Changes in our collective behaviour and culture over the past year have played out on YouTube in fascinating ways. (Case in point: The accelerated trend for ‘slow living’ content and the stunning rise of virtual product launches). The platform captures the zeitgeist like no other.
Our team of YouTube analysts delved deep into YouTube content to understand the trends that could live beyond the pandemic. We explored viewership, content, and creative trends that have emerged around the world over the past year. What we found repeatedly pointed to one thing: the increasing indispensability of video in people's lives, primarily for a sense of connection. We captured our findings in a new YouTube Culture and Trends Report. Here are the high-level highlights:
Lesson 1: Watching live and simultaneous viewing helps people gain a sense of community
As countries around the world went into lockdown, the small connections that make people feel part of a community — the random chat with a stranger at a mutual friend’s wedding, the banter with other fans while watching your sports team play — all but disappeared.
It’s not surprising, then, that people have turned to online video to fill this gap. Watching video with others, whether physically or in the virtual world, heightens immediacy, generating a stronger sense of connection.
We are seeing this trend play out in the explosion of live stream events, as viewers continue to seek out ways to be together. In the U.K., 78% of people say they’ve watched a live stream over the past 12 months, according to a recent survey.1 Events such as NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars garnered more than 2 million peak concurrent viewers and 22 million all-time playbacks,2 while Formula 1 reshaped the fan experience with its first live Grand Prix on YouTube.
With stadiums closed to spectators, football “watchalongs” help bring some of that much-missed match-day experience to the digital space. For example, a recent watchalong for Arsenal vs Villarreal garnered well over 800,000 views,3 nearly 14 times the capacity of the stadium where it took place. The trend has continued for the Euro 2020 Championship and beyond.
Watching video with others, whether physically or in the virtual world, heightens immediacy, generating a stronger sense of connection
Music artists are also engaging audiences with more intimate and innovative performances. British singer-songwriter James Blake treated fans to new tracks in a live Boiler Room set in October, while DJ Four Tet has a constant livestream on his channel. When DJ Dom Whiting takes to the streets on a bicycle kitted out with decks for one-of-a-kind live-streamed music sets, his appeal may seem niche. Yet through the power of connection over YouTube, Whiting has over 65,000 followers – with one particular video from April already on the cusp of a million views.
Streams of lofi hip hop beats have also become gathering places for people looking to focus or relax together. Lofi Girl is at the centre of this phenomenon, as her channel has amassed over 930 million streams from people turning to her for company.4
But videos don’t have to be live to generate a sense of togetherness. Simultaneous content — where viewers can follow along while their favourite creators do pre-recorded activities — creates similar feelings of community. Videos that had #WithMe in the title, for example, garnered over 2 billion views globally in 2020.5 Clean With Me, Decorate With Me, or Study With Me and the ‘study web’ phenomenon, were a handful of ways viewers create community through company.
Even when they aren’t following along live or simultaneously, video can help turn private experiences into social ones. People are streaming on TV screens more than ever before, and over half of people surveyed in the U.K. said they watch YouTube on a TV with other people at least once a month.6
The idea of using real-time experiences to transform the personal into the communal sits at the heart of these examples, and represents new creative opportunities to meet audiences where they are and serve their evolving needs.
Lesson 2: As boundaries between public and private collapse, video viewers seek out relatable content
Over the past year, as our homes became offices, virtual schools, and nurseries, the once clear line between our public and private lives has disappeared. In turn, people feel less pressure to project unrealistic images of their lives and have grown to expect the same of their favourite creators and the content they produce.
As late night talk shows adapted to the pandemic, many of TV’s biggest stars have started to seem like YouTubers, with the numbers to show for it. The Daily Show, an American news satire program, saw its YouTube viewership grow 45% in 2020 versus the year before.7 These relatable formats also helped rebrand chess. In India, comedian Samay Raina began streaming games that helped casual chess content — once the stereotype of elitist intellectualism — dramatically grow in popularity, with over 330 million chess-related views in India in under nine months.8 Globally, we have seen views of chess-related content grow by over 100% in the past year.9
The winners in the world of video are those who manage to break the fourth wall and pull audiences in with their relatability.
With so many people making videos themselves, there are new opportunities to “speak the same language” as viewers in ways that make them feel closer and more connected to your art, brand, or passion. For example, fitness guru Joe Wicks may now be a household name in the U.K., but it is his down-to-earth approach and infectious energy that made his PE with Joe videos a living room fixture for many families during lockdown — so much so that he won a Guinness World Record for “Most viewers for a fitness workout live stream on YouTube”.
In a world where the barriers between public and private have collapsed, the winners in the world of video are those who manage to break the fourth wall and pull audiences in with their relatability.
Lesson 3: Immersive videos encourage togetherness
Using multisensory media to immerse the viewer in an experience is more popular than ever, as digital video pushes beyond expected audio-visual conventions and becomes more experiential.
While ASMR videos may jump to mind, other sensory formats like audio-first or first-person formats are emerging, such as video podcasts and cinematic first-person videos.
The term “first-person video” is actually borrowed from gaming, where first-person perspectives help create a feeling of immersion in the action or story. One example is Dream SMP — also called “Minecraft Hamilton” — a gamer-built world and roleplay-themed server with an improvisational plot starring non-professional storytellers. Videos related to Minecraft and with “Dream SMP” in the title have accumulated over 1 billion views since May 2020, making it the most popular entertainment phenomenon of the past six months.10
Using multisensory media to immerse the viewer in an experience is more popular than ever, as digital video pushes beyond expected audio-visual conventions.
Participating in video memes and trends has also become a popular form of immersive social entertainment. A small but fiery parish council meeting in the U.K. became a viral hit, with over 500 reaction videos uploaded to YouTube in the week following the initial video.11 Similarly, the 1800s sea shanty trend not only saw the genre elevated to pop culture status but also turned postman Nathan Evans into a viral star and, eventually, a U.K. number one artist. In every instance, the individual participants become a part of the experience, not just consumers of it — just look to the Handforth Parish Council sea shanty for proof.
All of these trends speak to the ability for digital video to connect people and become participatory. And while they may have been spurred by our needs during quarantine, their popularity suggests they are here to stay.
The human need for connection
Feeling connected is a core human need and the rapid adoption of video as a tool to help meet that need shows how indispensable this medium has become for so many people.
Creating a sense of community, relatability, and participation are all shortcuts to help people feel more connected, and by doing this, there is an opportunity for creativity and entertainment to bring deeper value to our lives.