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To give you an idea of how much money it’s possible to make on YouTube these days, Forbes now has an annual ranking of the Highest-Paid YouTube Stars. At the top of the list is a Swedish born vlogger, Felix Kjellberg, who goes by the name PewDiePie on YouTube. His main claim to social media fame is making silly and often crude videos of himself playing video games.
But that was enough to get him 50 million subscribers on YouTube. In 2016 alone, he raked in nearly $15 million from YouTube by generating over 13 billion views of his videos, making him easily the most identifiable YouTube star. He also landed a book deal, which resulted in over 100,000 copies sold. YouTube even went so far as to produce a YouTube Red Original Series (“Scare PewDiePie”) and signed him up for a premium-level advertising program (Google Preferred) that boosted his earnings potential even further.
In the lexicon of Hollywood, he was just about as “bankable” a star as you could find in the social media world. He was A-list social media royalty. Just about any video he makes these days is guaranteed over 1 million views.
It was only by pushing the boundaries of what’s permissible, though, that PewDiePie was able to rack up so many views and subscribers. On his main PewDiePie channel – the one with 50 million subscribers – some of his all-time classics include videos like “Hottest Girl on YouTube,” “Who Do People Hate?” and “How Dirty Is Your Mind?” All of them include profanity, crudity and off-color remarks.
But now we’re seeing what happens when you push the boundary too far. It’s one thing to use profanity, crude language and NSFW images. It’s quite another to be accused of anti-Semitism. His latest stunt was to get two shirtless guys to make a video showing them holding up a sign reading “Death to all Jews.” PewDiePie claims that any anti-Semitic imagery in the video was sarcastic commentary about the absurdity of the Internet, where this type of thing is even possible.
But YouTube was quick to react – it immediately canceled the upcoming second season of his “Scare PewDiePie” series and it ended any advertising opportunities related to the anti-Semitic video.
In reality, though, that’s basically a slap on the wrist. Consider what PewDiePie didn’t lose – he didn’t lose his main YouTube channel, he didn’t lose any of his 50 million subscribers, and he can still monetize any of his YouTube videos with ads. So he’s still making money.
The social media star system
In other words, YouTube went far enough to show that they were not asleep at the wheel, but did not go so far as to destroy its most bankable star. YouTube – just like any social media company these days – knows that it’s these independent content producers who are their lifeblood. (Just by way of comparison, think what would happen if you carried a sign reading “Death To All Jews” into your office next week.)
In many ways, the situation in the social media world is similar to the world of professional sports. Take the NFL, for example. It’s rare that a star player will suffer any real penalties, even in the face of egregious crimes like domestic abuse. As long as there’s no video evidence, the NFL is willing to push these crimes under the rug. And teams are careful to take any action, either, aside from maybe benching a star player for a single possession to prove a point. They, too, know that these stars are the lifeblood of their team and their league.
Thus, in many ways, the story of PewDiePie is the story of how independent social media creators – whether they are on Instagram, Snapchat, Vine (until it died) or YouTube – are really the glue holding these networks together. They are the stars. The social media networks need them as much as the stars need them. And, for that reason, they are willing to overlook all but the most egregious of offenses.