Can it really be only five years ago? YouTube is so culturally ingrained that thinking of a time before it existed is almost as mind-boggling as thinking of the pre-internet era itself. None the less, the site’s first video looks very much like the historical artefact it is. Uploaded on 23 April 2005 “Me at the zoo” is a poor-quality, 19-second clip featuring co-founder Jawed Karim standing in front of San Diego Zoo’s elephant enclosure. He says: “The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really long, um… trunks.” He pauses. “And that’s pretty much all there is to say.”
Except of course, there was a lot more to say. Five years after Karim and two fellow PayPal employees Chad Hurley (now YouTube’s CEO) and Steve Chen (now chief technology officer) founded their video-sharing website, it hosts more than 120 million videos and 300 million accounts. Thanks to its founders, who sold it to Google a year after its inception for $1.65bn, the word “viral” now suggests a popular video before it does a nasty infection.
The site is a phenomenon that’s generated a whole culture of sub-phenomena with its canon of YouTube celebrities. Never before had anyone with a video camera been able to reach a potential audience of millions and for many – including pensioner Peter Oakley and BMX rider Danny MacAskill (both featured here) – they did so by accident. But when Hurley announced in 2007 that the site would start sharing advertising revenue with key “content providers” it meant that stars like Tay Zonday (also featured) were able to turn their hobby into financially viable, even lucrative, careers.
Tthe science behind what makes a video a hit and a vlogger a star remains vague. As Zonday says: “You could sooner herd cats than plan for the public to like or dislike something.” It’s an illuminating choice of phrase: cats are, of course, a pretty good bet. Likewise babies, though it’s still perplexing that a merely moderately amusing family moment is the most watched YouTube video of all time. “Charlie bit my finger” is a 56-second clip in which Charlie, aged one, bites the finger of his big brother Harry, aged three. It’s been viewed almost 177 million times.