YouTube Rewind 2017: All Hail Our Corporate Overlords

At the end of each year, YouTube releases a “rewind” video – a compilation of popular videos, music, and trends from the previous 12 months. A collaboration with hundreds of YouTube content creators, each year’s YouTube rewind ends up being a rapid-cut montage of song, dance, and celebration. However, this year’s YouTube Rewind broke slightly from this format, resulting in a strange and disjointed effect. While the seven minute video does conform to previous years’ YouTube Rewinds–with hundreds of popular YouTubers and popular music from the year–the entire feeling of the video changes about halfway through. In a break from the general positive feeling of upbeat and energetic reflection upon the previous year, there is a 45 second montage of very serious and tragic events that occurred during 2017. As if in an attempt by YouTube to acknowledge and engage with the negative aspects of the year as well, the audience is subjected to a rapid-fire sequence of low points from the year before being thrust back into the happy song-and-dance sequence. Not only does this trivialize complex and nuanced world issues by presenting them as yet another “trend” from the past 12 months, the treatment of these serious and tragic events by YouTube Rewind 2017 also raises significant questions about the ever-growing role that media giants such as YouTube play in our daily lives.

Throughout the entire video, the distinct red and white YouTube logo appears–mirrored to point backwards, as a reference to the “Rewind,” but nonetheless a constant reminder of YouTube’s omnipresence in the important events of 2017. Look at all these famous people having fun singing and dancing as they remember all the fun memories from 2017! Wow aren’t we all just having such a great time reminiscing about all those laughs we had this year? Thank goodness we have good ‘ol friendly YouTube to bring these feelings of happiness and joy into our lives; Our existence sure would be a depressing void if it weren’t for this video-sharing website. Hell, in this year’s Rewind video, that some YouTube logo/rewind icon appears as a massive object in the night sky eclipsing a similarly shaped triangular sun.

This is your god now

It’s just a reference to this year’s solar eclipse, which was viewable across nearly all of the continental United States. It was a significant event this year, so definitely appropriate to include in the video. However it’s also difficult to ignore some of the symbolism in this image. YouTube has positioned itself as a monolithic presence in our world—in this image it is literally bigger than our own planet and is even large enough to block out the sun, which is itself another copy of the YouTube logo. It has literally become the center of our solar system, and provides all of the energy that our planet consumes. The sun is an important force for all of humanity, and this imagery represents YouTube as occupying a role of similar importance in the lives of millions. I must note, however, that we can’t be sure of what YouTube’s actual intentions were when it chose to use the image of its own logo to represent the eclipse. However, regardless of intentions, we can look at the potential effects that it has and what it might be interpreted as representing.

Sure, I’m being overly cynical and over-dramatic here, and possibly painting YouTube as an evil force in our lives. I’m sure that there’s no nefarious intention in creating the YouTube rewind. As a media entity, YouTube’s goal is to drive up viewership numbers so that it can sell advertising space, and ultimately generate profit for its parent company, Alphabet. This is the reality of our corporation-dominated world, and it certainly isn’t unusual to see a media platform such as YouTube engaging in such activities. However, as citizens of a media-saturated society we ought to be mindful of the forces that we interact with so frequently. Especially when YouTube is making such significant effort to inject itself into our human emotions we should take note.

This year’s video is especially interesting for this point, because it breaks from the tradition of previous years where the YouTube rewind was generally positive in tone, focusing only on humorous and enjoyable moments from the year. Halfway through the 2017 video, there is a sudden and drastic shift in tone, and the video becomes much more self-reflective and features a montage of videos covering tragic and serious events. These are presented in the context of hope, perseverance, and overcoming adversity, but it nonetheless marks a significant change in YouTube’s strategy and in effect now attached YouTube’s brand and platform to all of these emotions–no longer only happiness and joy.

