PewDiePie’s Battle for the Soul of the Internet

PewDiePie’s Battle for the Soul of the Internet, by Allen Farrington.

This is a story about the question of who holds power over what we can say, hear, watch and read on the internet … Yet the protagonist in this story …  is unknown to the vast majority of educated readers.

That man is PewDiePie, a Swedish comedian whose real name is Felix Kjellberg. With 77-million subscribers, he has the most popular YouTube channel in the world.  …

But while Kjellberg’s brand is unique, the story of how he’s been mobbed is distressingly familiar: Thanks to a small group of journalists who’ve distorted his record, he’s been falsely smeared as a Nazi sympathizer. The main mob cheerleader was Vox Media, which recently published a hit piece accusing PewDiePie of having ties to white supremacists. …

While a battle between two YouTube accounts may not sound dramatic, there is little doubt that the PewDiePie/T-Series feud was the most important thing to happen on YouTube in 2018. It was a case study in new media acting as a force equalizer between David and Goliath. T-Series is an entertainment conglomerate with an enormous production budget and a large workforce that’s able to push out a half-dozen music videos per day, all aimed at an audience migrating from more traditional platforms to online video. PewDiePie, on the other hand, is a single guy cracking jokes in his bedroom. …

The future of your information is at stake:

PewDiePie is what YouTube was supposed to be. T-Series is what it has actually become, with YouTube’s active encouragement.

And it is not just YouTube. As Quillette readers know, something similar is going on with Patreon, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. Defying its foundational architecture, the internet is no longer decentralized. A cartel of politically aligned capitalists controls access not just to cyberspace in the abstract, but, arguably, the very means of online business functionality. This is why PewDiePie has become a lightning rod: He has managed to buck this trend by building up a massive following that (for now) allows him to defy corporate control. …

Kjellberg’s true crime is that he’s funny. And the online corporate giants have no idea what to do with humour, since humour always will target a society’s prevailing dogmas — including, at the current cultural moment, the earnest mantras that govern corporate messaging. Humour also happens to be the most powerful weapon against authoritarianism (corporate or otherwise), because it leaves an irreversible impression on its audience. …

PewDiePie is unique in that he has real leverage over the cartel. His continued presence is integral to the popularity of YouTube as a platform; and PewDiePie knows this, because PewDiePie understands YouTube. Unlike Elfwick or Milo Yiannopolis, he is too popular to be un-personned without YouTube experiencing a massive backlash. Unlike Dennis Praeger or Dave Rubin, his controversy is too oblique and apolitical to be faced down directly with culture-warrior hashtags. Unlike the developers whose apps powered the spread of Facebook and Twitter, he cannot have his back catalogue rendered obsolete by alterations to program-interface code. Unlike toilet plungers and coat hangers, the PewDiePie channel can’t be undercut on price by Amazon. YouTube controls access to PewDiePie. But without PewDiePie—and the other YouTubers like him—YouTube withers away.

Parasites, not platforms:

Venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya once recalled his work with Facebook this way: “We trumpeted [our platform] like it was some hot-shit big deal. And I remember when we raised money from Bill Gates…And Gates said something along the lines of, ‘That’s a crock of shit. This isn’t a ‘platform.’ A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it exceeds the value of the company that creates it. Then it’s a platform.’” The brilliant Microsoft founder knew that his own Windows operating system was a true platform because, as Microsoft openly bragged, the company itself captured only a minority of the value created through the Windows ecosystem. Facebook, YouTube and Google are in a completely different category—because the vast majority of the wealth they generate is controlled by the social-media oligopolies themselves. They aren’t platforms so much as rent-seeking agents that oversee a set of critical economic protocols. …

This kind of power hoarding exists only because of insufficiently farsighted design of the early web. Were there a public protocol that allowed video to be shared as easily as hypertext, there would be no need for YouTube. Were HTTP sufficiently robust to handle two-way links, there might not be a need for Google. Were there a public protocol for identity, Facebook might be extraneous. And were there a public protocol for value exchange, there would be no need for content that is almost exclusively monetized by advertising—a development that has ushered in a risk-averse ad-driven corporate culture with its attendant censorship and house politics.