You know that PewDiePie guy you’ve been hearing about lately? I have a funny story about him.
I made this YouTube video back in 2012, wherein a bunch of us mocked PewDiePie using a satirical version of The Fine Bros.’ "React" videos. I made the centerpiece the fact that, back then, PewDiePie tended to use the word "rape" quite a bit.
Please note, as many get wrong, I don’t think he was making rape jokes at all; it was just yelling the word more than anything. The video blew up a little and prompted him to make a specific apology video to his viewers.
PewDiePie has since actually turned over a new leaf. He had a video called "Old vs. New PewDiePie" in which he watched his old content and appeared to be a little surprised at his original self. In fact, he contacted me and we had a very cool email exchange, in which he said that my video led to him thinking more about the things he said and re-examine the kind of jokes he was making.
Wow! My trolly little video where I made trouble for a really big YouTuber — although not quite the biggest, back then — had inadvertently caused some self-reflection and ultimately some good in the world. Not a bad deal!
Well, that’s my story. It was a little short for a Polygon article, but all’s well that ends well and there has never been, nor will there ever be, any new developments there. I’m positive of this fact. Not even gonna Google it.
Now to read my favorite newspaper, The Wall Street Journal ...
Oh for the love of …
Well, instead of just deleting the previous few paragraphs, what say we just go ahead and write a whole article about this?
I go by "slowbeef," and I’ve been doing Let’s Plays and related content since about 2007. I’m certainly not rich off of, or successful from my videos, but I run in those circles because I’ve been doing it for so long in addition to my day job. Some people even consider me a progenitor of it. I talk to a lot of the A-Listers — the people whose names you know — rather often and I have some insight into that world. I have one foot in the door, and see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes.
PewDiePie isn’t remotely the only e-celebrity to have this sort of scandal, though most controversies tend to be a bit smaller in scope.
Did you ever hear about the streamer who got drunk and told her fans that kids getting cancer was just natural selection? Or the two YouTubers who conveniently forgot to tell their fans they were getting paid for their Ryse gameplay? Or that guy who got caught masturbating on camera during his pre-show? This stuff happens with regularity.
Allow me to extrapolate on a meme those kids today are using: "Dude, you had one job. And it looked like a really easy one." Let’s Players, streamers or content creators, whatever you like, get to play video games and make jokes while doing so. It seems like a dream gig, so why even risk these sort of gaffes? Why do people risk their jobs for jokes or mistakes that seem easy to avoid?
Well, it’s complicated. But there are three reasons this keeps happening.
The YouTubers’ common enemy is YouTube
Let’s play (ha) a game you can’t win. In the comments below, tell me how to get your videos featured, get your subscribers to watch videos or get your related videos in the related videos sidebar as opposed to some other person on YouTube.
I’m not joking, go down and do this right now. The rest of the story will be here when you get back.
I can bet that some of you got it right, but the problem is that your answer will become wrong in the next month or so. Content producers get frustrated with the system because the rules keep changing; it always seems like the site is keen to promote someone else, and it can feel impossible to keep up.
For example: "subscriber burn," which is a nefarious little side effect of not uploading a new video for a couple of weeks. The term was popularized by the Game Theory channel in 2014; your subscribers stop getting notified of your videos if they stop watching or you stop uploading. Going on vacation? Let’s hope you got a backlog, because you’ll see a big drop in views if you take a week or two off. And they might not come back.
Here’s another fun one. If you manage your YouTube settings as a viewer, you’ll see the selected default option is "occasionally notify me of videos and activities from my subscriptions." Occasionally. A lot of viewers don’t know this, but YouTube doesn’t default to always showing you new videos from their favorite channels.
You’ll frequently see uploaders complain that users suddenly get unsubscribed, certain videos no longer appear, or you have to explicitly check a whole new notification setting for some reason. As of this writing, there’s a little bell icon next to the subscribe button. The button itself isn’t enough to see videos of people to subscribe to, you need to hit the bell and tell YouTube to always send you notifications, the notifications they default you to only sometimes getting.
If this doesn’t make much sense to you, you see what we deal with. It’s constantly changing. Now, imagine your business hinges on all these random changes.
Most uploaders begin to believe they have to flood the site with videos for a chance one goes viral or to reach subscribers who aren’t notified or to make up for losing them. And the numbers do go up when you start to do that, leaving many to believe it’s the only reliable way to keep relevant.
You need ad revenue if you want to make a living talking over video games, which means views and that means uploads. Or at the very least, you need brand deals which means you need clout, which means you need subscribers, which means views, which again means uploads. Most pros create at least one video a day, and it’s a punishing schedule. Some create as many as three videos a day.
Protip: You can oversaturate your audience, so don’t read this as, "it’s good to upload 10 videos a day."
None of this is good for your mental health if you want to do this job or even come up with a standard workflow, which creates the next big problem.
There just isn’t time to get the humor right
There’s an apparent double standard, right? Comedians tell AIDS jokes, Holocaust jokes, 9/11 jokes and much more. When a popular YouTuber does it, it’s suddenly being reported by the media (and, cough, other YouTubers). Didn’t George Carlin once say no topic is off limits?
Yeah. But like most comedians, he also spent a lot of his time writing those jokes, refining them, trying them in smaller clubs before his big venues, commiserating with his peers, etc. A "secret" of successful comedians is you don’t just spit out jokes that come to you. You develop bits, callbacks, sets, etc. There are legit reasons that Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and Jim Jefferies get away with questionable jokes and JohnnySephiroth315 doesn’t.
Many YouTubers do some of this work, mind, but they also have to prep footage, record it, process it, do editing, transcode it, upload it, schedule it... there are many steps to take before the audience sees the content. And this has to happen, for most, at least once a day. On a platform that changes its rules on the fly, all the time.
"Come on," you say. "How much work can it be to make a ten-minute video?" Try it. Speak about a topic you care about, and then edit out all the pauses and awkward moments but keep your flow. Aim for five minutes, if you like. If you want it to look good, you might have had to do a couple of takes, re-read your outline (you wrote one, right?), mull over editing decisions and make sure the sound is just as good as the video.
It’s different for everyone, but there is no process in which you can do this well that doesn’t eat up a lot of time and energy. It’s a grueling job, especially when positivity is so often tied to success.
There isn’t much time to mull over a joke, consult with colleagues, rewrite it, see how smaller audiences take it, and then tailor accordingly. Again, many of us want to have new content every day. The chance you’re going to misread your audience and be punished for it goes up with every video you release in this environment. Watch the video below, and imagine having to do this for every joke, on every video for every day of your life.
PewDiePie’s now infamous … sketch? Bit? You know, where he pays a couple of Indian kids on Fiverr ... eh, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. There really is a joke there somewhere at Fiverr’s expense, and I think that’s what he was going for.
The parts are there, loosely, if you cock your head and squint a bit. There’s an air of exploitation (on Fiverr’s part, but also often claimed to be on PewDiePie’s part) but it was a rush job. Seinfeld, in contrast, maps out goofy jokes about Pop Tarts down to the syllable.
PewDiePie ends up looking like the villain because he uses the old South Park "haha anti-Semitism!" routine, but the whole joke is malformed. People are quick to dismiss it as merely an edgy throwaway when it could’ve been meant as a commentary on paid online services. But who can blame them? As it stands, the joke is really hard to read. It doesn’t land cleanly at all.
You can actually imagine, if you like, PewDiePie doing a stand-up set and having comedian friends tell him at the bar that "man, you’ve been leaning on the Nazi stuff a bit lately." Or an audience groaning at a smaller venue, which signals to him it’s time to do a rewrite. That’s why there are workshops, writing sessions and smaller venues and drinks with fellow comedians. You have to fail often when the stakes are low to learn how to get the big wins. It’s a process.
Online personalities can’t really know that they’ve lost the goodwill of the audience, or that the material will gain mainstream anger if they’re famous, until it’s too late. They’re already forming tomorrow’s video without even seeing the storm that’s coming.
Even worse is that there is this air of "everyone gets sooo offended" and, while that’s a whole different conversation, some people use the reverse-outrage to mask the fact that they fucked up a joke and have to pay a price. Or they blame others for pointing it out.
It’s one of the cons of being an entertainer. But it all adds up to a firestorm that’s always a spark away, no matter where you fall on the ultimate outcome. Come to think of it … where was Disney and Maker and YouTube in all this? What the hell are they doing to manage their most popular asset?
Very few YouTubers have managers or agents to help with these messes
One time, a much more successful friend, someone with over 500,000 subscribers, was going to be interviewed by a major television network. He spoke with me about it beforehand.
I warned him off the situation; it sounded like he was going to be sandbagged. He was adamant about the opportunity, and I turned out to be wrong. It also turned out I was one of the only people who were trying to offer an opinion on it.
This guy had tons of views and made a bunch of money; didn’t anyone at his Multi-Channel Network, or MCN, know or care that he was gonna do this interview? Did they offer advice or prep him for challenging questions? Was there a conversation about avoiding sound bites that can be taken out of context?
MCNs are agencies that partner with you, Maker Studios was PewDiePie’s MCN, and if you’re someone big enough to be worth their time you’ll get brand deals and opportunities to work with others and increase your audience and revenue. They handle a lot of the backend stuff that most people don’t think about when it comes to big entertainers.
But if someone asks why they should give an MCN 10 percent of their revenue and they’re not a managed partner — that means you’re in a special relationship because you’re big enough for them to really care — there may not be much of an answer.
My MCN is typically pretty nice and in touch, but I’m not managed and if I decide to do an interview — or write this article — a PR person won’t notice or care. I’m completely on my own when it comes to thinking about how my audience views me, for better or worse. I don’t have a manager to call for advice, guidance or media training.
Surprisingly, this is also true of some of the biggest names in the business. I don’t want to make it sound like MCNs do nothing, they are valuable business partners that make it easier to pay the bills, but they definitely don’t curate your content. They don’t tell their big talent to "lay off the political posting," or "dial it back on the hard stuff for a bit." It’s all business, no grooming or advice.
I don’t think this is due to apathy or greed. I’m not sure they know how to handle these things either. I mean, even if you’ve worked in Hollywood or television, here comes a bunch of kids who get tons of ad revenue for screaming over video games. And here’s another batch who pantomime being cartoonishly scared of the games. And here’s a channel that comments on their commentary! It’s baffling to people who don’t like or understand it, so I think most business people don’t want to touch the golden goose for fear it’ll stop laying eggs. They just know people are paying attention, and that’s worth money.
PewDiePie is a bit anomalous among even the A-Listers, and consider this: part of his contract was that he retained full editorial control (in retrospect: maybe not a win), and Disney agreed to those terms.
Jesus, do these italics slant any farther over? Disney! There is almost no other company more protective of its intellectual property or image, and they let a guy in his twenties with one of the largest audiences in the world say and do whatever he wanted under their umbrella. If you combine that with a contract that likely gave Disney a lot of easy ways to drop him if things went south, and you have a creator who is in a bad situation without any guidance from people who can help manage the situation.
That’s huge, and it’s also telling. It feels like Disney was thinking, "We’re not exactly sure what you do, or how it makes money, but it does, so let’s partner and leave shit alone and hope it keeps making us money." But when you get in trouble, well, bye.
There’s always someone else with a funny screen name and a million subscribers who can reach the same audience. But you’d think this whole situation could’ve been avoided if there were somebody checking in when the first few issues with the content begun. This controversy didn’t happen all at once, there were plenty of chances for someone to step in and try to cool things down or provide help or advice when the media got involved.
Yes, "real" celebrities do mess up. But there are publicists and agencies that try to prevent this from happening and then help with damage control. YouTubers start their careers doing everything solo, get into the "I’ll take care of it all myself" mentality, and MCNs don’t seem super equipped to deal with the downsides to some of that.
So you end up with very famous and very rich (and often, very young) personalities with no one to help manage genuine crises. Which means the bad decisions continue.
Are We Just Stuck With This?
On the surface, humor seems easy and I think people make the mistake of thinking it just comes naturally. People think Let’s Play is just "I get paid to play video games and talk?!"
But creativity takes time and reflection and refinement and work. Content creators are in this system where they’re incentivized to pump it out faster and faster, which means a lot of jokes come out half-baked and rushed. Short-term controversies cause everyone to rush to make their own reaction video, which is the YouTube version of the hot take, or thinkpiece.
Eager to compete with each other, you get misleading titles and custom thumbnails — it’s kinda clickbaity, really. Hell, even PewDiePie uploads daily despite the fact that he’s on top and every publication in the world won’t stop telling me how much he makes.
I don’t think this system will be improved any time soon, but I would like to end on a positive note. If there is someone who’s making the stuff you enjoy (and maybe that still is PewDiePie), find ways to contribute. If they have alternate payment systems like merchandise or Patreon, consider it so they don’t have to play the "ad revenue works in volume" game. Support the people you like and boost their signal. Get them out of the realm where they need to make a video a day.
YouTube has a speed and quantity problem, and it affects all aspects of the business. If you are a content creator, take a little time with controversial stuff. It really is fun to make things, but irreverent, boundary-breaking stuff is high-risk/high-reward. Don’t just spit it out: run things by friends and people not in the business. Test the tone before you go live. Sleep on it. That way, you too can be a successful celebrity with a long, stalwart career like Mel Gibson or Michael Richards, only with video games involved, somehow.
Sorry to end this early, but I have a video to upload. Later!
Michael Sawyer goes by the alias "slowbeef" and has been doing Let's Plays since 2005, despite being incredibly unsuccessful at them. He is a self-described video game humorist and is officially way too old to being doing that. You can find him on Twitter, Twitch or YouTube.