Today, YouTube hosts more than 51 million active channels and attracts more than 2.6 billion unique monthly visitors. Viewers consume more than one billion hours of YouTube content daily. YouTube is the second largest search engine after Google, and every year, it brings in tens of billions of dollars in advertising revenue. But how did we get here? When was YouTube created?
It all started in 2005, with one 19-second video of a dude at a zoo.
When and how was YouTube created?
That first video was posted to YouTube’s private beta site on April 23, 2005. It shows YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim in front of an elephant pen at the San Diego Zoo. The aptly titled “Me at the zoo” is the only video on the jawed channel — but his 3.15 million subscribers don’t appear to mind.
By that time, Karim and fellow co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen had been working on the idea for over a year. It was Valentine’s Day, 2005, when Hurley registered the trademark, logo and domain for YouTube, marking the site’s official founding date. Though there are conflicting narratives, YouTube was initially conceived as a video dating site. When that failed, the founders pivoted. The first public beta launched in May 2005 as a general video hosting platform.
From there, the site exploded in popularity. When the official launch came around in December 2005, the site was already attracting 8 million views per day. By July 2006, a Nike promotion claimed the honor of being the first YouTube video to rack up one million views.
Less than a year after launch, seeing the potential in user-generated content, Google bought out YouTube for a hefty $1.65 billion.
The move toward monetization
That’s some big money to lay down. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Google started implementing new ways to bring in a profit. In 2007, Google introduced YouTube ads. That same year saw the launch of the YouTube Partner Program. This, of course, allowed creators to start earning ad revenue from their videos.
This made YouTube a viable source of income. Anyone with a camera and an internet connection could potentially forge a career on YouTube. This incentive attracted all sorts of creators to the platform, resulting in a still-thriving creator economy. With this key piece of the YouTube puzzle in place, the platform quickly emerged as the premier destination for online video.
The many eras of YouTube
Over the years, YouTube has gone through many evolutions and controversies as new creator incentives and site features were introduced. Just as mercurial are the tastes of the audience and, by extension, the algorithm.
However, the core appeal of the platform remains the same: entertaining content posted by real people. Let’s take a look back at some of YouTube’s most popular videos across several major eras.
YouTube Classic (2005-2010)
We’ll call the first five years of YouTube — from when YouTube was created to 2010 — the YouTube Classic era. This is the era of one-off uploads and experimentation. Sketch comedy and viral videos dominated the platform. In this era, creators like Smosh, What the Buck? and iJustine emerged out of the primordial soup of “Dramatic Look,” “End of Ze World,” “Grape Lady” and “Shoes.” (Oh my god, shoes.)
The Gilded Age (2010-2014)
Once YouTube’s Partner Program started to deliver a few success stories, creators became more intentional with the content they uploaded. Strategies were developed to maximize clicks and views. YouTube stars like Jackie Aina, PewDiePie, Jenna Marbles and Liza Koshy rose to prominence. Skits were still around, but gaming let’s plays, makeup tutorials and vlogs took center stage. It was around this time that advertisers started realizing the marketing power of the influencer.
YouTube Renaissance (2015-2017)
In this era, YouTube started to mature and diversify. Creators tested out new formats and strategies, and the platform explored new offerings like YouTube Originals and YouTube Red (later renamed YouTube Premium). Edutainment emerged as one popular genre with AsapSCIENCE, Crash Course and Rosanna Pansino all gaining huge audiences on the platform around this time.
YouTube Today (2017-2022)
In 2017, YouTube erupted in one of its biggest controversies: the Adpocalypse. Through an unfortunate combination of factors, advertisers pulled millions of ad dollars from the platform.
This sent YouTube leadership into emergency mode. Harsh and often opaque content restrictions were enacted, and content that fell outside of those restrictions was punished with demonetization. Creators have been pushing back ever since. The result has been more open dialogue between YouTube, creators and viewers, and more transparency into the business side of YouTube — to a certain extent. Many creators, especially medium-sized to small creators, have to push back whenever their videos are unclearly demonetized.
YouTube, then and now
17 years ago, when YouTube was created, no one could have predicted the success of this new video-sharing platform. It took time and iteration for the simple concept of a video-sharing platform to evolve into the complex, ever-shifting ecosystem we know today.
And to think — it all started with a 19-second travelogue uploaded in 2005.