After a year that could only be described as the worst year since we started having years, the unthinkable has happened: YouTube has decided that it is not going to release a video highlighting all of the wonderful things that happened over the last 365 days.
“It doesn't feel right,” the company said in a statement that correctly judged the public mood. (There are many who think that YouTube should go further and quietly put the franchise out of its misery, but that's another conversation.)
The absence of a Rewind video this year means that we have an excuse to revisit YouTube Rewind 2018, literally the most unpopular YouTube video of all time. For this piece I spoke to a producer who worked on the video (who preferred to use a pseudonym) about how the video became so hated.
Until the release of YouTube Rewind, the most disliked video in the world was the music video for Justin Bieber's song "Baby," which has attracted 11 million thumbs down. With well over 18 million dislikes at the time of writing, YouTube's 2018 Rewind is in a league of its own, 5 million ahead of its closest rival, the trailer for a Disney+ Indian road drama film called Sadak 2, which has admittedly had far less time to become unpopular, having been uploaded in August 2020.
But why did an innocuous video about the online highlights of 2018 become so profoundly loathed in the first place?
The producer, whom we'll call Andre Farquor, says that whenever a YouTube Rewind video was released, it almost felt like Christmas to him. There had been one every year since 2010, always produced by YouTube and a digital content studio called Portal A Interactive. The first video, only 85 seconds long, is a fast-paced recap of the 10 most popular videos on the site that year, which include an OK Go music video and an Old Spice advert. “They should've kept it this way,” reads the top comment.
The following year, when Rewind was presented by Rebecca Black, the video's dislikes (92,000) were threatening to outnumber its likes (125,000). But this was a blip, probably attributable to the polarizing success of Black and her baffling song, "Friday," the undisputed viral sensation of 2011. In the following years, and until 2017, the percentage of likes on Rewind videos never fell below 87 percent and reached a peak of 95 percent. “You look back at the beginning of YouTube Rewind and it was much easier, especially for someone in the US, to recognize every single person that was in the video,” says Farquor. At this point, the videos were still mercifully short. The power of YouTubers was still comparatively limited — they needed YouTube more than YouTube needed them — so the company was not beholden to any of the creators or their armies of fans.
In 2012 the franchise had begun to commission bespoke performances and the videos acquired the aesthetic with which viewers are familiar today. Creating a typical video involves “four months of hard work” beginning in the second half of the summer, and an insane amount of calendar coordination, says Farquor. “YouTube Rewind is not bringing in money,” he says. “It's a celebration and it's a gift.”
But between 2012 and 2018, as the production values on the Rewind videos grew, the platform continued to inflate and the number of videos increased. It became harder and harder to keep everyone happy. By 2018, says Farquor, there were around 2,000 channels with 1 million subscribers each. Many of them felt as though they deserved to be in the video. “The video becomes a pie that's shared with more people,” he says. “It's almost like your slice starts getting smaller and smaller. You get to a point where the platform has grown so much, and there's so many people to represent, that it's an impossible task.” The other thing that happened is that the videos became unintelligible to anyone who wasn't intimately familiar with the YouTube community.
What was different about the 2018 video, ironically, was that it tried to give the people what they wanted: it was informed by a desire to listen to the YouTube community and tailor the content to their comments. The gimmick in the video is that the people in it have been given free rein to control its content. Around 100 YouTubers including Marques Brownlee and Lele Pons feature in the video, each suggesting songs or cultural phenomena from the year. Half-way through, sitting around a campfire, everyone chips in with a suggestion of whom the video ought to celebrate. “Can we give a moment to working mums?” “Can we also give a moment to Asian representation in entertainment this year?” The video then cedes control to the comments section, following advice like "Don't forget to put Baby Shark in it." “2018, despite maybe what the internet had said, was very very very much aligned with listening to the things that had been said to us and trying to improve on it,” says Farquor. “I really thought it was a really cool idea to read the comments.” The effect, however, is quite a disorientating one, like being in a plane flown by a group of pilots violently fighting over the controls.
The video went up on December 6. The Portal A team watched it and raised a toast. “I was so proud and so happy,” says Farquor.
One disadvantage, he says, is that people could vote on the video before they had even seen it, because the link went live as a countdown before any of its content was visible. In the months leading up to the release, there had already been discontent brewing in the YouTube community, he says. The demonetization of videos, which had been happening since 2012, had become a sore point. Creators were expressing frustration that adverts weren't showing on their videos because they were flagged as not being ad-friendly due to their mentioning sex, for example. On January 16, 2018, YouTube had announced that creators had to have accrued more than 4,000 hours of watch time and 1,000 new subscribers in the last year in order for adverts to be displayed on their videos. (The previous bar was 10,000 hours watch time in the channel's history.) The problem had reached a boiling point. “No matter what video we had done,” says Farquor, “it was always gonna be disliked.”
After the video was published, Farquor was following its progress on Reddit, where he likes to spend time. He thought that people would be excited to see comments being incorporated into the video. He could almost see the exact moment the mood turned. “I saw the shift,” he says. “Immediately it became a game: 'Let's make sure that this is more disliked than Justin Bieber's video.'”
He began to realize that the criticism wasn't confined to one bubble of the internet but was spreading like a virus. “I definitely did not see it coming. That day was hard… it was really hard.” He remembers refreshing the page and reading the comments in an attempt to understand how people were feeling. He also remembers the moment the likes were overtaken by the dislikes.
It took only a week for the video to become the least popular in YouTube's history. Every day people made new videos criticizing it. People said, “Oh, let me go shit on this for views and likes,” says Farquor. One of the many criticisms, along with its jarring social commentary and failure to mention significant deaths like Aretha Franklin or Stephen Hawking, was that the video didn't feature prominent YouTubers like Logan Paul and KSI. (Less than a year before, Logan Paul had been reprimanded by YouTube for filming a man who had recently died by suicide in Japan.) The video was perceived in some circles to be a cynical attempt to soothe advertisers after a difficult year for the company. “Did YouTube even watch YouTube?” reads one of the millions of comments.
To Farquor, it was a difficult pill to swallow. “No one wants to see their video hated. That's not why you woke up at 5 a.m. for however many weeks and worked so hard.” He says it was almost as though the community had consistently been telling YouTube to change, and then didn't like the result when it did. He always felt sad that people didn't seem to recognize the value of, for example, a kid in Brazil watching the video and feeling represented on screen.
The biggest outcome of the 2018 fiasco, says Farquor, was that 2019 looked completely different. The video begins with an astonishing admission of defeat: “In 2018, we made something you didn't like. So in 2019, let's see what you DID like. Because you're better at this than we are.” A return to the glory days, the video didn't dare feature anything other than clips taken directly from the most popular videos of the year. Finally, YouTube must have thought, we are giving the people what they really want. This time, we've got it right.
The result? 3.4 million likes...and 9.4 million dislikes.