The incredible story of YouTube's early days and how it rose to become the world's most popular place to watch video
YouTube has more than 2 billion monthly users visiting the video-sharing platform for their favorite vlogs, music videos, sports highlights, and more. YouTube was founded nearly 15 years ago above a California pizza shop by three early PayPal employees. Since then, it's become the most popular free video-sharing platform in the world. Take a look at the history of YouTube, from its start as a failed video-dating website to a powerhouse platform that's launched a new generation of money-making YouTubers and influencers. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
In its 15-year history, YouTube has become the undisputed king of online video. It has over 2 billion monthly users who watch hundreds of hundreds of millions of hours of content every single day. But many people don't know how YouTube got its start. The company rose like a rocket ship after its founding in 2005, and was bought by Google scarcely a year later. Under Google, YouTube went from being a repository of amateur video to a powerhouse of original content, not to mention a launching pad for its own new brand of superstar, like PewDiePie. Here is how YouTube got its explosive start, and maintained that momentum to become the biggest force in online video.SEE ALSO: 21-year-old YouTuber MrBeast was one of the most-viewed YouTube creators in 2019 — check out how he got his start and found success with elaborate stunts and giveaways February 2005: Three early employees at e-payment startup PayPal — Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim — start working on a free video-sharing site called YouTube. Hurley registers the trademark, logo, and domain for YouTube on Valentine's Day while sitting in YouTube's first headquarters above a pizzeria in California. Hurley becomes YouTube's first CEO.
Source: USA Today, Engadget February 2005: The cofounders initially think of YouTube as "a new kind of dating site," with the slogan "Tune in, Hook up." However, YouTube-as-a-dating-site attracts few users, and the cofounders are forced to take out ads to offer women $20 to upload "dating videos" onto YouTube. "Our users were one step ahead of us," Jawed Karim later says. "They began using YouTube to share videos of all kinds."
Source: Vice April 2005: While the dating service doesn't pan out, the three cofounders transform their idea into a free video-sharing platform, thanks to inspiration from two significant events in 2004: Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl, and the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
Source: USA Today April 2005: The first video posted to the site, called "Me at the Zoo," is only 19 seconds long. The video is exactly how it sounds, with YouTube cofounder Jawed Karim standing in front of elephants at the San Diego zoo and talking about their trunks.
May 2005: YouTube launches its first public beta site. As you can see, the design has changed quite a bit since then, and YouTube's homepage got its latest redesign in November 2019.
September 2005: YouTube sees a video hit 1 million views for the first time. The video is a viral Nike ad showing Brazilian soccer player Ronaldinho receiving his pair of "Golden Boots," and it demonstrates the power of YouTube's promotional potential.
You can watch the full Nike ad here. December 2005: YouTube officially launches out of beta and is made available to the public thanks a timely $3.5 million initial investment from Sequoia Capital. At this point, YouTube is getting 8 million views a day.
Source: New York Times, Telegraph February 2006: After the Saturday Night Live sketch "Lazy Sunday" goes viral and clips of it posted on YouTube attract millions of views, NBC demands that a particularly popular clip is pulled from the site. NBC's complaint paves the way for YouTube's "Content Verification Program," which launches in October 2007 to help content creators easily identify videos that infringe on their copyrights and get them removed.
Source: New York Times April 2006: A video is uploaded to YouTube showing two boys in China lip-synching to the Backstreet Boys. Susan Wojcicki — YouTube's current CEO who was in charge of Google's acquisitions at the time — credits this video with convincing her that it would be worth it for Google to invest in user-generated content by purchasing YouTube.
Source: Business Insider April 2006: Venture capital firms Sequoia Capital and Artis Capital Management bring their total investment in YouTube to $11.5 million. When YouTube is acquired months later, these firms' investments pay out massively.
Source: New York Times June 2006: After the initial spat over the SNL sketch just a few months before, YouTube and NBC strike a deal to help promote the network's upcoming fall TV line up. The move helps the traditional media company enter the new digital age, and marks the beginning of YouTube's several key partnerships with content providers later down the road.
October 2006: Wojcicki convinces Google's cofounders in the potential of YouTube, and the company acquires the video-sharing site for $1.65 billion. Google calls YouTube, a company with around 65 employees, "the next step in the evolution of the Internet." YouTube's cofounders saw nearly $400 million in profits, each, thanks to the purchase.
Source: ReadWrite, "The YouTube: A Full History" May 2007: A baby named Charlie takes the world by storm. The 56-second video of a toddler biting his brother's finger — and then smiling — is one of the earliest YouTube videos to go viral, and has now has nearly 900 million views. The family said in 2017 — on the video's 10 anniversary — that the clip has raked in more than £1 million in royalties.
Source: The Sun June 2007: The same month Apple launches its first iPhone model, YouTube launches its mobile site. YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley predicts that mobile is "going to be a huge market," making YouTube's mobile site a "natural transition."
