YouTube is looking to unwind last year’s “Rewind” failure. The platform's 2019 annual highlight reel features its biggest (but controversial) star, PewDiePie, who made a return to the popular video after being omitted for two years.
The 2019 Rewind video, unveiled Thursday, featured the top creators and videos as dictated by the data. By those standards, it would have been impossible to ignore PewDiePie, a.k.a. Felix Kjellberg, though he has drawn scrutiny for videos featuring anti-Semitic pranks, and though his provocative comments have been embraced by far-right communities. (He told The New York Times that it was a misunderstanding and that his jokes do not support "any kind of hateful attitudes.") Kjellberg’s YouTube channel was the second to top 100 million subscribers (T-Series, an Indian music channel, was first), and his wedding video was the second-most liked video of the year.
“The [Rewind] video was about how to accurately reflect the biggest things,” said Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s head of culture and trends. “There is no denying he’s the biggest creator in terms of metrics.”
The video is a simple recap of the creators, dances, games and songs that earned the most likes and views. The buttoned-up approach to Rewind was partly to make up for last year’s video, which became the most disliked YouTube video of all time. The 2018 video was a scripted, cringe-worthy recap featuring gaming, K-pop and influencer references, and the YouTubers who participated were publicly embarrassed. YouTube stars like Kjellberg created videos endlessly mocking it.
The 2019 video was already taking some criticism, which was likely inevitable from the hard-to-please community, after it appeared online. The video had more dislikes than likes on YouTube as of Thursday afternoon. "Last year was terrible and this year is just boring," tweeted Tom Sharman, a social media strategist.
The 2018 Rewind debacle encapsulated Google-owned YouTube’s strained relationship with creators over the past few years. The video was seen as tone-deaf, failing to capture what’s truly popular on the platform. Perhaps no creator represents that strain better than Kjellberg.
Kjellberg has been a YouTube star since he started posting gaming videos in 2010. In 2017, he became the face of YouTube’s “adpocalypse,” though, when brands discovered that not all the videos on the site are appropriate for advertising.
It seems Kjellberg is trying to put the past behind him, and he recently said that he’s rolling in ad revenue. “I’m finally earning what people think I’m making out of YouTube videos,” Kjellberg said in a video in August.
One part of Kjellberg’s success is that he started obsessively playing “Minecraft,” an adventure-building game, in his videos. The Rewind video showed that “Minecraft” was the top game again, beating “Fortnite,” which was No. 1 last year.
“He’s definitely one of the reasons for that,” Allocca says. “We definitely see that when he started going back to making videos of ‘Minecraft,’ that overall was very influential.” It wasn’t all attributed to PewDiePie, but it sparked other creators to rejoin the “Minecraft” craze.
Kjellberg, of course, was not the only YouTube star to make Rewind. YouTube also highlighted creators like Shane Dawson, Jenelle Eliana and MrBeast, a.k.a. Jimmy Donaldson. There were call-outs to beauty stars Kylie Jenner and James Charles. The video featured pop stars like Billie Eilish.
The objective was to “create a video that reflects the year on YouTube as accurately as possible,” Allocca said.
Looking forward, YouTube is trying to support its video creators, with whom it splits money from ads, while giving advertisers ways to avoid inappropriate channels. YouTube is even introducing a new category for advertisers that want to target more mature subjects in videos.
Last month, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a letter to creators that YouTube is “running experiments to help match content that could be considered edgy with advertising that fits their brand.”
Mike Henry, CEO of OpenSlate, which is a social video technology firm, said that looking back on 2019, brands are getting more comfortable on YouTube. There are new brand-safety controls, and brands don’t just want to avoid bad channels, they want to align with the right ones, Henry said.
As for PewDiePie, it remains to be seen if he can ever reclaim the type of mainstream marketing appeal he once had.
“Channels that have a checkered past may do well in terms of consistency and engagement from the audience, but they may have a problem with suitability for brands,” Henry said. “It can be a high-quality channel and deliver great scale with a consistent presence, but still not be the right place.”
CORRECTION: PewDiePie was the second YouTube channel to reach 100 million subscribers, not the first, as reported in a previous version of this article. T-Series, an Indian music channel, was first.