YouTube Rewind is an annual online cultural tradition at this point: a video that looks back at the past year on the platform, released and promoted by YouTube as part of its year in review. It is, in many ways, a glimpse into how YouTube as a company sees the culture that lives within it.
So it is telling that this year’s “rewind” opens with, and heavily features, Will Smith. Yes, the actor. Smith has become a pretty big presence on the site this year, posting slickly produced videos a few times a month to his 4.2 million subscribers. The entire “rewind” video seems to take place inside Smith’s imagination.
As it turns out, Will Smith dreams a lot about Fortnite.
The theme of this year’s video is “Everyone Controls Rewind.” After watching it through a few times, I’m still struggling to figure out how to describe what it is, exactly, that I watched.
Ninja, primarily a star on Twitch who became famous as the first big Fortnite streamer, features prominently as a flying bus driver in a segment about Fortnite, where a bunch of Fortnite streamers and gadget YouTuber/Tesla superfan Marques Brownlee parachute down to the ground (just like in Fortnite!) into a Fortnite-like wilderness where two other YouTubers push a shopping cart — which is a reference to Fortnite!
The famous YouTubers who feature in the video are primarily quarantined around a campfire, talking (dressed vaguely like characters from Fortnite, maybe!) as Liza Koshy leads the group in a discussion about how this year’s “rewind” can be whatever they want it to be. The talking acts as a summary of some of the tougher issues that YouTubers addressed in their videos over the past year — representation and burn out, for example. Simone Giertz, a science creator, thanks her fans for sending her positive messages when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor this year.
Other people show up, people you’d know ... not originally from YouTube: Adam Rippon, the yodeling kid, Trevor Noah, John Oliver. There’s an extended tribute to K-pop and the BTS fandom — an online culture phenomenon that is on, but not unique to, YouTube. “Rewind” has featured late-night hosts and mainstream stars with presences there for years (one year, Dwayne Johnson showed up). This year, however, YouTube culture as told by “rewind” seemed to be primarily about how Will Smith loves Fortnite, a game known for becoming a streaming phenomenon on Twitch.
Not all of the featured creators were happy with that framing:
One segment is literally just a bunch of ideas from YouTube comments in a montage — everything from ASMR to Emma Chamberlain in space to some soccer. And then you’ll be shocked to learn that “rewind” turns its attention back to Fortnite. Did you know that they dance in Fortnite? They dance in Fortnite. They do the Fortnite dances in YouTube Rewind.
The video ends with Will Smith laughing at the Fortnite bus from the beginning of the video.
“That’s hot,” he proclaims. Fortnite!
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this year’s “rewind” video reads like a sometimes cringey, celebrity-filled fever dream, sponsored by Fortnite. Maybe they’re actually right about 2018.
Gene Park contributed to this search for meaning.