Source: Mashable July 2007: YouTube teams up with CNN to host the presidential debate for the 2008 election cycle, which features video questions submitted by the public. Seven out of the 16 presidential candidates for 2008 announced their campaigns via YouTube.
Source: New York Times August 2007: Google rolls out its first ads on YouTube videos. Instead of an option for traditional pre-video ads, the company chooses a new in-video format featuring semi-transparent banners that pop up on the lower portion of videos, and can be clicked away after several seconds.
December 2007: YouTube rolls out its "Partner Program" to allow everyday people to get paid for their viral content, and turn their hobbies into money-making businesses. Not even a year later, the most successful users were earning six-figure incomes from YouTube.
Source: New York Times September 2008: The viral hit, "Evolution of Dance," becomes the first YouTube video to hit 100 million views. The video features Ohio resident Judson Laipply, who later became a motivational speaker thanks to his newfound fame.
Source: Think With Google November 2008: YouTube expands its ad offerings to include sponsored videos and pre-roll ads, a format YouTube long said it wouldn't resort to because those ads were too intrusive to the audience. However, the benefits paid to brands and advertisers beat out customer experience in the end.
Source: Gigaom, Wall Street Journal April 2009: Usher introduces 15-year-old Justin Bieber to the world via a video on YouTube. Bieber would release his music video for "Baby" the following year, and it remains one of the most-disliked videos on all of YouTube.
Source: Business Insider April 2009: YouTube teams up with media company Vivendi to launch a new music video service called Vevo, in response to music companies' complaints about piracy and unfair licensing terms. As part of the deal, Vevo can distribute its music videos on YouTube, setting the groundwork for Vevo's massive YouTube presence today.
Source: All Things D October 2009: YouTube reveals that it has surpassed the milestone of 1 billion views a day. By this point, more than 20 hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube every minute.
Source: Telegraph April 2010: Felix Kjellberg joins YouTube to create content under the channel name "PewDiePie," where he first provides video-game commentary before expanding into vlogging and reacting to internet memes. The YouTuber has since surpassed 100 million subscribers, and is the most-subscribed-to solo creator on the platform today.
Source: Business Insider October 2010: Columnist and activist Dan Savage uses YouTube to launch the "It Gets Better" campaign on YouTube to send messages of hope to LGBTQ teenagers who feel bullied or ostracized because of their sexuality. The campaign ends up going viral, and even President Barack Obama participates
Source: New York Times October 2010: Hurley, a YouTube cofounder, steps down as CEO. In his place Google appoints Salar Kamangar, who the company says was already leading YouTube's daily operations for the last two years.
Source: BBC December 2010: YouTube introduces skippable ads with a format called "TrueView," allowing consumers to skip over ads after five seconds and launch straight into the videos they want to watch.
Source: TechCrunch April 2011: YouTube officially enters the broadcast business with the launch of YouTube Live. YouTube Live has allowed the site to stream everything from concerts to news coverage to the royal wedding to the Olympics.
Source: Financial Times October 2011: YouTube launches its first original channels in a push to create original content on the platform. Google purchases Next New Networks, an original web video programming company, and reportedly pays more than $100 million to content creators to make videos exclusively for YouTube.
Source: All Things D May 2011: After a soft launch with indie movies a year earlier, YouTube offers a rental service where consumers can choose from thousands of movies and shows to rent and stream directly on the platform. The move is a bid to compete with media-streaming companies like Netflix.
Source: Digital Commerce 360 Spring 2011: YouTube plays an instrumental role in Arab Spring by helping disseminate messages of freedom and democracy. With YouTube, protesters are able to upload and share videos featuring protest and political commentary. Many of those videos end up going viral, with the top ones receiving millions of views.
Source: University of Washington August 2012: YouTube becomes the go-to place for presidential elections by launching "YouTube Elections Hub." In addition to streaming the live speeches from the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention, it features content from eight news outlets, including YouTube-bred commentator Philip DeFranco.
December 2012: The viral video "Gangnam Style" becomes the first YouTube video ever to reach 1 billion views, just five months after it's posted. The PSY music video currently has nearly 3.5 billion views, and is still the seventh most-viewed video on all of YouTube.
Source: Billboard January 2013: YouTube opens "YouTube Spaces" in Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, New York, and Sao Paulo. These spaces function as studios for YouTube content creators.
March 2013: YouTube reaches 1 billion monthly users.
Source: Think With Google February 2014: Susan Wojcicki, Google's 16th employee, is named the new CEO of YouTube, taking over the role from Salar Kamangar.
Source: Business Insider February 2015: Google launches YouTube Kids, a new "family-friendly" version of the video platform that filters content to ensure it's safe for minors. The Kids platform also offers parental controls, like limiting screen time and disabling search.
