A Short History of YouTube

Photo posted by @YouTube on Instagram

Being a young adult in 2021 means one thing for certain: YouTube was a defining aspect of your childhood and adolescence. Launched in 2005, YouTube has single-handedly changed the landscape of the entertainment world — no longer do we rely solely on a decades-old industry built on nepotism. Now, any regular person with access to a smart phone and internet service can broadcast themselves to millions on any number of apps and websites, all thanks to YouTube. Join us on our look back at the site’s history.

The Viral Era

The first ever video posted on YouTube, titled “Me at the zoo,” was uploaded on April 23, 2005. The video is 18 seconds long and features a young man, at the zoo, talking about elephants. While this particular video isn’t outstanding in content, it sets the tone for what will dominate YouTube in the following years — the viral video.

Viral videos between the years of 2005 and 2008 were characterized by their grainy quality, short runtime and lack of sophisticated editing techniques. Some classic examples of viral videos from this era of YouTube are “Charlie Schmidt’s Keyboard Cat,” “Leave Britney Alone” and “Charlie the Unicorn.”

Viral videos remain a staple of online culture today, especially with the influence of TikTok; however, in the mid-to-late 2000s they looked significantly different. Back in 2005, when a video went viral, it remained that way for months or even years, circulating through word-of-mouth and on early social media sites — think of how many times you watched “Charlie Bit My Finger” back in the day. Today, a video goes viral and you’ve likely forgotten about it within a week.

Photo from Cybernog on YouTube

This simple era of YouTube history solidified the website’s place on the internet and set the groundwork for what would become the broadcasting site that defined a generation.

The Rise of YouTubers

The years 2009 to 2011 marked what many consider to be the “Golden Age” of YouTube. With the growing paid partnership program and the introduction of pre-roll ads, creators had the opportunity to earn money while creating content they loved. This opportunity led to the birth of what we now consider the “YouTuber.”

Early YouTubers created communities of viewers through maintaining regular upload schedules, typically posting a new video once a week — a format that worked wonders in keeping viewers hooked. YouTubers like Ray William Johnson, Fred, Jenna Marbles and Shane Dawson defined this era with their series, characters and truly unique content.

Along with the emergence of the YouTuber came new content standards. No longer were videos grainy and unedited. Now, creators had regular filming locations and used jump cuts — the newest, most simple method of keeping a video fast-paced and engaging. Things on YouTube were changing rapidly and they showed no signs of slowing.

Communities Emerge

After the rise of the YouTuber was the inception of the “YouTube community.” Think of a YouTube community as a genre of sorts — a subcategory where viewers and creators alike can engage with others who share their interests. We’re talking about the beginnings of the beauty community, the Let’s Players, the react channels. Basically, pick an interest and there is a community for you on YouTube.

Photo from Tyler Oakley on YouTube

This era saw the emergence of beauty staples such as Michelle Phan, react channels such as The Fine Bros, pranksters such as fouseyTUBE and, perhaps most notably, gamers such as PewDiePie.

Steadily, YouTube production quality was improving. Creators were purchasing higher quality cameras and investing in lighting setups. As the original YouTubers continued to dominate, new creators grew to fame regularly. The mainstream media was beginning to recognize YouTube, audiences were growing, and with them, the demand for content grew as well.

Drama Takes Over

Around 2016, YouTube saw major changes that would redefine the atmosphere of the website. One of these most notable changes was the introduction of the Viner to the site. With Vine coming to an end, these creators relocated, creating YouTube channels and amassing huge followings on their new platform. Many of these creators remain widely popular today — think David Dobrik, Cody Ko, Jake and Logan Paul.

Photo posted by @LoganPaul on Twitter

At this point, YouTube had been in a long period of prosperity, so naturally, something had to change. This change came in the form of drama. Suddenly, tensions within and between communities began to grow as the mainstream media and creators alike exposed numerous YouTubers in articles, videos and social media posts.

This drama led to a turning point in YouTube history: a phenomenon coined the “Adpocalypse.” Suddenly, the same advertisers who had allowed for YouTubers make large amounts of money off of their videos were demanding family-friendly content to display their ads on. These demands led YouTube to flag all of what they considered to be “offensive content” (AKA curse words, political commentary, dark humor, etc.). YouTubers now had to adhere to more family-friendly models in order to maintain their livelihoods, stifling creativity in the process.

The YouTube Celebrity

Recently, it seems that many YouTubers have been crossing over into mainstream celebrity territory. People like Emma Chamberlain are attending the Met Gala and getting invites to Paris Fashion Week. Jake Paul starred on a Disney Channel show. Countless YouTubers are doing collaborations and paid partnerships with celebrities. Simply put, the concept of the “YouTuber” is changing, if not disappearing.

Photo posted by @EmmaChamberlain on Instagram

Today, YouTube is a completely different place than it was back in 2005. The YouTubers have been replaced by channels like Cocomelon and 5-Minute Crafts. However, there are still many creators who work tirelessly to put out creative and unique content.

Who are your favorite YouTubers? Tweet us, @VALLEYmag, with your YouTube recommendations!

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