YouTube, the first globally dominant video-sharing platform, was founded in 2005 by three PayPal employees. It was the first mainstream platform where users could upload video content and then share it, rate it and bookmark it, and set up and subscribe to personal channels. The idea of YouTube is now so central within our media intake that it can only be thought of as an essential pillar of the online content-sharing environment. YouTube is still growing exponentially in terms of content: in 2017, 400 hours of video content a minute will be uploaded around the world.

Yet YouTube’s premise stands in stark contrast to the many battles fought for copyright online. YouTube dates from the post-Napster era of the Web. Many lawsuits over peer-to-peer file-sharing had by then been filed and won by the music and film industries. The idea that a website could function as a video database for the world, as it would turn out to do, was ludicrous, a reckless startup move on the part of the founders. But it’s such an appealing idea.

A cross-section of YouTube content can contain anything: music videos, movie trailers, home videos, DIY talk shows, online tutorials, silly and violent stunt fails, clips by profit-making YouTube celebrities, videos from the lively and popular vlogging community, viral marketing, archival music and TV material, academic lectures, keynote speeches, goofs, video memes, and so on. And naturally, always and forever, cat videos.

YouTube has successfully claimed a whole section of the Internet and remained a somewhat free online space because of the company’s and its users’ many efforts to build up a solid business model, its purchase by Google in 2006 for more than a billion dollars, and the virtual absence of any real competition in the mainstream online video realm. YouTube has the most hated but most accepted online ad system, and it has struck deals with Vevo, set up partnership models for exclusive viewing and ad-free content, and provided one of the first real advertising revenue systems for its celebrity users, some of whom have a reach of tens of millions. Respectable traditional media corporations including the BBC, CBS, and many more have forged online partnerships with YouTube (as if by choice, not by necessity). YouTube’s prime information-age weapon of choice is AdSense, a program that serves up ads by content and audience.

YouTube’s domination of the online video realm is illustrated by the fact that every millennial (and nearly every Gen Xer) has seen a birthday party turn into a YouTube playlist dispute (which, though fun and festive, isn’t why we came), and that every eight-year-old today has a personal YouTube playlist (or channel, even) on their parents’ computer or tablet or smartphone.

Above: “Me at the Zoo”.
The 19-second video “Me at the Zoo” was the first video ever uploaded on YouTube, by cofounder Jawed Karim in 2005. It was a test upload posted via the first user account, under the name jawed. The not-very-interesting clip, which shows Karim at the San Diego Zoo proclaiming his fascination with the elephants and their “really, really, really long trunks”, went down in media history as the starting point of a landmark online company and, as such, a harbinger of what can only rightfully be described as a new era of online content that would influence all Internet users for at least the next decade.
Above: The classic YouTube video “Antoine Dodson – Bed Intruder”.
Though dozens of classic YouTube videos illustrate at least part of the role the company has played in Internet history, the legendary one featuring Antoine Dodson seems the best example, as it shows YouTube’s role in an era of digital remix culture in which content can not only go viral on a global scale but can also serve as a starting point for remixes, satire and public debate extending far beyond the online environment. Dodson, an eyewitness to a burglary and attempted rape at his sister’s house who gave a statement to a local TV news broadcaster, was such a perfect, lyrical, hysterically charming witness and would-be vigilante that he became an immediate hit on YouTube, and his testimony spread virally across the web in a flash. If ever there were an example of online-video je ne sais quoi that deserved instant fame, this would be it. The video was extensively satirised and remixed, and several songs were made, allowing the power of Antoine to live on in perpetuity. His fame reached the mainstream media in the form of many talk show segments and even a South Park character.