It started with a wardrobe malfunction. Fifteen years later, YouTube has changed the world, and it’s more relevant and influential today than ever before.
In honor of YouTube’s 15th birthday, I thought we should take a look at how YouTube started, how it has changed over the years, and how it has impacted nearly every corner of society.
A brief history
On Valentine’s Day in 2005, Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim activated the www.youtube.com domain name. As the legend goes, the trio planned to create an online dating service called “Tune in, Hook up” — which failed spectacularly.
Still, the platform the three PayPal employees created was excellent for uploading and sharing videos, so when the co-founders realized they couldn’t find video of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction from the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime show, they decided to unleash their video-sharing platform on April 23.
It took just a month for the site to see some 30,000 viewers a day. Six months later, that number climbed to 2 million. And in just under a year, YouTube was getting 25 million views and seeing some 20,000 video uploads a day. In October 2006, Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock.
What YouTube had tapped into was a younger generation that had no problems sharing themselves through video. Anyone could participate and post anything they wanted. As you can imagine, this has had some positive and negative impacts. On the one hand, you’ve got cute cat videos; on the other, there was extremist propaganda. YouTube became the new MTV while simultaneously transforming campaigns for politicians. And in the background, a video-suggestion algorithm was creating addicts and, in some cases, radicalizing them.
To say YouTube has been incredibly influential would be a monumental understatement. But I wanted to dig into how and why YouTube has changed society, how it is functioning right now, and what we might see from YouTube in the future.
Upending the music scene
A 13-year old Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube after his mom uploaded a video of him singing. Three years later, Bieber sold out Madison Square Garden in a matter of minutes. Bieber’s instant discovery, connection to fans, and meteoric rise to stardom was a foreshadowing of how YouTube would change music and the music industry.
By taking power out of the hands of talent agents and record labels, YouTube put control squarely in the hands of artists. By going direct to an audience, previously unknown artists had a shot at celebrity. The “cool club” created by record labels wasn’t rendered obsolete, but YouTube’s presence certainly blew the doors wide open.
Look no further than South Korean singer Psy as an example. He produced five albums to varying degrees of success in South Korean, but his sixth album was brought to the world stage, and rampant fame, when Gangnam Style went viral in 2012. That video held the most-viewed video spot on YouTube for 4.5 years and has more than 3.5 billion views to date.
While Psy and Bieber’s success on YouTube are extreme examples, many other artists have gone from zero to hero thanks to the video platform. Examples include Carly Rae Jepsen, Tori Kelly, Shawn Mendes, and Charlie Puth.
Running a parallel track were parody videos, which have earned a new identity on YouTube. You may recall comedy troupe The Lonely Island’s Lazy Sunday and Dick In A Box went viral on YouTube.
These videos were shot in a day as Saturday Night Live shorts, but they also went viral and helped popularize YouTube. NBC eventually pulled the videos as it closed its YouTube channel in preparation to help launch Hulu, but Pandora’s box had already been opened, leading to YouTube’s next influence on our culture.
With YouTube, high video production value and high-fidelity audio weren’t important — at least not right away. YouTube proved that videos made with very little money didn’t just have the potential to be popular, they were actually preferred.
There was an authenticity to these videos that viewers didn’t get from polished productions seen on network and cable TV. It was “really real,” and this theme caught on. To this day, authenticity is seen as one of the most important aspects of a YouTube creator’s presentation. YouTube viewers can smell a fake a mile away, and they will let you know in the comments if they don’t buy what they’re seeing. Likewise, the most authentic content gets gobbled up voraciously.
YouTube viewers run the show
We tend to look at YouTube creators and personalities as the driving force behind YouTube, but it’s actually the viewers who call the shots. The point of uploading a video on YouTube is in the hopes that it will get views, along with all of the benefits that come with those views. But unlike conventional TV, which has prime-time viewing slots and Nielsen ratings to influence what does and doesn’t get made and viewed, YouTube video success is directly tied to what its viewers want to watch and share.
YouTube proved that videos made with very little money didn’t just have the potential to be popular, they were actually preferred.
In the creation and development of a channel, creators get an opportunity that big-time network execs never had: Virtually instant feedback. The best creators are highly engaged with their fans, and they will adapt accordingly. Creators fine-tune their channels based on the shifting desires of their community, and the best ones can sustain themselves long-term. YouTube birthed this kind of producer/viewer relationship, and it has since seeped into every corner of entertainment.
