Founded five years ago, YouTube is now a full-fledged grown-up by Internet standards. Its days as an impulsive startup--replete with a cluttered office located between a pizza parlor and a Japanese restaurant--are long gone; and is incredible growth over the past half-decade has changed how we live, play, and do business.
Within a single year, the overachieving startup rocketed from posting the first YouTube video (founder Jawed Karim talking about elephants at the zoo) to becoming an "independent subsidiary" of Google. Today, the site even has a corporate brand channel, which teaches users how to "advertise with YouTube and plan effective campaigns."
Here is a look at how these developments have changed our everyday lives--from creating instant celebrities to practicing citizen journalism to expanding the reach of campaign debates. Happy birthday and welcome to adulthood, YouTube.
The Customer Complaint
YouTube is changing how companies do business, often in ways that help consumers. Evidently, uploading a video complaint can dramatically increase your chances of avoiding the corporate runaround.
That's certainly what happened to Canadian musician Dave Carroll. He uploaded a music video he made entitled "United Breaks Guitars" in an effort to get the airline to pay for damages to his Taylor guitar by its luggage handlers at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Lo and behold, the airline reversed its earlier position that it would not compensate Carroll, and instead offered $1200 to cover repair costs and a matching amount in flight vouchers.
Once upon a time, you could commit a crime or make an ass of yourself with the relative safety that only eyewitnesses could attest to your outlandish behavior.
Now you can be convicted in criminal court (like Anthony Horrocks, who was found guilty of possessing a prohibited firearm based on a YouTube video) or in the court of public opinion, as represented by passengers on a San Francisco Muni bus.
TV on the Internet
YouTube's early days were marked by numerous copyright infringement fights; complainants ranging from Prince to Viacom wanted in on the legal action. In an effort to appease upset content owners, the company tried various tactics--including deleting files, silencing videos, and implementing a length and size limit on video uploads. Nowadays, television is all over the Internet, and YouTube is coming up with ways to beat Hulu and other popular sites at the legal content game, including establishing a full-featured Shows section.
The Viral Video
The viral video was around long before YouTube was even a gleam in its founders' imaginations (the "Dancing Baby" viral video is often cited as one of the first of its tribe). But YouTube has raised virality (or maybe viruliferousness?) to an art form, with must-see videos seemingly debuting every week.
A few years back, if you missed watching an episode of Saturday Night Live on the boob tube, you were hopelessly out of the loop. Now, I'm on a Boat is one of the most watched clips on YouTube--alongside classics like Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager and the Christmas lights house.
Though the Internet has produced many superstars (here's a look at where some of them are now), it's hard to think of a site that has enabled more people to achieve insta-fame than YouTube has. There is even a Wikipedia entry for List of YouTube personalities.
Everyone has a favorite YouTube superstar--from the Evolution of Dance guy and the Numa Numa kid to Susan Boyle and VenetianPrincess.
According to the Pew Research Center, 2 percent of participants in its survey identified YouTube specifically as a place where they routinely obtained campaign news. The site also made the election markedly funnier (as evidenced by Crush on Obama, Barack roll, and the post-election turkey slaughter video featuring then-Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska). Perhaps most significantly, YouTube brought citizen users' questions to the Democratic primary debate.
The Music Video
With this week's announcement that MTV is removing music television from its logo, the music video has unmistakably moved online--to YouTube, specifically, where it has been residing unofficially for quite a while.
In fact, the third most watched clip of all time on the site is Miley Cyrus's video for "7 Things," which has garnered more than 110 million views.
Like a host of other blogs and sites, YouTube has fostered the growing ranks of citizen journalists. It developed a "reporter's center" to educate aspiring YouTube journalists, and it entered into a partnership with the Pulitzer Center to recognize the best nonprofessional reporters.
Most recently, the site unveiled YouTube Direct, a platform which was designed to better integrate and redistribute clips from YouTube users to media organizations.
Ridiculous squirrel videos are hardly in the past, but YouTube's other accomplishments now tend to overshadow them. One of the most notable of these is the fact that, in the United States, more searches are done on YouTube than any other site besides Google itself. YouTube is also beginning a video rental service, it has unveiled 3D capabilities, it recently added HTML5 support, its site traffic surpassed a billion page views a day, and it underwent a design makeover.
But as for the success that matters most to a world starved for genuine culture... where else can you find Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords performing "Hey Ya" with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra?