“I think that’s what’s cool about YouTube,” says PewDiePie, aka Felix Kjellberg. “That anyone could technically do it, right?” He’s speaking specifically about his success on the platform, most recently indicated by the $7.4 million he earned in 2014, a widely reported figure likely to induce first bafflement and then resentment in anybody born before 1995.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says in a video on the subject, “I don’t hate money. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t matter to me, because it matters to everyone.” Still, he claims to be just as happy now as he was five years ago, when he sold hot dogs to pay rent. But it’s not just PewDiePie’s humility that won him 37 million subscribers; he has a sense of humour about what he does, as demonstrated in the video below, where he responds to critical comments in the style of Jimmy Kimmel’s ‘Celebrities Read Mean Tweets’.
PewDiePie’s rags-to-riches story is certainly not the norm. As with so many cases, it was a combination of timing, nascent demand and sheer personality. When he started out, there were other vloggers carving niches for themselves on YouTube, but nobody in the world of gaming. Now, that’s no longer the case. “If I didn’t exist, there’d be somebody to fill my place,” he says.
“He appeals to an attractive demographic of teens and young adults,” analyst Ian Maude tells the BBC. “It’s strange to imagine that somebody can earn so much from YouTube, but the equivalent of half the UK is watching his videos.”
But why do we still consider this kind of online earning power so abnormal? For some time now, YouTube stars and Viners have been considered just as influential as Hollywood actors and musicians; perhaps even more so due to the unique, immediate relationships they share with their fans. Is it due to the old guard taking umbrage at these young upstarts making more money by playing on their phones and computers? Are we simply conditioned as a species to denigrate other people’s success?
“It seems like the whole world cares more about how much money I make than I do myself,” he remarks, pointing out that what often goes unsaid in the ample news coverage of his finances is the fact that he has raised well over $1 million for charity.
Maybe the entertainment industry is a little scared at this potential for disruption. After all, PewDiePie made this money himself. He made his own decisions about what kind of content to produce, he purposely chose to partner with advertisers, and he sustained a rapport with millions of loyal followers. “Love it or hate it, his success — like so many other YouTube personalities — isn’t just in playing games but actually connecting and talking directly to an audience,” writes The Verge’s Ross Miller. “No agent, press release, or any other intermediary. He just hit record.”
The majority of opinion surrounding PewDiePie’s earnings has been largely negative, but if anything, this story marks a watershed moment in how we should perceive YouTubers and other internet personalities. PewDiePie is the poster boy for this digital land of opportunity, and the fortune that can be made there if you have something to offer. Instead of putting him down, why aren’t more people (be they brands, marketers or would-be influencers themselves) clamouring to work with him?