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Elephants to empires – the birth of YouTube stardom


Elephants to empires – the birth of YouTube stardom

Can you remember what you were doing on Saturday, April 23rd, 2005?

A look at football results archive site Soccerbase tells me I was likely following Chester City’s slump to a 2-0 defeat at Leyton Orient as we consolidated our position in 20th place in that pretty disappointing season. I then probably went to the pub, as I was a student and that was usually what I did on days ending with ‘y’.

German-born Californian twenty-something Jawed Karim did something a little bit more interesting than me. He went to San Diego Zoo, or at least uploaded a video of himself there. Titled simply ‘Me at the zoo’, it’s just 19 seconds long, and features the startling revelation that elephants have ‘really, really, really long trunks’.

You might think that there is nothing at all interesting about this video, but take a look at its view count. It’s been watched more than 35 million times. Why have that many people taken an interest in what this man had to say about elephants and their frontal appendages?

It’s because this was the first video ever uploaded to YouTube. That’s right, it may now be the second most visited site on the web with 300 minutes of new video content added to it every minute, but it all began with a casually dressed young man being filmed by his friend in front of some elephants, seemingly struggling to find anything to say about them.

Karin, in fact, is a co-founder of YouTube. The following year, when the video sharing site was purchased by Google, he would net $64m in shares from the deal.

Thanks to a video uploaded by 1nterwebs, we can see not only Karin’s video, but the earliest 20 videos uploaded to YouTube in order.

Brilliantly, later on the same day as Karin’s video, a clip of a snowboarder falling over was uploaded, paving the way for droves of ‘fail’ videos that remain popular today. In fact, general hijinks feature heavily in these clips, with other uploads including two lads taking part in some horseplay next to a bunk bed, somebody setting a pan on fire and a man asleep on the couch being woken by a horn. Singing and dancing feature heavily too, including a video of a chap enthusiastically miming along to a Backstreet Boys song.

These videos have little in common except that they’re all very unremarkable. It might be interesting to see how YouTube is viewed many years from now. With it having become such a key part of how we communicate, learn, entertain ourselves and indeed market and advertise, researchers in the future might expect that some of the first uploads to it were among the most important and revolutionary ones on there.

Instead, they’ll find that video sharing sites, especially in the early years, were more about giving everybody a platform and them being quick to use it, even if they didn’t really have anything to say to us. It wasn’t like launching a TV or radio station where the first content would be tailored and purpose-driven, it was simply a case of who got in there first.

Of course, there are now more videos on YouTube than we could watch in countless lifetimes. The site is so vast that it’s almost led to the death of the how-to guide. Whether we want to learn how to cook roast beef, unblock a sink or count to 10 in Icelandic, we can simply head over to YouTube and see video footage of how these tasks can be done.

YouTube has made people rich and famous too. Forbes recently revealed the 10 highest paid YouTube stars during 2016, and the results make eye-watering reading, showing the incredible value and reach of the free video sharing site.

In the 12 months to June 2016, Swedish vlogger PewDiePie made $15m (£12.1m). Admittedly, this figure was swelled by sales from his first book, but still, with no YouTube, there would likely be no 27-year-old multimillionaire.

Video producers like him have realised that the message behind his uploads shouldn’t simply be “hey, look at me” but “this is what I have to share with you”. They’ve made it into two-way communication, changing it from YouTube into ‘UsTube’, if you like.

Next time a new social media or content sharing platform gets set up, see if you can get in there first. You never know, your off-key singing or clumsy skateboarding could seal its own place in history!

John Murray

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