Source: Wired August 2015: Google launches "YouTube Gaming," a way for gamers to livestream their play sessions to a live audience, which also lets them interact and chat in real-time. The service is meant to counter Amazon-owned Twitch, the dominant force in the live-streaming market, which Google tried (and failed) to buy a year earlier.
Source: The Guardian October 2015: YouTube unveils YouTube Red, its subscription service that lets customers watch videos and stream music without ads. The service includes access to exclusive content featuring stars like PewDiePie and Lilly Singh. Three years later, YouTube Red is renamed YouTube Premium, and spins off its music-streaming to a separate service, called YouTube Music.
Source: Variety, The Verge January 2016: The music video for Adele's "Hello" sets a record as the fastest video on YouTube to hit 1 billion views. It takes the British singer just 88 days after the video is uploaded to beat out the record previously held by "Gangnam Style."
Source: Guinness World Records August 2016: YouTube starts notifying creators when their videos are demonetized — meaning that the platform's algorithm has decided that some aspect of the clip doesn't adhere to "advertiser-friendly content guidelines," so it's ineligible to make money. Although these guidelines have been around since 2012, popular creators whose main income is YouTube, like Philip DeFranco, criticized it demonetization as "a form on censorship."
Source: Recode, Business Insider February 2017: YouTube's biggest star, PewDiePie, is the subject of a bombshell Wall Street Journal investigation that finds nine of his past videos contain "anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery." One of those videos showed two men, paid by PewDiePie, holding up a sign reading "Death to All Jews." Both YouTube and Disney quickly cut ties with him, and he was kicked out of YouTube's preferred advertising program.
Source: Wall Street Journal, Business Insider March 2017: Major companies across the US and in international markets — like AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, and the British government — pull their ads from YouTube en masse after the Times of London reports that ads are appearing alongside extremist and offensive content. YouTube's ability to police content is put into question, and analysts estimate the boycott cost the company $750 million.
Source: The Verge, Business Insider April 2017: YouTube tries to save face by altering its ad policies and also revamps its Partner Program, raising the minimum requirements for money-generating channels. The two algorithm changes, and major advertisers' YouTube boycott, help kick off YouTube's first "Adpocalypse," a term for the massive slowdown in revenue for creators.
Source: AdAge, New York Times April 2017: YouTube TV, its on-demand streaming service, officially launches in select markets. It'll be another two years before the service goes nationwide, and the price jacks up to $50 a month.
Source: The Verge, Business Insider November 2017: Multiple reports find disturbing and abusive videos across YouTube that use family-friendly characters to aim their content toward kids. Similar inappropriate content is found in the YouTube Kids app. Even more advertisers pull their ads, and YouTube responds by updating its policies around age-restricted content.
Source: The Verge, New York Times December 2017: YouTube Logan Paul posts a video of him and friends discovering and filming a dead body in Japan's so-called "suicide forest." Outrage over the video is harsh and swift, and nearly 200,000 people sign a petition to have Paul kicked off YouTube. He apologizes, and remains one of YouTube's most controversial stars.
Source: Business Insider April 2018: A woman opens fire at YouTube's San Bruno headquarters, wounding three people and killing herself. Police later say she planned her attack because she was upset about YouTube for censoring and demonetizing her videos.
Source: NPR February 2019: YouTuber Matt Watson exposes a "soft-core pedophilia ring" living in the comments on YouTube videos featuring children, where pedophiles trade remarks and links. Another exodus of advertisers occurs, and YouTube responds by disabling comments on videos featuring children.
Source: Variety, YouTube Blog May 2019: T-Series, a Bollywood music label, becomes the first YouTube channel to hit 100 million subscribers. It beats out PewDiePie, the 2nd most popular channel, for the achievement.
Source: Business Insider June 2019: Vox reporter Carlos Maza speaks out about YouTube's failure to take action against right-wing YouTuber Steven Crowder, who was harassing Maza with homophobic and racist remarks in YouTube videos. YouTube rules Crowder's videos don't violate harassment policies and keeps his video online, a decision that prompts backlash from both the public and employees inside YouTube.
Source: Business Insider September 2019: The Federal Trade Commission fines YouTube $170 million following an investigation into whether the platform violates children's privacy laws by collecting the data of children under the age of 13 without their parents' consent. The FTC settlement also requires YouTube to create a system where creators flag their content as family-friendly.
Source: Business Insider December 2019: Six months after the Maza-Crowder controversy, YouTube updates its harassment policy to ban content that "maliciously insults" others — from creators to public figures — on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. The policy also targets sustained harassment campaigns. However, the revamped policy has led creators to worry about a crackdown on popular types of videos (like commentary and drama) and another Adpocalypse. Source: The Verge
Nathan McAlone contributed to an earlier version of this report.
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