Viewers may call the shots on what’s popular and help shape how content is made, but do they have any control over what gets seen on YouTube? To an extent, yes, but there is a much larger driving force at play here, and that force hasn’t always been for good.
Enter the YouTube algorithm
In 2010, Guillaume Chaslot got his dream job at Google. Armed with a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, Chaslot arrived at Google with no knowledge of what project he was to work on. Turns out, he would be tasked to develop YouTube’s recommended video engine.
This engine would use machine learning to figure out what viewers liked and serve them up a video to watch right after the video they were already watching ended. The recommendation engine had a singular purpose: Maximize watch time and keep viewers glued to YouTube.
According to Chaslot, the number of views a video got wasn’t nearly as valuable a metric as watch time. The longer viewers watched, the higher the engagement and the more revenue YouTube could generate. Chaslot had the incredible task of replacing humans — who were hand-curating recommended videos — with artificial intelligence. His A.I. had to target the unique characteristics of every single viewer, which was a monumental task. Chaslot was successful in building this platform, but it also had some unintended consequences.
Polarization and radicalization
If you are really into prank videos, fail videos, videos of drunk people getting arrested, YouTube will serve up plenty of those for you to watch. But the A.I takes its job so seriously that recommendations lean toward polarizing. As reported by the New York Times in its Rabbit Hole podcast, the A.I. takes point of view into consideration and tends to stick with that point of view.
For example, if you watch protest videos shown from the side of a group of protesters, then you will continue to see videos from the perspective of the protesters. But if you watch a video taken from the viewpoint of the police, you will continue to see videos from the authorities’ perspective. Not only can repeated exposure to polarized video shape a viewer’s perception, but there is mounting evidence that indicates recommended-content algorithms contribute to radicalization.
Google has taken several steps to stave off the negative effects that its open video platform allows. The company has formed a trusted “flagger program” that allows vetted YouTube viewers to flag what they deem to be inappropriate content.
Google has also implemented interstitial warnings that tell viewers the content they are about to watch might contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content.
There is mounting evidence that indicates recommended-content algorithms contribute to radicalization.
It’s a tough battle, though, because, technologically speaking, it is difficult to build a machine that can tell the difference between a video created by a terrorist and one that was made by a reputable media organization covering a terrorist organization.
Regardless, YouTube continues to be used by many groups to further their agenda. So, while some folks may be jamming to new music or watching the latest iPhone review, others are digging into controversial and potentially dangerous content.
The rise of the challenge
Another trend we’ve seen across YouTube’s history are challenge videos. These, too, tend to be either very positive or very dangerous. On one hand, you have the Ice Bucket Challenge, which was designed to promote awareness of and raise money for the disease ALS. On the other hand, you have the infamous Tide Pod challenge, which is just flat-out dangerous and, many would argue, stupid.
Everyone is getting paid. Without a doubt, one of the biggest impacts YouTube has had is in making a whole bunch of people a whole lot of money. Musicians, reviewers, comedians, pranksters, auto mechanics — you name it. And there’s probably a YouTube channel about it that makes both YouTube, and the video creator, a boatload of money.
The barrier to entry is more arduous today than it was a decade ago, and YouTube isn’t just handing out satchels of cash — one has to build a business around their YouTube channel. But since it has democratized online video, nearly anyone with some talent, a little luck, and a webcam can turn to YouTube and start pulling down some serious coin. Be entertaining, be thought-provoking, be helpful, and you will likely reach your audience on YouTube. What you do with that audience will define success.
YouTube’s top 5
Take a look at YouTube’s top-five videos in terms of all-time views and you’ll find it is populated by one kid’s program and four music videos. No wonder YouTube Music and YouTube TV were created.
And as for the future of YouTube? I think we are witnessing that right now. As more and more folks are stuck at home, desperately seeking creative outlets, we’re seeing a flood of new content on the platform. Even late-night talk shows and comedians are turning to YouTube as their primary broadcast channels.
If the line between YouTube and traditional TV was fading before, it’s all but gone now. And I think it will stay that way.
Happy birthday, YouTube. It’s an interesting time to be coming of age. Good luck.