The Perilous Popularity of the YouTube Vlogger

With 57 million subscribers comes responsibility

It’s always a sorry state of affairs when you find yourself unable to participate in a conversation. We’ve all been there - the work drinks, the family dinner, the small talk at the hairdresser’s - when talk turns to a topic you really should know about but which never evoked enough of your curiosity to warrant even a late night flirtation with its Wikipedia page. Game of Thrones, perhaps. France’s presidential election, maybe. Or the YouTube vlogger, Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a. PewDiePie), who has a following of 57 million individuals from all over the world yet whose existence you weren’t even aware of until he blurted out a racial slur during a live stream a couple of weeks ago.

My relationship with YouTube vlogging has always been - at best - marked by an unrelenting indifference. I’ve just never really engaged with it. And let me be clear here – by ‘YouTube vloggers', I’m referring to the bunch of highly successful individuals who sit in a room with a camera and chat, play video games and record their reactions to other videos before uploading their content onto YouTube and raking in the big bucks. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are drawn in by such entertainment and I had never been even close to joining them. Working for a production company - which automatically requires unwavering support for all creators of video content - rendered this all the more unforgivable.

Well, that all changed with the recent PewDiePie fiasco which awakened a fascination in me. It wasn’t the blunder itself I was drawn to (although to yell the N word during a live stream with an audience of millions does require almost impressive levels of idiocy), but rather the ensuing reaction of his fan base. People from all over the world were jumping to the gamer’s defence before the eager beavers down at the Wall Street Journal had even put pen to paper. This was not the first time the troops came out of the woodwork either – the fans reacted similarly earlier this year after he received widespread condemnation for releasing a video featuring anti-semitic jokes and Nazi imagery. Willing to advance literally any argument in order to protect their beloved bigot (apparently it’s all part of ‘gaming culture’ to be a racist), it dawned on me that these aren’t just PewDiePie enthusiasts. These are diehard fans.

Further YouTube trawling revealed that this is no isolated phenomenon either. HolaSoyGerman, Smosh, ElRubiusOMG, Yuya, JennaMarbles – just a handful of the YouTube personalities with over 15 million loyal subscribers, and counting. One need only recall the internet hysteria surrounding Marina Joyce last year for an explicit illustration of YouTuber infatuation. In that very peculiar series of events, the British fashion vlogger’s strange behaviour in some of her videos led her fans to the logical conclusion that she had been abducted by ISIS (because, duh). No three words can really sum up the essence of a devoted YouTube vlogger fanbase better than the trending: #SaveMarinaJoyce.

These vloggers are much more than a simple source of entertainment. A survey conducted by Variety magazine revealed that YouTube vloggers are, among teens, substantially more influential than mainstream celebs. This is likely down to their heightened relatability and authenticity, but is pretty concerning in light of the repugnant content broadcasted by PewDiePie, the world’s most popular YouTube vlogger.

Kjellberg's behaviour is, however, not an accurate reflection of vlogger culture across the board. There are plenty of examples of YouTube celebrities harnessing their scope of influence to provide emotional support to their fans. Zoella, for instance, known for her highly successful beauty blogging and vlogging, released a 20-minute video dedicated to addressing her panic attacks and anxiety and which - judging from the comments section - provided a lot of comfort to a lot of people. Courageous individuals have taken to YouTube to document momentous events in their lives such as their transition into another gender or coming out to family members, inspiring the LGBT community to express themselves unapologetically.

The ability to captivate and influence tens of millions of people from the comfort of your own living room is remarkable (not to mention absurdly millennial). The power of the YouTube vlogger is colossal, and should be harnessed to contribute positively to society – as it is more often than not. But PewDiePie, in promulgating his ignorant values across a devoted fanbase, bears testimony to the risks attached to disregarding that responsibility. Something tells me that next time Kjellberg’s name crops up at the dinner table, I won’t be lost for words.