series of videos where he mocks institutions and figures, he came across the microjobs platform Fiverr.
The Infamous Video
Now Fiverr was a freelancing platform that catered to provide “small jobs” that didn’t require extensive background or projects for the sellers. This was why it was so convenient for sellers, as it didn’t require committing to a long project with clients, promising instead a “one and done” work for potential buyers. And for a cheap price (back then Fiverr limited the sale of “gigs” to $5), one could sell anything so long as the person had skill. This ranged from the more professional website design to tasks like giving a Tarot reading.
Felix wanted to make a point that at such cheap prices, any one could sell anything, and they do. He mocked a Fiverr seller that offered to play a game with him, where he offered to play Roblox instead. He used a Fiverr seller that promised to say or do anything dressed as Jesus. It was unwittingly great publicity for some of these creators. Unfortunately Pewdiepie made one absolutely stupid joke that backfired on him fantastically.
The context is muddled. Felix probably wanted to make a joke that sellers would do anything for a quick $5, and expected them to not go through with it (as many did). He was also sending friendly jibes at other content creators—there was one previous video where he dressed up as the Youtube creator Poppy and promised to send nudes to Youtuber Keemstar if he got a certain number of likes. So the context was, he would make a very offensive remark, and say the Youtuber Keemstar sponsored it (which Keemstar did acknowledge at one point). It was a joke, but instead of shooting him in the foot, the misfire hit him square in the face.
The Fiverr sellers FunnyGuys were paid to hold up a sign that said “Death to all Jews”, then as an aside would say “Subscribe to Keemstar”. Unfortunately the Keemstar part was not audible, and Pewdiepie, poor comic that he was, didn’t come across as making a joke as making a declaration against all Jews. This was not only an allusion to the Holocaust, but also of the continuing enmity and hatred in the Middle East against Israel, and the sign seemed like that sort of declaration.
And Fiverr happened to be an Israeli platform. Ooof.
Now Pewdiepie, in subsequent videos would reiterate that “Context matters”, that it was all a joke, that it was all shock humor. And it was. But that was not the whole point: Context matters, but Perception matters more. It didn’t matter what message you were trying to get across, or what you were actually doing in context. What mattered is how one viewer, when he or she sees the video, would first perceive it to be. One is no longer judged on the truth, but the perceived truth. And one is not taken into the courts or to an authority figure, but hauled to the ground to face the faceless mob of public opinion. This is what happened to Pewdiepie.
And the Mainstream Media that once ignored him now saw him as the enemy, having been “triggered” by one of the more hyper sensitive triggers one could do: offensive remarks (or “hate speech”) against the Jews. And suddenly all his other jokes came under the microscope, including the otherwise ignored Nazi and Hitler jokes (Felix wasn’t even wearing a Nazi uniform when the Wall Street Journal called him out, just a generic uniform). The Wall Street Journal, in particular, didn’t set out to put Felix under the spotlight; they wanted to crucify him.
Felix was dragged and stoned by the mob of mainstream media. Suddenly he was a Nazi, belonging to the alt-right, a radical anti-Semite. Companies, including Disney who had a partnership with him, withdrew sponsorship and openly cut ties with him. The perception of him as a successful, self-made creator now vanished overnight into the perception of him as a monster and an example of the need for tighter restrictions on creators on the Internet. Basically, the corporatization of the platform.
For Felix’s part, the safest path to take was to admit his fault, take the flogging, and go on a road to redemption hoping to at least get the acknowledgment of a forgiving public opinion (which is no longer the case), like Logan Paul did a year later. But insisting the correctness of his position, he defiantly flipped media and commented “Try again, m*******s.” He basically didn’t conform to the demands on mainstream opinion, and from there began the long road to him being perceived as an anti-Semite, if not an actual Nazi.
Youtube was caught in a tight spot. Here was their top creator, condemned as a “hate propagator”, openly resisting any efforts at conciliation, posing a bad image on the social media platform. As a knee-jerk reaction they cancelled his Scare Pewdiepie series, a move that harmed not only the Youtuber but all the crew who worked for him. It didn’t matter; as the cancelled Roseanne series would attest, the scale of retribution is never measured.
