YouTube Rewind 2019 Foreshadows the Site’s Boring Future in 2020

The video sharing platform learned from last year’s misstep — but this year’s edition shows the challenge YouTube has in the future

Chris Stokel-Walker
Dec 5, 2019 · 4 min read
Image: YouTube

Cast your minds back a year ago. YouTube unveiled its 2018 Rewind video, a monstrosity that started and ended with Will Smith’s beaming face, didn’t include some of the platform’s biggest — but most controversial names — and devoted an entire section to Ninja, a streamer best known for his videos on a platform that isn’t even YouTube.

Little wonder that the video became the most disliked video in YouTube history.

The Rewind video, posted annually at the end of the year since 2010, has long taken the role of a yardstick for the world’s biggest video sharing platform. In the early days, some of the site’s most riotous memes — the Old Spice guy, the Double Rainbow stoner — were the focus. When YouTube was hailed as the hot new thing revolutionizing the media industry, it was applauded and praised as an insight into the genius of the platform.

And in 2018, Rewind’s most hated video ever accurately represented the torrid year the platform had had.

YouTube started 2018 mired in controversy: one of its biggest stars, Logan Paul, was being castigated for his misjudgement, posting a video of a hanging body in a Japanese forest. But YouTube had faced the media’s brickbats for nine months previously, ever since U.K. newspapers discovered adverts for washing powder were served up against terrorist recruitment videos. It got worse after that. Will Smith was the face of Rewind because the platform got spooked at advertisers abandoning YouTube because of its controversial, homegrown stars. Instead, they shipped in Hollywood celebrities, and people revolted.

This year’s edition of Rewind was hyped as being fundamentally different, YouTube insiders told me before its release. And public proclamations on Twitter did the same:

“Something different. For real.” means giving up control to the audience. The video runs through some of the most liked videos in the history of YouTube’s year — a clever admission that the platform irked its audience, and a smart flipping of the immense number of dislikes the last version received.

The action is a world away from the tightly scripted past of previous years, and we’re mercifully free of the odd mid-video camp fire euologizing about the connecting power of YouTube that raised the hackles of viewers in the 2018 edition.

But ultimately, YouTube is still stuck in an odd transformative moment, where it’s not quite the radical, individual platform that encouraged people to “Broadcast Yourself”, and not quite the established media monolith that attracts Hollywood celebrities and traditional TV stars looking to diversify their audience. After trying last year to be too smart, it’s relying on a simplistic, back-to-basics aesthetic. A list-based clip show will underwhelm, but it’s also unlikely to start raging arguments.

It’s hard, on a platform that has such a vast reach and such a broad base of users, to appease everyone. Ask people what YouTube means to them, and you’ll get a thousand different answers. Some will talk about the utility of educational content like CrashCourse; others will wax lyrical about the cooking videos they devour on a daily basis. Some use the platform as a jukebox, while others use it as a lead for business. (And we’re covering it all at FFWD: give those links a click.)

It’s therefore impossible to capture it all in one snackable video: it’s like asking someone to define culture, when it encompasses everything from fat men wrestling with each other to the works of Leonardo da Vinci. What YouTube has done is shown what the public thinks YouTube is — and shown its breadth and range of content.

But the video shows YouTube’s growing pains. As the platform prepares to celebrate its 15th year, it has to make some difficult decisions. It’s too big to countenance its rougher, less palatable fringes. Too well known to make slip-ups that would have been forgiven in previous years. And it’s too beholden — for now — to its core creator base of independent talent to ignore them. It’s also, interestingly given conversations it’s had about its role as a publisher rather than a platform, and the responsibility of choosing what to highlight, abdicated its role in mediating what to pick as the highlights of 2019.

YouTube Rewind isn’t necessarily just a look back. It’s also a look forward. We have, and we’ll get as YouTube enters 2020, an unhappy halfway house. We’ll get more of YouTube playing it safe. We’ll get less editorializing, less overt control, and fewer opportunities for one side or the other in the polarized world of YouTube in 2019 to say they’ve been discriminated against in favor of the other.

In many ways, it’s our fault. We’ve made YouTube so big it can’t fail. We’ve railed against it when it’s made mistakes, and cowed the platform from taking risks. We’ve cried out for changes until we’re hoarse, and made the site so scared of missteps that it isn’t doing anything. This is the sanitized future of your favorite video sharing platform.

There probably won’t be pitched battles about Rewind 2019. There likely won’t be arguments. There might just be shrugs.

If the video manages to eclipse the 2018 edition for the number of dislikes, people will be clicking the thumbs down not out of blind rage but disappointment. At a time when YouTube should be at its most celebratory, marking a major anniversary and talking about the huge impact it’s had on our lives, it’s too timid to shout about its achievements for fear that it also highlights its many flaws.

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

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