We live in a world of overused hyperbole. Still it is hard to overstate the phenomenon that is YouTube. In just over a decade, it has risen from nothing to 7 billion hours of video watched every month. It is the third most visited site on the internet, with 80 percent of viewers coming from outside the United States. It has more than 1.5 billion monthly users, who are entertained by 400 hours worth of video uploaded every 60 seconds. And it has made a lot of people a whole lot of money…
But have you ever stopped and wondered how YouTube came about? It’s a fascinating story and today, you are going to discover it all as Biographics goes behind the screen to bring you the real YouTube story.
It all started with a chance encounter in 1999. Eric Skaggs, a local entrepreneur, was finishing up some work on his website at the Eberly College of Business computer lab at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His website was called GoGetItNow.com, and was an amalgamation of email, search engine and web hosting combined into a single interface. As he was about to leave the building, Skaggs saw a rather tall guy in a baseball camp entering. They struck up a conversation and Skaggs learnt that this guy, Chad Hurley, was a graphics arts major who was looking for an idea for a website. The idea that Skaggs gave to Hurley was to provide the inspiration for the YouTube revolution…He told him that in the future television and computers would become fully integrated. Furthermore people would be able to use their cell phones to create home videos and they would want a platform to share them with friends and family. Remember, this was at a time when there were no cameras with video in phones and TV and the internet were very different animals.
The idea was a little overwhelming for Hurley and he stored it away for future reference. After graduating from Indiana University with a fine arts degree he started looking for employment in the exciting new internet industry. He picked up a copy of Wired magazine which had an article featuring the Top 10 website companies from his local grocery store. Hurley sat down and redesigned those companies logos, sending them to the marketing departments. The one he did for a company called Paypal caught the eye of co-founder Eion Musk and, before he knew it, Hurley was hired as the company’s first graphic designer.
It was at PayPal that Hurley was able to pick the brains of the most brilliant techie nerds in the industry. The two smartest guys in the room were Steve Chen and Jawed Karim. Chen was born in Taiwan in 1978, with his family moving to the United States when he was eight years old. He attended the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy where he proved to be a maths prodigy. His passion was computer engineering, and he went on to study computer science at the University of Illinois. He began working for Paypal in 1999, a few months before Hurley.
Jawed Karim was born in Merseburg, Germany in 1979, moving with his family to the U.S. when he was thirteen. From the start, Jawed was a computer wiz. In school he wrote computer programs, posting them on the internet for free. He also helped to set up the schools’ e-mail system. Just like Steve Chen, Karim went to the University of Illinois, where he studied computer science. After a number of internships with a range of technology companies, he sought employment with Paypal in 2000, where he was put to work on designing the company’s anti-fraud security system.
First Video on YouTube
Hurley, the graphic designer, Chen, the engineer and Karim, the systems guru, soon found each other and spent more and more time brainstorming ideas for their own start-up. For five years, they kicked around ideas while building up their knowledge and experience at Paypal. Then, in January of 2005, Hurley was hosting a dinner party at his home. Chen was in attendance and he began using a camcorder to take some video of the festivities. The next day they wanted to share the video with those who had been in attendance. The problem was that the video files were way too big to send by email. And, even though there were a few photo sharing websites, such as Flickr and Shutterfly, nothing existed for the sharing of video online. It was at this point that the seed that had been planted years before came to life. Teaming with Karim, they decided to create a website to share videos.
The idea was to use the video sharing platform to create a dating site. People would post self videos for potential partners to view and respond to if they liked what they saw. They called it ‘Tune In, Hook Up.’ They launched the site within days and then waited for the users to come. However, nothing happened. In an attempt to get some content up on the site, they placed ads on Craigslist, offering to pay people to post videos. Still, no one was interested and ‘Tune In, Hook Up’ became a huge flop.
The trio were disheartened but not dismayed. Shortly after the demise of their first joint venture, Jawed was frustratingly searching online for a video of Janet Jackson’s infamous 2004 Superbowl half-time show wardrobe malfunction. Because there was no user friendly platform for sharing video content, he was unable to satisfy his breast fetish. Together with Hurley and Chen, he decided to do something about it. Stripping away the lame dating concept, they were left with a video uploading and sharing platform. All they need now was a new name for their website.
On February 14th, 2005, in a humble apartment above a California pizza shop, the trio began building their new website. Initially, apparently in reference to Janet Jackson’s unwitting contribution, they wanted to call it BoobTube. Realizing that that sounded too much like a porn site, they began playing around with words that conveyed the idea of personalized television. Harking back to the days when the TV was called ‘the tube’ thanks to the cathode ray tube that powered it, one of the three (no one knows which one) came up with YouTube. It sounded perfect – it was short, catchy and fun and it perfectly summed up what they were about.