But Pewdiepie remained the top creator, boasting a then 65M subscribers and reinventing himself to try to achieve some level of distance between what happened then, and what he was now. Youtube, for its part, tightened the algorithms and instituted even more restrictions to slowly give in to the demands of mainstream opinion for more regulations. That would have been the end of it, then Felix, again shot himself in the foot, when during a live stream playthrough of Player Unknown Battlegrounds, he commented, “What a f***** n****.” It was not even a sudden rejoinder or comment as would have been contemporary use, but a direct pejorative statement calling a person a n******. It dawned, then, on Youtube, what must be done.
“Pewdiepie must be destroyed”
Felix was untouchable because he had 65M subscribers in his channel, and even one site acknowledges that. But this was Youtube: it had the power to give and destroy at will. And this was what happened.
It began with the “Ad-Pocalypse”. Now, the primary trigger of this was that some advertisement were aired in radical right-wing videos. But Perception was powerful: what was more apparent, and more blatant, was Felix saying the n- word, and the subsequent fallout that followed. Subtly, Youtube imposed harsher restrictions on Pewdiepie, resulting in far more demonetizations than other creators that were just as or more offensive than he was.
Against the face of demonetizations that practically cut a significant amount of revenue, Pewdiepie reinvented himself. At one point calling himself a “family friendly” and a “Christian” channel (albeit in satire), he tried to skirt any more issues from himself, although even then he would “trigger” some in mainstream media, witness his retweet of a Demi Lovato meme.
Pewdiepie could not be destroyed as a channel; that would have been against Youtube’s principles. But he was untouchable, so long as he was acknowledged. This was Youtube’s decisive act: to refuse to acknowledge his existence. It happened with his exclusion in the latest Youtube Rewind: while to some this was a punitive act against an errant Youtuber, this was actually Youtube no longer acknowledging Pewdiepie’s existence. He was no longer relevant; he was an outlier.
But he was still the top creator; there’s no denying that. That was when Youtube decided to deliver the coup de grace.
The Death Blow
T-Series was a Bollywood music company that had a fair slice of subscribers in Youtube. It was no different from other Bollywood music companies, but it was growing a following. In the video of Game Theorists, Mat Pat acknowledged that Youtube would funnel Youtubers into subscriptions with other channels that were relevant to them. This was a complaint to many who use Youtube, even from before, that they were being subscribed to channels they didn’t know about. It was part of the algorithm.
The same Game Theory video posited that the rise of T-Series was a power move by Youtube to gain a market in India. It would then, somehow, make sense that they could funnel Youtube users from India into channels like T-Series to get them more engaged.
But here’s the problem: if this was the only case, then not only T-Series but other Indian Youtube channels would be funneled the same amount of subscribers. So far as is concerned, T-Series was the exception rather than the rule. And besides all this, T-Series is a media company, not unlike ABC, FOX, NBC or Netflix. On any given day, no media channel can achieve enough of a cult status to amass enough of a following anywhere (correct me if I’m wrong).
But T-Series fit the Youtube brand perfectly: it was a corporation. It conformed to the image of what Youtube will be. And it caters to the growing Indian market. And more importantly: it was the complete opposite of the wildcard Felix Kjellberg.
So it makes sense that those from the Middle East and India would complain about being subscribed automatically to T-Series and never being allowed to unsubscribe (or being subscribed again immediately after subscribing). Youtube is playing a Vince McMahon, putting a conforming right hand man as the image of his company, rather than the Steve Austin-rebellious Felix Kjellberg.
Whether or not T-Series is using sub-bots is beside the case. What is important is that Youtube is solidly behind its ascent, and would deal the final blow to the relevance of Pewdiepie, who, no longer the top Youtube creator, can be conveniently ignored, neglected and forgotten.
Pewdiepie will, truly, no longer be relevant, at least so far as Youtube is concerned.
End of an Era
As of this writing, T-Series is a few hundred thousand subscribers away from Pewdiepie. There is some effort to amass enough subscriber count to beat them, but it is merely delaying the inevitable. T-Series is no longer just being buoyed up by artificial means; it has also become a rallying cry for India to gain some sense of prominence in Youtube, and as an instrument of patriotic pride.
Felix will still be one of the top creators, but he no longer needs to be acknowledged. He can, as Youtube would say “suck up air all he wants”, but he is no longer relevant to the platform. And he will not be in Youtube Rewind of 2019, 2020… 2058. He will not have sponsorship or recognition. He will be faceless. He will be invisible.
And that is Youtube’s final retribution.
But, as the Game Theorists Mat Pat would say, “But that’s just a theory; a Youtube theory”