At about the 2:57 mark, the pop music mashup soundtrack fades to become soft background noise. Alyssa Forever, a creator of makeup and fashion videos, is shown floating through space toward the monolith/YouTube logo. The black triangle fades to serve as a screen to display videos, as we hear various news reports describing the more negative events from the year: flooding in Houston, terrorist attacks, candlelight vigils and more. “It’s a very difficult time, but we’ve been through difficult times before,” the voiceover offers a positive outlook from these events, and we see groups of YouTubers in locations throughout the world holding hands and smiling generically at the camera. Finally, the black triangle completes its transit of the triangular sun, the pop music starts back up, and we’re thrown right back into the upbeat celebration—complete with fidget spinner turntables. The entire sequence takes up only about 45 seconds of the seven minute video.

It’s okay, we held hands and now everything in the world is better!
Emotional catharsis brought to you by YouTube

On the one hand, this is a important step by YouTube to acknowledge the complexity of the real world and show that not everything from 2017 was necessarily positive. Indeed, communicating and engaging with serious events and difficult topics is important. However, it is also important that we examine the role that YouTube plays in bringing those events to our attention. As a media giant, YouTube is responsible for creating a particular view of the world and shaping the way that we view and interact with it. For many of us, we only truly experience tragic events through the media that delivers it to us–through YouTube’s play button, for example. The fact that this video literally presents such events inside the play button underscores this fact, and reminds us that we have YouTube to thank for allowing us to experience this swath of emotions. Want to feel happy? Laugh at something? Feel informed about the world? Cry about something? YouTube can make all of those possible! But of course, they would much rather you feel those positive emotions, as you’re a much more valuable commodity audience that way. Makes sense, then, that all the tragedies of 2017 are relegated to a short rapid-fire montage, and don’t even appear in the listing of 2017 trends.

Yes, media such as YouTube are pivotal in increasing communication and access to information, but we must be mindful that these events are actually real and that the media representations only give us a fraction of the full story. YouTube, and countless media outlets like it, can bring distant parts of the world to us but we must remember that our emotions are still our own, and not dictated by the media we consume.

Of course, we should keep in mind that YouTube is but one (relatively) small component of a larger corporate empire. YouTube is owned by Google, which is in turn owned by Alphabet. Friendly sounding, sure, but still interested in associating its products with your emotions. Each year, Google produces a similar video to reflect upon the past 12 months, in what it calls the “Year in Search.” It takes a significantly different approach than the YouTube Rewind, but ultimately serves the same goal of associating Alphabet’s various products with your basic human emotions. In this case, it reminds us that the friendly Google search box will always be a part of our lives. (And that we’ll always be a part of Google’s bottom line…)

Unlike the constant upbeat and energetic tone of the YouTube Rewind, Google Year in Search videos encompass a wider array of emotions, in a somber and reflective manner. The video is also much shorter–only about 2 minutes, compared to YouTubes seven minute montage. The content contained in the Year in Search includes from scientific achievements, historic moments in sports, terror events across the world, celebrity deaths, and more. The Google Search Box is overlaid atop many of these video clips, reminding us faithful Internet users that we can count on Alphabet’s product to provide us access to the world. It’s almost an attempt to personify the Google Search engine, an entity that is experiencing a wide array of human emotions alongside us, and not just a product offered by an enormous corporation.

The business model of Google Search and YouTube relies upon generating and maintaining a large audience of users, and selling that audience as a commodity to advertisers. Therefore, it is in their best interests to keep people engaged with their products and services. YouTube Rewind and the Google Year in Search are two methods used to achieve just that; by associating their products with human emotions, we are encouraged to stop viewing YouTube or Google as services provided by a corporation, but simply inherent aspects of our daily lives.

To be clear, I am not arguing that these actions by YouTube and Google, or more broadly by Alphabet, are inherently a bad thing. As corporations, it is absolutely expected that they would take actions to generate more profits. However, to be responsible consumers of media, we all really should endeavor to be aware of what these companies are doing. Yes, YouTube Rewind and Google Year in Search are fun ways to reflect on the past year. But they also serve the interests of the corporation that produced them, and it’s important that we don’t forget that fact. When we start viewing online services such as YouTube and Google not as corporate products, but as inevitable parts of our lives–inextricably connected to our human emotions–we run the risk of ceding even more of our autonomy to an already enormous and powerful corporate giant.

Search on.

Inspired by this TED Talk from Scott Galloway:

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