Our users were one step ahead of us. They began using YouTube to share videos of all kinds. Their dogs, vacations, anything. We found this very interesting. We said, ‘Why not let the users define what YouTube is all about?’ Jawed Karim
When Hurly applied to register the domain name, the idea was to go with Utube with a ‘U’. However that domain name was already taken, which forced him to precede ‘Tube’ with the three letter word “You.’
Hurly, Chen and Karim immediately set about writing down the goals for YouTube. At the top of the list was ease of user experience. Loading and watching videos had to be super easy, so that even the most computer illiterate person could do it. They then divided up the workload. Chad Hurly was in charge of the look and design of the site as well tagging and labelling loaded videos to make them easy for viewers to find. Steve Chen was the engineer who made sure that the site was running smoothly and that videos played without lagging. Jawid Karim, meanwhile, used his programming skills to get the site up and running and looking great.
Unlike the other two, Karim chose not to be an employee of the company. Instead his role was that of an informal advisor. This allowed him to focus on his graduate studies in computer science at Stanford University.
The first video ever loaded onto YouTube was an eighteen second long clip of Karim at the San Diego zoo entitled ‘Me at the Zoo.’ You can still watch this historic clip on the site, where it has been seen by more than 30 million people.
Hurly was put in charge of marketing. He started a competition where a different YouTube user was given an Apple Ipod Nano every day for 8 weeks. People earned points by referring a friend or posting a video. The more points you gained, the greater your chances of winning the Ipod. The promotion worked and people began flooding the site with video content. However, this created a problem. So much content was coming onboard that YouTube was running out of bandwidth. This made video playback excruciatingly slow. They were desperately in need of more storage capacity, which required money. But, as of yet, they weren’t making any. Fortunately, on the basis of future ad revenue forecasts, they were able to secure a $3.5 million dollar venture capital loan in November, 2005. Just a month earlier a Nike promotional video featuring Brazilian football star, Ronaldinho, became the first Youtube clip to reach one million views.
By the beginning of 2006, YouTube had grown to more than 60 employees and the site had more than 100 million videos. This was an astounding level of growth, considering that just 12 months earlier they literally couldn’t pay people to post videos on their website.
Over the course of its first year the nature of the content being loaded on YouTube evolved. During the first few months the majority of clips were of the home movie variety. But then more and more ‘How To’ videos began appearing, with advice being offered on everything from how to change the oil in your car to the proper technique for doing a barbell squat. As a result, YouTube was fast becoming the go to source for both entertainment and information.
In June, 2006 YouTube entered into a contract with NBC television. This marked a u-turn by NBC, who had previously forced YouTube to remove a Saturday Night live clip after it became a viral hit online. Now NBC agreed to pay YouTube to place promotional clips of their shows, behind the scenes interviews and other features on the website.
YouTube was by now attracting the attention of the biggest players in the Web universe. The site was wildly popular with viral videos regularly appearing on TV news broadcasts, and even entire shows being devoted to YouTube content. The sort of global reach that YouTube had acquired was extremely inviting to the biggest player of them all. In October, 2006, the Google corporation purchased YouTube for a staggering 1.65 billion dollars. The three tech nerds from Paypal now had more money than they could possibly spend in a lifetime.
Despite being independently wealthy beyond measure, Hurley and Chen stayed with YouTube. In fact, they were thrilled to be working with such a Web giant as Google. They now had the freedom to focus on adding new technology to the website. In an effort to encourage people to stay on the site for longer, they added extra features, including suggestions of follow up videos the viewer may be interested in watching. They also set to work on making the YouTube experience available through a greater range of devices. YouTube’s mobile app let people watch videos on their cell phones and people could now add YouTube clips to their websites and blogs.
In a move that emphasized just how dominant YouTube was in people’s lives, Time magazine featured a YouTube Screen on the cover of its 2006 Person of the year issue.
In May, 2007, the YouTube Partner Program was launched. This allowed people who uploaded videos to have a share in the ad revenue generated by advertising that was played during the video. Now, for the first time, every day people were able to turn their hobbies into successful online businesses. The program, which is still in operation, pays uploaders around 55% of the ad revenue. Over the last decade this revenue source has paid off big time for a relatively small number of creators, known as YouTubers, who have created massive followings and huge annual earnings. They have also been able to leverage their popularity to obtain sponsorship deals with merchandisers who are keen to get their products in the videos. Some of these YouTubers have even landed movie and TV roles as a result of their online fame.
