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Kylie Jenner returned as online queen in 2018 after disappearing for nearly a year

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Silence can be louder than anything

Kylie Jenner Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On February 2nd, Kylie Jenner published a video called “To Our Daughter.” It was a sentimental video announcing the birth of her first child, Stormi — something better suited for Facebook or Instagram, where friends and family members post updates on their life. Instead, Jenner published it on YouTube, where it has collected nearly 80 million views, making it the biggest trending YouTube video of 2018, according to YouTube.

Outside the realm of regular celebrity, there isn’t anything remarkable about the video. Soft music overtones play over various scenes; Kylie finding out she’s pregnant, celebrating with her family, intimate moments with Travis Scott, and, finally, the birth of Stormi. Just about anything Kylie Jenner does is newsworthy because of her status as an A-List celebrity. But this video represented her official return to the internet after nine months “away,” answering one of the biggest questions on the internet. A question that seemed to overtake everyone on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter in 2017, turning Kylie Jenner’s absence into the most talked about internet story of 2017 into one of the most popular moments in 2018.

Even if you don’t care about Kylie Jenner, her successful video is proof that what she decides to do — or not do — influences online culture. Her video became YouTube’s highest trending of the year because it broke a nine-month silence, and offered something even more important: yes, she was pregnant.

Kylie Jenner is a social media mogul (100 million followers on Instagram, 25 million on Twitter, an estimated more than 25 million on Snapchat). Jenner has made a career for herself defining what makes a true influencer: constantly public and perceived as always accessible on social media. It’s a parasocial relationship that has helped turn her cosmetic company into a billion-dollar enterprise and keep her stans rooting for their queen. So why did she disappear?

First conversations about Jenner’s whereabouts, and questions over whether she was pregnant, were intertwined with some of the best online sleuthing ever conducted. Jenner posted photos on Instagram, keeping up an appearance with her fans, but they started pointing out that these were old shots. Jenner had posted them before. The more full-figure photos that Jenner posted, the deeper fans dug into her social media past. It became nearly impossible to repost something under the guise of innocence when everything Jenner had ever said, shot, or performed in is documented on TV and various apps. She never addressed questions or allegations from fans about reposting photos, which only spurred the conspiracy theory about her absence further.

The mystery expanded beyond her army of fans. BuzzFeed started reporting on latest theories about Jenner’s sudden departure from social media; Twitter hashtags asking questions started trending; comments on Instagram posts for anyone even tangentially related to the Kardashian family started asking about Kylie. By the time 2018 rolled around, it was nearly impossible to exist on the internet and not come across some post about Jenner’s absence. Her cultural identity was created behind a series of MySpace blogs, Instagram photos, and Snapchat filters. Now, she had turned into a runaway, leaving behind the digital space she called home. It became a story bigger than her last name.

The longer Jenner stayed away, the more desperate people became for any kind of Jenner sighting. There was this tangible need for new Jenner content, something to either confirm or deny rumors that had been circulating for months, leaving the biggest stans and curious onlookers for answers. The closest people ever came to that moment occurred in late January, just a few weeks before Jenner gave birth to Stormi. She appeared beside her sisters in a Calvin Klein ad — the first time she had been photographed with them in months, something unheard of in the American family that’s more connected online than off. There was a catch, though; Jenner’s stomach was covered by a blanket. Again, it fueled conversations on Twitter and Instagram even further by not providing people with the answer they sought.

Then, on a quiet February day, Kylie Jenner tweeted a link to a YouTube video. It felt like the first gulp of air after emerging from water. It trended at the top of YouTube’s page for days. The announcement of Stormi’s birth represented her return, and everyone paid attention. A friend of Jenner’s told tabloid InTouch Weekly that she made a decision early on to stay away from public life — something she hadn’t done since she was seven years old — and keep her pregnancy private.

There’s a saying that Instagram killed the magazine cover. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, who boasts more than 200 million followers online, don’t need the cover of Vogue or People to make an announcement (although she still appeared on multiple magazine covers this year). There’s still prestige in landing a magazine cover, but Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube have made the actual magazine spread as exclusive news or first-look photos nonexistent. Jenner didn’t agree to a People spread for Stormi’s announcement; she simply uploaded a video to YouTube. Social media makes everything accessible, and everyone feels up to date. Everything is both newsworthy and commonplace because it’s constant, cyclical, and free.

It’s only when that constant cycle of content is removed that, quite suddenly, having nothing at all is more notable than anything ever posted. It’s almost poetic that within the screeching noise of social media’s bowels, it’s the nine-month-long silence that becomes all anyone can talk about.

This isn’t the first time that a Kardashian’s social media hiatus has made devoted fans turn into other mediums to help piece together plot holes, either. Most of the Kardashian clan stayed away from Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter following Kim Kardashian West’s 2014 robbery in Paris. It was a sign of solidarity for their sister, and it turned each sister’s slow return to the internet into front page news. Most notable, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the weekly reality show that made the Kardashians famous in the first place, suddenly became relevant again. It had footage from a time period where Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat were barren of Kardashian content; it offered news that made the show feel like appointment television for the first time in years.

Jenner’s disappearance from the internet did the same thing. That singular YouTube video, a time lapse over the last nine months, became the go-to answer for one of the internet’s biggest mysteries. Although Jenner isn’t the most popular YouTube creator — she’s barely a vlogger herself — her video managed to deliver something that everyone was looking for: answers to an obsessive question in a crowded room. Jenner’s video on YouTube existed in its own quiet place.

It taught an invaluable lesson about the power of simply not doing something. The internet is overcrowded with aspiring creators and influencers. We’re not just creating — we’re over-creating. There’s a pressure to keep up with everyone, post more than anyone, and be seen by people all the time. The more presence we have on all the apps available to us, the more connected we seem to feel. Jenner was the queen of that for the longest time; there wasn’t one part of her life that didn’t make it to some platform. But the more oversaturated the internet becomes with content, the harder it is to drown out the constant buzz. Maybe the answer heading into 2019 is to learn from Jenner, and just embrace the silence.

Correction December 21st, 4:54PM ET: An earlier version of this story listed Jenner’s video as YouTube’s most watched of the year. It was the highest trending, according to YouTube. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.