PewDiePie shows how difficult it is to take a break from YouTube

Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg is ending 2019 with a couple of major decisions: he plans to take a small break from YouTube in 2020, and he’s wiped out his popular Twitter account, losing its 19.3 million followers in the process. The news has generated headline after headline about why YouTube’s most followed creator is stepping away from the spotlight, but the attention just highlights how hard it is for many YouTubers to take time off at all.

To be clear: Kjellberg isn’t quitting YouTube. He announced his decision to take a break in a recent video, informing fans it would last for a short while at the beginning of 2020. Reports suggested that Kjellberg was taking a substantial amount of time away because he was exhausted or in response to the string of controversies he faced this year, including the “Subscribe to PewDiePie” meme being used in the Christchurch terrorist attack that left many dead.

The reality is a lot simpler. It’s hard for a large creator to take time away from YouTube for any reason, and so their breaks tend to turn into dramatic events regardless of the reason why.

Unlike many of us who can just email our boss to ask for a week-long vacation, YouTubers are beholden to millions of bosses — their viewers — who will question their disappearance. YouTube creators tend to upload relatively often, with many aiming for three or four videos a week, which makes taking even a week off something creators feel like they have to tell their viewers. Alongside concerns that YouTube’s algorithm punishes creators for taking a break (YouTube denies this) and the need to make money from regular uploads, taking extended breaks becomes extremely difficult, even for the most successful creators.

So many people tried to explain Kjellberg’s break that he released another video addressing the rumors that quickly spread online. It didn’t have to do with any of the controversies he was facing, public criticism, or feeling “exhausted.” There may be aspects of that in his decision, but Kjellberg simply wanted to take time off. As a YouTuber, that means not being in the public eye for a while.

“The reason I announced it was because I didn’t want to up-play it,” Kjellberg said. “I just didn’t want to make it a surprise for my audience.”

After uploading videos almost every day for 10 years, in an effort to ensure his channel remained consistent and he stayed successful, Kjellberg’s had few breaks. He even uploaded consistently this August through his wedding and honeymoon. Kjellberg’s last major break came in November 2016 and was the result of burnout he was feeling at the time. He stayed offline for a week. Now that his channel is at a point where it’s stable, he wants to do what most people are able to do: take a vacation.

“I thought YouTube would be over by now for me,” Kjellberg said in his new video. “I don’t want to look at myself 10 years in the future and realize I’ve done the same thing I’m doing now. Even though I really love what I do, I don’t want to look back at my life in 20 years and go, ‘Oh, okay cool. I just did YouTube videos. And I never did anything else.’ It just seems kind of sad to me.”

Even though Kjellberg says he’s simply taking a vacation, there’s little doubt that many creators are forced to take extended breaks because of burnout. Feeling overwhelmed with the nonstop work of producing, monitoring, and promoting videos is a common feeling within the community, and something Kjellberg alludes to in his most recent video. Many creators have been open with viewers about trying to stave off a vacation in order to keep producing content for fans, publicly admitting when it becomes too much and they need to take time off.

A common response to YouTubers taking breaks — particularly because of burnout — is a rolling of eyes. People still see creators’ job as easy, and Kjellberg acknowledges it’s less demanding than physical work. “There are jobs that are way tougher than mine,” he said. Casey Neistat, another popular YouTuber, has also said that the role comes with a great deal of pressure, even if it is a dream job.

“I’ve often talked about the pressures of being a YouTuber and it’s a tricky thing to talk about because to find success on YouTube is to live the dream,” Neistat said. “Like, this is the ultimate. And if you achieve this kind of success on this platform, which so many people try to do, like, how dare you complain about it? It is difficult to talk about because unless you’ve been in this position, I think it’s challenging to empathize with it.”

What viewers forget is that YouTubers have little job security. They have to constantly produce videos, compete with millions of others for views to ensure they earn a paycheck, and address persistent public criticism in a way other celebrities don’t necessarily have to because they work with agents and PR arms. It’s taxing. This story is about Kjellberg, but it could very easily be about any other creator.

“I don’t know what it feels like to not worry about uploading a video. Even when I am away, I’m still uploading during that time,” Kjellberg said, referencing his honeymoon. “I’m still monitoring the video, I’m still making sure everything is good at that time. I’ve never had a full stop, so I just want to know what that feels like.”

Kjellberg’s videos drove more than 4 billion views to YouTube in 2018, and by far, he has the most subscribers of any individual creator. He’s also marred by controversy, which is why his break seems notable. But the challenge of YouTubers taking some time off is an issue that goes far beyond Kjellberg, and it’s a problem YouTube as a company is still trying to figure out.

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