2007 was also the year that YouTube began impacting politics. Seven of the thirteen candidates for the Presidency of the United States announced their campaigns through YouTube. This was followed by the first YouTube presidential debate which featured questions submitted by viewers.
In 2009, the capability was introduced to upload and watch 3-D videos on YouTube. That same year the staggering milestone of one billion views per day was reached. Less than three years later that number had mushroomed to 4 billion. The first video to reach one billion views was the unforgettable ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY which reached the milestone on December 21, 2012.
In 2011, the new feature of livestreaming was added. Now major world events could be watched in real time, making YouTube a viable alternative to the television set. But YouTube was soon to prove that it was more than just a recorder of historical events.
“The thing that has made YouTube so successful is that you can relate to the people you’re watching to a much higher degree than to the people you see on TV.” PewDiePie
January 25th, 2011 was a day of protest against the government of President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt. Throughout that day video of the proclaimed ‘day of rage’ began appearing on YouTube. This inspired and emboldened thousands of Egyptian citizens who came pouring out into the streets. The protests went on for 18 days and the protesters were able to use YouTube, along with Facebook and Twitter, to galvanize the support that would eventually lead to change. Mubarak’s regime reacted to the skilful use of the internet on the part of its detractors by imposing a sweeping crackdown of the internet. This only further enraged the protesters, eventually forcing Mubarak to step down and democratic elections to be held for the first time in decades.
2011 also saw a major overhaul of the website’s look. The video channels were displayed in a central column and the YouTube logo was updated. The Google Chrome web browser was also integrated so that viewers could watch YouTube directly watched through Google+.
Two years later, YouTube began offering paid subscriptions. For a monthly fee, this service allowed subscribers to watch longer, ad free videos and movies.
Where are They Now?
So, what are the founders of YouTube up to now? In October of 2010, Chad Hurley stepped down as CEO of YouTube, handing the reins over to Salar Kamangar. He committed to staying on as an advisor to the company. Steve Chen left the company at about the same time and the two began collaborating on a new venture, AVOS Systems. Their headline product was an iPhone app called MixBit, which allows users to shoot, edit and share video clips. AVOS systems has acquired a number of other companies, including Delicious and Tap 11.
Chad Hurley was also a major sponsor of the USF1 Formula One racing team. He is also a part owner of NBA team the Golden State Warriors and the MLS Los Angeles Football Club.
In 2014, after fifteen of years of collaboration, Chen and Hurley parted company. Chad took over full control of MixBit, while Chen went over to Google Ventures as an entrepreneur in residence.
Making it clear that there was no animosity in the parting, Chen explained . . .
Actually, it was a very personal and difficult decision to make, but with the decision to turn Avos into MixBit it became pretty clear. MixBit was Chad’s idea before we started Avos and even at YouTube, and if I feel driven to work on other projects, then I’m just getting in the way of mixbit and the team.
Jawed Karim completed his graduate studies at the University of Illinois, emerging with a Master’s degree in Computer Science. Of the three founders, he received the lowest portion of stock. However, this was still enough for him to earn around $64 million from the sale to Google. In 2008, he launched Youniversity Ventures, which provides mentorship, expertise and contacts for college students to take innovative products to the next level. Karim was also one of the first investors in Airbnb in 2009.
Towards the end of 2013, Karim hit the headlines when he objected, along with many other YouTube users, to Google’s requirement that commenting on YouTube videos only be done through a Google + account. He showed his displeasure by changing the description on his iconic ‘Me at the zoo’ video to read . . .
I can’t comment here anymore since I don’t want a google+ account.
As a result of Karim’s stance, backed up by a 240,000 signature petition, Google dropped its requirement that commenters must use their Google + product.
It is truly mind-blowing to contemplate just how big YouTube will become in the next few years. New features are constantly being rolled out to enhance the viewer experience. YouTube has already replaced TV as the main source of entertainment and information for many people. According to Google Executive chairman Eric Schmidt, the exponential growth of YouTube will bring it six or seven billion unique visitors per month, with that growth being largely driven from the developing world.
YouTube has became a launching pad for a growing number of breakout stars, including Justin Bieber and Greyson Chance. There have also been a number of TV shows that began life as skits on YouTube, including Broad City and Workaholics.
YouTube is the most public place in the world, accessible from the privacy of our bedrooms. It has created unprecedented opportunities for learning, entertaining and earning a living. But, just like anything, YouTube can be abused. For one thing it can be mind-numbingly addictive. You sit down to watch a 3 minute clip and three hours later you’re still slouched in front of the computer watching cats playing the piano, or hopefully, you know, watching a Biographics video!