Felix Kjellberg, the millionaire gamer known as “PewDiePie,” celebrated his YouTube channel’s 30 millionth subscriber last week by proclaiming that he now had a following “that’s more than most countries.” Then, Kjellberg announced (in a YouTube video, of course) that he was making a massive change: from now on, he said, his wildly popular channel will be comment-free.
For Kjellberg’s fans (to whom he refers as “bros”) — and for YouTube itself — this is a Very Big Deal. Just this week, Yahoo Tech declared in a headline that “PewDiePie is the most popular YouTube star in the world.” Period.
His popularity is fueled by his video and mobile game-based content, his personality (he records himself playing games “while talking, screaming, and swearing,” Forbes noted) and his relentless efforts to stay in touch with his millions of followers.
For those who watch his videos (they’re “mostly teenagers,” the Wall Street Journal noted), “Pewds” is a celebrity who will engage with to you. In the past, a lot of that interaction happened in his comment sections.
In announcing his decision to shut off the comments, Kjellberg kept the focus on his fans. “I just feel like you bros weren’t really there,” Kjellberg said of the messages posted beneath his recent videos. Mostly, he said, when he scrolls through comments these days, he sees “spam, people self-advertising, and people who are trying to provoke.”
Trolls, in other words.
Kjellberg turned off his YouTube channel’s comments once before, but that turned out to be a temporary decision. This time, Kjellberg said, the comments are gone “forever.” Now, he says he will use Twitter and Reddit — where he has a much smaller presence — to engage with the bros.
His decision caught the attention of another entity beyond his massive fan base: YouTube. On Thursday, Kjellberg tweeted this:
I’m speaking with YouTube today and they seem keen to improve the comments. I have my notes, but if you have suggestions feel free to @ me.
— Felix Kjellberg (@pewdiepie) September 4, 2014
Here’s his full video announcement (readers who really don’t like coarse language might not want to watch this, or really, anything on PewDiePie’s channel):
Confused? Okay, here’s a brief Internet history lesson: PewDiePie, a YouTuber since 2010, rapidly gained popularity over the past few years for his “Lets Plays” and playthroughs of games, which are basically just footage of Kjellberg playing a video or mobile game and providing (often humorous) commentary on the experience. He’s Swedish, he’s in his 20′s, and he matters to the video game industry.
He’s also a big-money brand himself: The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Kjellberg “has parlayed his persona into a brand name that pulls in the equivalent of $4 million in ad sales a year, most of it pure profit.”
As the Journal profile explained, even negative attention to a video game on the PewDiePie account can boost sales. For instance: his videos of a four-year-old game called Skate 3 reportedly prompted EA to reprint the title due to increased demand. And just to be clear here, Skate 3 is not a great game. But it is full of glitches, and glitches are funny.
If all this sounds weird or boring to you, you’re almost certainly not a teen.
YouTube stars such as PewDiePie dominate the top five most influential celebrities for teenagers, according to a recent Variety survey. And Kjellberg, who makes millions, is hardly the only successful Let’s Play star out there. For instance, there’s Smosh Games. And Achievement Hunter, which is itself a branch of the Austin-based Rooster Teeth production studio.
And then there’s all the content on Twitch, a livestreaming site that only gamers knew about until Amazon decided to buy it for $970 million in cash last week.
While PewDiePie’s decision is generating plenty of attention, YouTube has long battled a reputation for hosting some of the Internet’s worst comment sections. As the Verge reported, popular users have lobbied the site to fix its comment sections for years. Benny and Rafi Fine, for instance, wanted YouTube to find a way to reign in the flood of “hate-filled, bullying” comments on their “kids react” and “teens react” videos, content that prominently features minors.
Hateful comments are hardly limited to the “video games” part of YouTube, either. Science educator Emily Graslie, host of “The Brain Scoop,” made a video last year highlighting the terrible comments she gets every day, both on YouTube and in her inbox. Her crime, apparently? Having the audacity to host an educational, science YouTube channel while female.
Last year, YouTube attempted to fix the problem by reworking its comment system and linking comments to a user’s Google+ account (presumably, making it harder to comment anonymously). But that solution was met with outrage from many of the site’s content producers, including PewDiePie himself.
Eventually, YouTube was forced to admit that the new system initially made one major comment plague — spammers — even worse. The Google-owned site has since promised to address the increase in spam and lifted some anti-anonymity restrictions on Google+ user namesearlier this year.
But if PewDiePie’s recent announcement is any indication, many users don’t think those changes are nearly enough.