- By Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer
Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is assistant managing editor for online at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor's degree from U.C. Berkeley, and master's degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
After watching the world’s most popular YouTube videos, I’ve reached one conclusion: Everyone loves Miley Cyrus. Well, almost everyone. The map above is a rough guide to the popularity of the singer’s controversial music video “Wrecking Ball” around the world; the darker the country, the better the video has done there. Miley is apparently big in countries ranging from Malaysia to Tunisia to Ukraine. The Russians, it seems, are one of the few holdouts against her cross-border appeal.
This cultural insight comes courtesy of What We Watch, a new site produced by the MIT Center for Civic Media that has collected public data over the past six months from YouTube’s Trends Dashboard — and produced a nifty, interactive map that lets you explore how culture spreads through the lens of YouTube videos.
The site, among other features, lets you pinpoint where a particular video is trending — that is, where it has received a lot of attention over a short period of time. I spent a morning playing around with it, and found some surprising results. This Punjabi music video, for instance, has somehow found an audience in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands:
The Norwegian music video The Fox – a particular favorite around the FP office — apparently never really took off in the United States (although Canada, South Africa, and Australia love it — as do, of course, the Nordic countries).
And almost all of the trending videos in India are, like the one below, Bollywood-related, and popular almost nowhere else.
(Like a lot of Bollywood videos, the clip above, Jeene Laga Hoon, is both ridiculous and cute — and not a bad two minutes spent, even if you’re not in India.)
With What We Watch, you can also explore which countries share the same taste in video clips — that is, which countries had the same videos trending since MIT started tracking the information. This, too, can sometimes produce surprising results. While Argentines, Colombians, Mexicans, and Peruvians tend to watch the same videos as one another, Portuguese-speaking Brazilians are outliers in Latin America, having more in common — at least when it comes to YouTube — with Australia, Canada, and Sweden, among others (though not, it seems, Portugal).
Turkey — that bridge between East and West — favors popular videos in Europe, like this One Direction video, to those in the Middle East, which include several clips from Arab Idol and a music video by Elissa, which was trending in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, among others. (Admittedly, language likely plays a significant role here.)
The project is in part a way to find videos you might not have come across in your own country. But the map’s creators also want it to capture how culture spreads: Which videos blow up, and what paths do they take? Just how did the Dutch start watching a video by Alfaaz featuring Yo!Yo! Honey Singh, for instance? Why do some videos, like this ridiculous British ad for cereal, never win over a global audience,while this very sweet ad for Google Hangouts has garnered widespread global popularity — except in the United States, which appears to be its intended target?
Two countries that could serve as bridges, researchers found, are the United Arab Emirates and Singapore — both notable as small countries that share a lot of content with a wide range of nations. Both have large expatriate populations as well as large numbers of “guest workers.” “We can imagine a video popular in India making its way to Yemen through the United Arab Emirates,” researcher Ethan Zuckerman wrote.
So go forth — and spend your day watching YouTube without feeling guilty about it. Spot any interesting insights? Leave them in the comments.