Youtube’s 10 years of memes, music and Gangnam Style
Video upload service was founded on Valentine’s Day, 2005 by three ex-Paypal staff
Video upload service Youtube celebrates its tenth anniversary today. File photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Valentine’s Day, ten whole meme-littered years ago. Can you remember what you were doing? Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim do. They were inventing YouTube. Like most worthwhile internet endeavours, this involved a garage (Hurley’s) and a credit card (Chen’s).
YouTube.com was founded in California on February 14th, 2005, making today its tenth anniversary. The first video was not uploaded, however, until April 23rd. It is not a classic of the genre.
Called Me at the zoo, it features Karim, some elephants at San Diego zoo and a 19-second commentary that won’t have caused David Attenborough any sleepless nights.
In the video, Karim reports: “Alright, so here we are in front of the elephants. The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really, really long . . . um . . . trunks, and that’s, that’s cool. And that’s pretty much all there is to say.”
It turned out there would be much, much more to say. Some of it would be in Korean. Some of it would involve the insane laughter of babies.
Back in 2005, Hurley, Chen and Karim were ex-PayPal employees seeking start-up inspiration. Romance was not far from their minds, but a plan to develop a dating site, called Tune In Hook Up, fizzled out. And then there was Janet.
A year earlier, pop star Janet Jackson had suffered a “wardrobe malfunction” at the hands of Justin Timberlake during their Super Bowl half-time show performance, generating a woefully sexist media hoo-ha known as Nipplegate.
Karim, known as the “third founder” of the company because he was not as involved in its management, says it bothered him that it was so tricky to find and share videos of “events” like Nipplegate.
There’s another story that Chen had a dinner party at which he and his friends took photos and videos of each other. The photos were easy to upload online, but the videos seemed fated to remain undiscovered.
What the world - the broadband-blessed patch of the world - needed was a simple video-sharing site. It was a brilliant bet. “Broadcast Yourself”, YouTube implored, and we did.
By the end of 2005, more than 8 million videos were being watched each day. Then, in 2006, spiralling growth lured Google and its chequebook.
When the search engine giant bought the company in October 2006 for $1.65 billion (about €14.5 billion), then its biggest acquisition, YouTube was losing a lot of money. It had only that summer launched its first “branded channel”, created by Warner Bros to promote sales of Paris, the debut (and as-yet only) album by hotel heiress Paris Hilton. Google was not daunted.
The ink may have been barely dry on YouTube’s partnerships with the Warner, BMG Music and Universal music labels. TV industry lawyers may have been too busy documenting copyright violations to kick back and enjoy early viral hits like this now primitive-seeming clip, Evolution of Dance. But there was already evidence that YouTube and the mass entertainment industry would become one and the same thing, and that it would purely be a matter of cutting the right deals.
In today’s rankings of the most-watched videos on YouTube, there is an anomaly sitting in fifth place with 811 million views.
Titled Charlie bit my finger - again!, it features three-year-old Harry cradling his one-year-old brother Charlie, who has a lengthy chuckle as Harry moans “ouch” repeatedly. Harry recovers fast enough to lovingly lecture his brother, “That really hurt Charlie, and it’s still hurting.”
Charlie thinks the whole thing is hilarious, and he would seem to be right. Filmed and uploaded by their father Howard Davies-Carr in May 2007, it took two and a half years for the clip to temporarily take the title of most-watched video on YouTube - becoming a nice little earner for the Davies-Carr family in the process.
But Charlie bit my finger - again! is an outlier because it is the only amateur clip in the list of the top 30 most-watched YouTube videos. The rest are all the professional products of the music industry.
Happily, this state of affairs is less predictable than it sounds. Pop is inherently capable of being random. YouTube did not invent the novelty hit, but it is brilliant at facilitating them.
In 2012 it did just that, when a Korean musician called Psy played his part in the evolution of dance with a move that looked like he was lassoing a “sexy lady” with one hand, while keeping a firm eye on his watch with the other. Gangnam Style Gangnam Style was one of those things you heard about first, watched later. By the time you caved, the parodies were already proliferating wildly. Uploaded in July 2012, the video for the song - a comedy in its own right - became the first to pass 1 billion views on YouTube.
It has now been watched more than 2.2 billion times - double the video in second-place, for Justin Bieber’s song Baby - and along the way, it proved so popular, it broke Google’s YouTube view counter software.
Thanks to the sweetener of revenue-sharing agreements, meanwhile, traditional broadcasters now embrace the platform like it’s their first-born.
A clip of a man falling on the ice on RTÉ News in Dublin in January 2010 might not be official RTÉ YouTube content, but the recent snippet of Stephen Fry’s views on God, from RTÉ One’s The Meaning of Life, certainly is.
Gay Byrne’s interview with the forthright Fry has pulled in more than 5.6 million views, making it RTÉ’s biggest YouTube hit.
Of course, if you type “Gay Byrne” into the YouTube search bar, the site will auto-suggest some of the more awkward conversations of his chat show career, and that’s because YouTube also serves as a repository of audio-visual history.
It’s a nostalgia-fest for the triumphs and cringes of the analogue era. Play, and replay, the video for the song you love the most which MTV never showed anyway, or relive a television moment from your childhood.
From British Pathé’s newsreel archive to the old Top of the Pops performances painstakingly converted to digital by VHS owners, YouTube is laced with grainy odes to the 20th-century waiting to be surfaced, 21st-century style, on-demand.
But to each their own. YouTube is also a place for the desperate to seek professional help, for the confused to educate themselves on modern phenomena, and for the very young to sink into consumerist bliss. Self-employed YouTubers amass ad dollars from dedicated fans and idle browsers. Censor-happy regimes find they can’t always stop news seeping out.
And Google adores this long tail of slapdash humanity. It does very well out of it. How well we don’t know, as it doesn’t disclose financial data for YouTube. What is safe to say is that Google gobbles billions each year from both the idiosyncratic, democratic YouTube “community” and its partnerships - the major media conglomerates who lend it their content because they can’t afford not to.
Now led by chief executive Susan Wojcicki, YouTube competes with social media networks and exists in tandem with them. It plans to collect cash from music streaming subscription services, because, hey, it’s bigger than Spotify anyway. And it has more than 1 billion users, who between them watch hundreds of millions of hours of content each day.
The teenage years are supposed to be the crazy ones. Can YouTube, hurtling into double digits, really get any weirder or scarier? The site has already revealed the truth, after all, about the species of animal they told us could never happen: the Mutant Giant Spider Dog.