YouTube’s most-viewed video of 2016 shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s an episode of James Corden’s wildly popular Carpool Karaoke featuring a globally beloved pop star whose most recent album broke several sales records. Adele and Corden drawing a lot of attention isn’t unusual, but the rest of the videos in YouTube’s Top 5 are more surprising: there’s the video for the goofy parody song “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen,” a clip of a little kid and an older guy cutting open a rattlesnake’s rattle, a Freaky Friday-like Nike commercial starring Cristiano Ronaldo, and an audition from an episode of America’s Got Talent.
Trying to extrapolate a coherent theme from these videos is challenging — there’s no common thread, outside the platform they all exist on. For comparison, take Tumblr’s recent year-in-review: at first glance, its most reblogged posts also seemed to be a random collection of unrecognizable memes and photos. But as my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany pointed out, the strange popularity of these posts is an effect of Tumblr’s insular community. Users have their own trends — even their own language — and it’s difficult to find them anywhere else online.
YouTube’s solidarity, on the other hand, suffers from a size problem. The company has more than a billion users to Tumblr’s 20-ish million. The most popular Tumblr post of 2016 barely topped a million notes, while the Carpool Karaoke video has more than 135 million views. When a platform gets as big as YouTube, it can no longer sustain a singular dominant community. Instead, YouTube’s channels become distinct entities: a collection of informal real estate run by people with their own ideas of what to build there.
And it seems like people will watch almost anything if someone else tells them to, or if they recognize where it’s coming from. Many of the top videos this year fall under well-known brands or entities like Spike TV’s Lip Sync Battle, vlogger Casey Neistat, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. And unlike most of the posts on Tumblr, YouTube videos travel easily from platform to platform. Publications like The Guardian and Maxim covered the Nike commercial like it was news, giving it even more traction with audiences who might not have seen it otherwise.
If YouTube’s top videos of 2016 tell us anything, it’s that people who watch things on the site aren’t necessarily looking for anything in particular. They’ll click, in massive numbers and seemingly at random, on a video of a 12-year-old with an impressive singing voice, footage of dudes flipping water bottles, and even a commercial — at least if there’s a celebrity in it.
Here are the top 10 videos: