The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Only three of YouTube’s top 10 videos of 2015 were made by ordinary YouTubers

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The year has changed, and the exact videos have changed, but one aspect of YouTube’s annual top-10 remains pretty predictable: The real powerhouses on the site that claims to have democratized Internet video are network TV channels and multimillion-dollar companies — not ordinary “creators.”

[YouTube at 10: How an online video site ate the pop culture machine]

That leaves a mere three videos by independent creators: a dashcam video of a British police officer singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” uploaded by Dover Police; a slow-motion clip of a giant water-balloon bursting by Slo Mo Guys, who got their start on YouTube; and four-year-old Heaven King’s take on the Whip and Nae Nae — a follow-up to the viral video that originally landed her on the “Ellen” show. (You can view all the trending videos here.)

While it’s tempting to see this as a new trend, particularly given the number of late-night shows that cracked the top-10 this year, the apparent corporatization of YouTube has been going on for several years. Seven of last year’s top-10 videos were filmed or sponsored by companies like Fox, Nike and Budweiser; in 2013, six of the 10 most popular videos were.

In fact, the last time YouTube’s most popular videos actually reflected its everyman ethos was in 2011, the glorious year that first brought us Rebecca Black, Maria Aragon and Karmin. (Although even well before then, YouTube-watchers were warning that the future of user-generated content may actually be corporate.)

What’s up with that, exactly? It’s not like YouTube lacks for super-talented video creators, or that the Internet’s tired of random clips of babies or singing drunks. Rather, it appears that — even where the unfathomable science of virality is concerned — the establishment has a big leg-up on the rest of us. Jimmy Fallon doesn’t rely solely on YouTube fans to get his “Mean Tweets” out; he has millions of network viewers and prime-time promo ads and a high-powered PR team.

Likewise, a cottage industry has grown up around the theme of connecting native YouTube stars and “brands” — meaning that some of the creators we’d once have classified as independent YouTubers are now actually financed and promoted by major corporations. (Roman Atwood, whose “crazy ball pit prank” ranked number three this year, made the video as a Super Bowl ad for Nissan.)

None of this is inherently bad, of course: on the contrary, corporate interest in YouTube and YouTubers is one of the many things that’s allowed some creators to make the site their full-time gig. Still, it makes you nostalgic for the era when a cute handheld video was enough to make it really big.

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