YouTube is a video-sharing platform started in 2005 by three former PayPal employees, whose original idea was to create an online dating service called “Tune In, Hook Up,” whose users would post videos of themselves in the hope that other users would ‘hook up’ with them. Although this idea failed, they realized that theirs was the only dedicated site for sharing video content on the web, in particular Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ at the NFL’s 2004 Super Bowl Halftime show, or for videos of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, both of which were in high demand at the time.
So the aborted dating service re-launched as a video-sharing site for original content, unlimited, uncensored, and completely free. Google’s investment team quickly understood what a vein the trio had struck and purchased the site for US $1.65 billion only one year after its launch. The site benefited early on from general frustration at finding that one clip from that one show back in the ‘90s, and the desperation felt by comedians and creatives for a free channel with far-reaching access.
Luckily for YouTube, the launch of their platform coincided with the coming of age of a generation of young people brought up for years on computer technology, short on cash, and hungry for free, easy-to-find, manic entertainment.
Content on the site grew from television clips and home movies to include original videos, events such as the 2008-2011 YouTube Live event, precipitating the rise of livestreams and YouTube Premium, and inadvertently became an illegal music downloading hotspot with ‘stream ripping’ sites cropping up which allowed users to copy and paste the link to a YouTube video into a download widget and then pull the audio off free of charge.
As the platform grew with Google’s ad revenue-chasing business model, it found itself playing host to an increasingly creative user base with an internet-native population of viewers. Morphing from a place to find embarrassments and news clips into both the platform and catalyst for the viral video (they even claimed to be responsible for every viral video ever in their 2014 April Fools prank), the potential for growth quickly became evident.
In 2005, users watched 8 million videos a day, rising to 100 million daily views and 65,000 daily uploads in just one year. By August 2019, that number had mushroomed to 1.9 billion views per day, with content coming from 23 million different channels uploading 300 hours of video every minute, making it competitive with the primetime viewership numbers of all three top US television networks.
PewDiePie (born Felix Kjellberg), in particular, has been of interest to academics and economists for the effect he has on games. His normal practice is to record himself reacting to a game which he’s playing - and that’s pretty much it. The simplicity of the approach has beggared belief, all the more so when his halo effect has boosted sales of such odd games as 2014’s Goat Simulator and left him with a net worth of US $21 million.
The number of services offered through the platform have multiplied in recent years, from the Android-friendly YouTube Go app which covers 60% of the world’s population, to YouTube TV and Music, to YouTube Premium, the paid premium service which acknowledged the popularity of music on the site and sought to monetize it. YouTube even maintains its own YouTube Symphony Orchestra, the first of its kind to consist of musicians who collaborate almost entirely online.
YouTube also hosts an increasingly prevalent number of ads in its videos, whether as an obligatory feature before the play starts or as banner ads or through data-capturing algorithms for later targeted advertising. It offers a film-streaming service with over 6000 films, and as part of the larger group of ad-oriented online platforms offered by Google and Facebook, its free-content-in-exchange-for-information model ensures its continued relevance in online culture and business. Considering that, by 2025, half of all people born after 1993 won’t be paying for television, it’s all but certain that we’ll be seeing YouTube for years to come.