The goal of YouTube’s new edition of Rewind, its annual video dedicated to the year’s biggest trends and creator moments, is to best last year’s by not ending up the most-downvoted video of all time or prompt a statement from the company’s CEO. That explains why Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg is back in Rewind, which was released today, after being notably absent for two years. His inclusion comes at the end of a controversial, but massive year for the creator, and signifies a key moment for YouTube as the company tries to accurately depict popular moments while attempting to step back from endorsing certain content.
This year’s Rewind video is made up entirely of YouTube clips, which were chosen based on data about the most-watched creators, most-watched videos, and most-searched trends, according to Kevin Allocca, head of YouTube’s culture and trends team. That’s a big difference from years past, where Rewind took on a more polished look with creators coming together to mash up different events and trends.
“Trying to create something that’s accurate to the super fans, to the people who really care about this — the ones that come for Rewind every year that want to discuss it, get frustrated by it, want to post about it — is the priority,” Allocca said.
YouTube’s culture and trends team has always relied on data to create the annual Rewind videos, which go back to 2010. But since 2012, when a more narrative-driven version was implemented, YouTube has made choices about what to include and what to leave out.
Those omissions have frustrated viewers. Last year’s video — which ignored, for instance, KSI and Logan Paul’s high-profile boxing match — was so detested by the community that it became the most-disliked video ever on the platform, with 16 million dislikes to date. The backlash even prompted YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to admit that her sons called it “cringey.”
That helps explain why Kjellberg is back, this time as the most viewed creator of 2019. This year, he became the first individual creator to surpass 100 million subscribers after a lengthy competition with the Indian Bollywood channel, T-Series. He’s also the most-watched creator of 2019, with videos ranging from Minecraft episodes to music videos and reacts.
“One of the things that was becoming challenging about the format, and obviously a lot of people felt very strongly about last year, was that it didn’t authentically represent their YouTube experience or YouTube in general,” Allocca said. “The decision this year is to try to actually represent that directly and as accurate as possible with the things that people really like.”
There’s long been speculation that Rewind was meant to explain YouTube to advertisers, rather than to celebrate it for fans. Allocca denies this, but YouTube has nonetheless avoided including controversial names in the past — and Kjellberg remains one of those names.
This year, Kjellberg sits at the center of controversy because of his “Subscribe to PewDiePie” meme. The campaign was decried by critics as racist at times (mostly due to language from fans, but also because of lyrics used within a diss track Kjellberg made) and dangerous at others. Kjellberg disavowed the meme after it was referenced by a shooter in New Zealand during an attack on two mosques that left more than 50 people dead.
In the past, Kjellberg has said he understands why YouTube would want to leave him out of the video. “At the end of the day, I care more about YouTube. I care about what’s good for YouTube, what’s good for the platform than me being in it and, I don’t know, pissing people off? I don’t know,” he said in 2017, when he was first omitted from Rewind following a controversy over anti-Semitic imagery.
Even though this year’s Rewind is based entirely on data, featuring Kjellberg is likely to make the YouTube creator community happy — but it risks upsetting critics. Allocca and his team aren’t worried. “There’s just too many different perspectives and things involved now to sort of take into account every single different type of reaction that we’re going to have,” Allocca said.
Relying strictly on data helps the YouTube team navigate that line. This isn’t YouTube as a corporation necessarily picking creators and trends they want people to pay attention to (although YouTube’s algorithms do shape that over the course of the year), but a collection of what people actually watched.
“The best way that we can do that is by actually looking at literally how they interact with YouTube,” Allocca said. “That’s how you get to basing things on the views, subscriptions, and so on.”
There are some asterisks around the data. The team wanted to feature as many creators as possible, which meant cutting out some duplicates. It’s likely that every installment in Shane Dawson’s documentary series about Jeffree Star was one of the top trending videos of the year, but Dawson is only featured twice: once for an investigative piece about conspiracy theories, and again as part of a beauty tutorial with Star.
YouTube’s culture and trends team clearly heard the creator community loud and clear. The 2019 Rewind video is an attempt to be more in sync with YouTubers, instead of trying to present an image of what people think YouTube was this year. Allocca and his team are still worried that viewers will respond negatively to it, taking to YouTube to post their own versions of YouTube Rewind that insult the official version. But he’s also far more optimistic about what they’ve created and hopes people will see that YouTube wants to acknowledge what creators have done in 2019.
“There’s a real question about whether you can make something that will satisfy all the different people who want to see certain things reflected. If we don’t get it right this time... I don’t know, maybe we’ll try something else next time,” Allocca said. “I guess we’ll see.”