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Interview with a trends manager: Maddy Buxton

Have you wondered how video viewing habits have changed in this era marked by racial unrest and a widespread pandemic? Welcome to our new interview series that focuses on video trends that YouTube’s Culture and Trends (CaTs) team are tracking. We hope you’ll find these installments full of helpful insights into what these trends tell us about the world and ourselves.

First up is YouTube Culture & Trends Manager Maddy Buxton, who focuses on the U.S. and Canada. In her role, she tracks popular videos and analyzes their impact on culture at large. Previously, Maddy reported on internet culture as the tech editor at Refinery29. Buxton.

What does CaTs do, and what doesn’t it do?

Maddy: We look at growing trends on YouTube, and try to pull out insights about those trends and understand why they’re popular. We’re not fortune tellers, so we don’t forecast trends. Culture evolves and changes so quickly that it would be very hard to predict what's going to happen even a month out from now, so we focus on trends that are currently on the rise.

People might be surprised to learn that many members of your team are former journalists. How do you explain such a high concentration of journalists on your team? 

Maddy: As a journalist, when you're working on a story, you're going to lots of different sources — you're interviewing people, you're looking at what statistics and research exist, and you're putting those into a cohesive narrative. I think being a storyteller in our line of work is really useful because we're using data to tell the stories of these trends and the creators behind them.

Let's talk about some of the current trends we're seeing now. What kind of content have we seen emerge throughout and since the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death?

Maddy: Early on, we unsurprisingly saw a lot of news footage. Daily views of videos with “George Floyd” in the title or description peaked with over 200 million views on June 1st as the protests unfolded. And views of videos related to Black Lives Matter surged, with over four times more views in the first seven days of June than during the 12 prior months. 

We’ve seen a few different types of videos come out of this. The first are videos from creators who are documenting and sharing their personal experiences encountering racism. There are videos with “Being Black In” in the title, in which creators talk about what it’s like to be Black in countries around the world as well as within different communities, such as art and tech. We also saw some creators, including Marques Brownlee, sharing their personal experiences in videos with reflections on “the color of my skin” in their titles.

Learning how to raise chickens on YouTube - a graph

The second type of video we saw were videos from people who were showing solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. And the third kind of video format we saw were videos that called for advocacy and action, sharing ways of giving to the cause and supporting Black-owned businesses.

Covid-19 has resulted in some viewership trends I doubt few of us thought we’d ever hear, like views of videos on raising chicks. What’s behind the sudden interest in urban chicken raising? 

Maddy: People are often coming to YouTube to learn how to do things, but over the past few months, we’ve seen some more unexpected how-tos on the rise, and raising chickens was one of those. We saw that average daily views of videos with variations of “raising chickens” in the title were up 170% from March 15, 2020 to April 15, 2020, when compared to their average views through March 14. We attributed this in part to news that Americans were stress-buying chickens to have a reliable source of eggs when there were shortages. If you're someone who's buying baby chickens on a whim, you probably don't know how to raise them, so people were coming to YouTube to find out how to do just that. 

With the pandemic keeping so many at home, there have been big disruptions in how we celebrate milestone events, like anniversaries, graduations, and birthdays. You took a specific look at birthdays--what did your analysis reveal? 

Maddy: We saw a couple of ways that people were using YouTube for birthday celebrations. The first was to get practical information on how to do something they might have previously outsourced: Making a birthday cake! We saw average daily views of videos related to recipes with birthday cake in the title increase more than 217% since March 15th, 2020 compared to the same time period a year prior. As many people embraced stress-baking, it led to shortages of key ingredients, like flour and eggs, so it’s no surprise that some of the most viewed birthday cake recipe videos uploaded since mid-March were ones that showed creative solutions for how to make do with less, including how to bake a cake without an oven and how to bake a cake with very few ingredients.

We also saw a lot of creators posting vlogs showing how to celebrate a birthday in quarantine. These videos often came from people who were celebrating milestone birthdays, ones they might have had a large party for prior to March. In their videos, they reframed what is typically a very communal experience — a sweet sixteen or twenty-first birthday — in the context of the home, offering inspiration to viewers doing the same.

As you mentioned earlier, CaTs can’t predict the future, but can you give us any sense of which current trends will have staying power?

Maddy: YouTube’s creators and artists are innovators and they’re incredibly adaptive. This was especially evident when the at-home mandates began — they quickly produced content that spoke to the moment in time, from creating workouts that required very little equipment to performing concerts from their living rooms. When creators and artists are able to return to some of their more regular production processes, I think we’ll see them merging the skills and ways of engaging with audiences they’ve picked up over the past few months with what they were already doing on a larger scale in settings outside of their homes.

And just like people organizing a birthday celebration at home or raising chickens in urban settings, we are, in a sense, all like creators: Learning to make the most of our homes and discovering new ways to make the most of our time indoors.

Maddy: I think that parallel makes a lot of sense. For me, YouTube has always served a very useful purpose, showing you how to do things you wouldn’t otherwise know, and at the same time, it’s also provided entertainment. We’ve seen both of those things maximized in uniquely relevant ways over the past few months.