I don’t even remember when I first met You. Maybe that is because the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds now, dipping below that of goldfish. We’ve spent so much time together, but I still keep coming back for more.
Ten years ago today (Feb. 14), YouTube.com was registered to a squad of former PayPal employees.
From humble beginnings, cobbled together above a Japanese restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., that team set out to create a bold future in which Janet Jackson‘s half-a-second-long Super Bowl nipple exposure would have a home on the internet forever, putting an end to the bad old days of unrequited video-related FOMO (that is, if you believe the papers.)
Shortly thereafter, we fell in love.
In the time that has since elapsed, our relationship has become so much more than anyone could have expected. So much, in fact, that nobody is really sure what it is at heart. YouTube, you’re the perfection of the Silicon Valley concept of “platform” — a neutral substrate that nourishes all the riotous hothouse blooms that can germinate in the minds of people with internet connections and time.
These days, YouTube is a vast repository of the history of video as a medium, a global entertainment portal, a highly profitable and expanding Mickey Mouse Club talent stable and a way to waste an entire afternoon, for a fat swath of humanity.
Like life, YouTube is what you make of it. You can watch the actual footage of all kinds of historic events of the TV era, or a montage of every Mike Tyson knockout. You can watch cats ride on Roombas dressed as sharks or watch James Baldwin debate William F. Buckley at Oxford University for nearly an hour on the question “Has the American Dream been built at the expensive of the American Negro,” from 1965. You can watch red carpet footage or war zone footage. The choice is yours (except when your video ends and before you can pause another starts up.)
In short, you can watch just about anything that’s ever been filmed, with a certain number of gaping holes where copyright interests have been brought to bear.
It’s been a weird 10 years on the Internet, to say the least. Ten years ago Google was just finishing its redesign of the old Silicon Graphics compound in Mountain View, newly christened the Googleplex. The dot com bust was fresh but fading. Now, Google is expanding into NASA’s next door airport, and the faded fears of bursting bubbles are back in season.
Plenty of the weird wending and warping of social norms that has happened in that time is archived for posterity on YouTube, and the video-sharing site played an important role in shaping the cultural zeitgeist all the way down the line.
It has launched the careers of global stars and hosted the videos of almost every artistic venture to make a go of it in our century.
Vast, vast! This sea of flickering lights and sounds and voices. It’s TV-flavored chaos.
It’s tailored personalities crafted specifically for YouTube, sometimes directly by YouTube. There are YouTube “shops” that manage and produce content creators… a whole strange world of 16-year-old kids in Minnesota and their parents weighing plans for junior to scale by moving to L.A. and making a serious go at this bedroom stardom. Soon he could be hawking laundry detergent and fast food to the adoring fans of his personal brand.
What stuff do teens really like?
This is a key strategic question YouTube must ask itself anew every day. And though teen taste can be capricious, it can rest assured that it alone has the user numbers and the bandwidth to track it down and slap an ad on it.
Let’s not forget that YouTube pioneered the idea of the power of user-generated content — an idea that has taken on many buzzy names but continues to fuel the ambitions of all the world’s biggest brands.
The eyes of the tech world may have shifted to loftier goals — space exploration, self-driving cars, immortality — but YouTube is still chugging along handsomely, with ad revenues estimated to have risen 48 percent in 2014.
It holds off would-be competitors by its sheer volume and its cozy cluster of network effects. The fact that Google bought Youtube in 2006 for $1.65 billion, a price that raised eyebrows at the time, continues to fuel eyebrow-raising valuations today. The fact that YouTube continued to grow and amass revenues despite considerable legal gray areas foreshadowed the playbook of today’s hottest startups, companies like Uber and Airbnb that were but a twinkle in the eye at the time of YouTube’s founding.
We love YouTube. We love ourselves. We are YouTube. Happy Valentine’s Day, baby.