It’s a fact easily forgotten, in light of all the fame and the folly that’s followed. But before Justin Bieber was a tabloid fixture, a Calvin Klein model and a teen cult leader, he was a tiny, backlit figure swaying in front of a cinderblock wall, singing Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” in a prepubescent tenor.
It was a clip shot at a local singing competition in Stratford, Ont., where Bieber – then 12 – placed third. When his mother uploaded it to YouTube in January 2007 to share with family members outside of Stratford, she likely didn’t imagine that, eight years later, the fuzzy, handheld video would have 7.3 million views. Or that it would catch the attention of Bieber’s now-manager, Scooter Braun. Or that, in the future, Bieber’s meticulously orchestrated YouTube videos would be shot by teams of highly paid professionals.
In many ways, the narrative of Justin Bieber – arguably one of YouTube’s original mainstream stars – is also the story of YouTube, itself. The massive video-sharing site turned 10 years old this month, which almost passes for old age on the Internet. And yet, for much of its history, YouTube was the upstart, the disrupter, the 12-year-old kid just revving to conquer the pop culture machine.
“That’s what we’re all about,” co-founder Chad Hurley said in 2005. “We’re the ultimate reality TV.”
Of course, at the time, Hurley meant “reality TV” in its most literal sense: actual people filming dispatches from their actual lives.
When Hurley and his co-founders registered the YouTube.com domain name above a pizza shop in California in February 2005, such a concept was actually, well, pretty much unheard of.
The Internet video landscape, pre-YouTube, was like a dank, primordial plasma, virtually inaccessible to the average Web user. Sure, there were a handful of other small-time video startups, most of them long gone today. And there was a class of savvy users who owned the servers and the bandwidth required to host video on their personal websites, a technically difficult – and potentially expensive – endeavor.
In fact, pressed to name one viral video that appeared before the dawn of YouTube, I suspect most people could only manage “Numa Numa” – the gloriously simple, unscripted webcam clip of a guy named Gary dancing to a Romanian pop song, which appeared online in December 2004. (Said clip has since, naturally, migrated to YouTube, where it’s been watched 56 million times.)
Tech-heads had an inkling that online video could be big, of course. The early aughts already had seen the online migration of audio production (this was, after all, podcasting’s pre-“Serial” heyday) and photography (YouTube, in its early days, was often called “Flickr for video”). Blogs were booming. Social networks like MySpace and Facebook, then a year old, were gaining steady steam.
Google was, accordingly, working on its own video product, a thing aptly called Google Video, that promised to bring all the polish of TV to your computer screen.
Google Video courted major Hollywood producers and inked a content deal with the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the same group that brings you the Academy Awards. And Google Video would let plebeians upload content, too, provided they download Google’s proprietary file-transfer software, submit a form’s worth of content about the video, and wait for moderators to approve it.
YouTube had a way better idea: a video site that anyone and everyone could use. Appropriately, the first video ever uploaded to the site, on April 23, 2005, was a 19-second clip of baby-faced YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim standing in front of the elephant enclosure at the San Diego Zoo.
“All right, here we are, in front of the elephants,” he says. “The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really, really long trunks. And that’s cool. And that’s pretty much all there is to say.”
There it was: The ultimate reality TV. Life in all its unscripted, pedestrian honesty.
By November of that year, YouTube’s users were uploading the equivalent of “one Blockbuster of videos every day,” as YouTube’s founders liked to tout in marketing materials. Few of the clips were actual blockbusters, of course – just pirated TV clips, or home videos from old concerts dubbed off VHS, or scenes captured from daily life on the new wave of consumer devices that shot digital video.
By December, the site was moving two Blockbusters per day. By January, they had dropped the Blockbuster metaphor all together. YouTube, media theorists and tech analysts argued, was fundamentally different from any genre of video that came before it: It represented the democratization of a medium that had once belonged solely to Hollywood studios and media conglomerates. It was the exaltation of the low and middle-brow. It was video largely for and by the people, with all the messiness and humanity and occasional stupidity that entailed.
Accordingly, many of YouTube’s classic viral videos are simple productions, shot in cars or kitchens or suburban bedrooms: stuff like 2007’s “Charlie Bit My Finger,” in which a chubby-cheeked baby bites his not-much-older brother, or “Leave Britney Alone,” in which a sobbing fan defends Britney Spears, or “Double Rainbow Guy” – remember Double Rainbow Guy? – who dissolves into tears when a rare double rainbow appears in Yosemite.
Even Bieber’s early videos – the ones that caught the attention of Braun and ultimately launched his career – were amateur affairs, the captions written by his mother, with apologies for the bad lighting. Which makes sense, frankly, because when Paris Hilton and the artist then known as Diddy began to use the platform in a professional capacity in 2006, YouTubers got mad.
There was something distinctly anti-professional, something recognizably ordinary, about those early viral videos. Critics like the Internet writer Paul Ford have gone so far as to argue their banal settings express something integral about “the American room” and the American psyche.
When, exactly, did that change?
As early as October 2006, when Google bought YouTube, users already had begun the usual choral wailing about advertising, corporate involvement and the end of “the Wild West.” (The Wild West couldn’t live long anyway: YouTube was already getting sued for copyright infringement.) That backlash began anew when, in 2007, Google introduced advertising on the platform, a critical pivot that made YouTube less a hobbyist hub for home videos, and more an opportunity to earn actual money.
By its fifth anniversary, in 2010, YouTubers were uploading 24 hours of video every minute, and some of them were making enough cash to quit their day jobs. Felix Kjellberg, the unlikely star behind YouTube’s most popular channel, PewDiePie, dropped out of school to focus on his “YouTube career” – a phrase that hadn’t even existed two years prior. Zoe Sugg, now the author of a record-breaking best-seller inspired in part by her YouTube experience, had transformed a shopping habit into a “lifestyle brand.”
That same year, Hank and John Green – YouTube grandfathers, at that point, having vlogged since 2007 – organized the first inaugural conference for video creators, called VidCon, at which some 1,400 people showed up. The latest iteration of VidCon drew 20,000 people and was attended by the likes of Fullscreen CEO George Strompolos and Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
“My company’s budget is not very big. I have, like, 20 employees, and we’re trying to make it work,” Hank Green told Katzenberg during one on-stage interview. “Should I be terrified of you?”
Today, you’ll rarely come across a viral video that isn’t rights-managed by a company like Jukin Media. And of the 30 most popular YouTube networks – basically, bundles of popular YouTube channels – a fifth are owned by media conglomerates, like Comcast, Disney and AT&T. (Dreamworks, notably, bought the early YouTube network Awesomeness TV in May 2013.)
Now, when you watch a video by a YouTube “star,” you’re less likely to see beige bedroom walls than you are a slick, green-screened studio. Maybe even one of YouTube’s very own studios, which the company launched for the use of its upper echelon in 2012.
This is all, of course, very good for YouTube, and even better for its stars, some of whom have parlayed their bizarre Internet stunts into actual careers and bona fide celebrity. There’s no longer any use, in fact, in denying that YouTube’s celebrities rank equal to their traditional peers, in terms of cultural import and influence: Green wrote a scathing essay to that effect on Medium shortly after interviewing President Obama in January.
That said, there’s a reason videos like “the cutest gangsta I know” still, occasionally, go viral. And there’s a reason that so many young, self-made video stars have moved on to Vine, and from Vine to Snapchat. There’s something to be said for classic, innocent, garbage YouTube, the “ultimate reality TV.”
Incidentally, archaeologists who study ancient cultures often learn about how people actually lived by studying not their temples or their monuments – but by their trash, by the thoughtless, ordinary, unpolished leftovers of daily life. YouTube was like that, once: a screen to show us how we really lived.
It’s since moved on to better things. Less honest, maybe, but more profitable – and a whole lot more attractive.