The platform has shifted dramatically from its humble, open origins
On April 23rd, 2005, YouTube Co-founder Jawed Karim uploaded the very first video to the fledgling platform.
An 18-second clip of the young entrepreneur entitled "Me at the Zoo," the video is short, simple, unfocused, and innocent—like most of YouTube's content in its early days. As mundane as it is, its value as an artifact of online culture has garnered it over 90 million views to date.
A relic of YouTube's beta phase, the video actually predates the site's launch in December of 2005, but once YouTube was officially up and running it took off quickly. Less than a year later, in October of 2006, the start-up was acquired by Google for $1.6 billion. Karim and co-founders Stephen Chen and Chad Hurley got a big payday, and YouTube began its slow transformation into the adored and reviled media behemoth we know today.
Me at the zoo www.youtube.com
At first the changes were small. Google launched YouTube domains in various countries, then introduced HD content and switched from a 4:3 to a standard 16:9 aspect ratio—good stuff. At the time, much of what users were uploading was in the vein of America's Funniest Home Videos. There was no obvious way to monetize videos—which maxed out at 10 minutes long—so there wasn't much of a creator culture. People mostly shared videos of cute animals, people doing cool tricks, people getting hurt trying to do cool tricks, and some cringeworthy sketch comedy. But then, in January of 2009, Google brought ads to YouTube and everything changed.
Over the course of the next year it became clear that YouTube partners could make real money producing YouTube videos, and a new industry was born. Not long after, YouTube opened its partner program to anyone who wanted to sign up—and everyone in the world wanted to sign up. The program was later restricted to accounts that passed a 10,000 view threshold, but that's still a pretty low bar. For all intents and purposes, the platform seemed to be a bastion of creative freedom, with few limitations on what you could upload and virtually no barrier to entry for anyone to convert views into ad money. As long as you weren't pushing gore, nudity, or stolen content, you were pretty much in the clear. But that couldn't last forever.
From the beginning, one of the major issues with YouTube was the challenge of protecting copyrighted material. It was common for people to upload famous songs and TV shows, and eventually YouTube developed systems for manually and automatically identifying stolen material so that it could either be removed or claimed and the original owners could receive the ad revenue. Unfortunately those systems are rife with flaws that result in content that is clearly protected by the fair use doctrine (review or satire) being claimed or removed and other content being claimed based on misidentified material or incidental fragments—e.g. three seconds of an unrelated song playing on the radio in the background of a video.
Copyright claims and strikes were difficult to contest and had the potential to cut a huge chunk of ad revenue from creators' paychecks—or even get them banned from the platform. In some cases these false copyright claims actually led to crippling legal costs that creators were likely never to recoup. While the system succeeded in reducing the amount of copyright theft on the platform, it also became the target of a lot of rage and frustration for many people making original content. The threat of claims and strikes was the biggest fear for most creators...until 2016.
YouTube Is Shutting Down My Channel and I'm Not Sure What To Do www.youtube.com
That was the year that YouTube creators were made aware of the dreaded term "demonitization." Do you swear in your videos? Do you like to be rude, crass, or talk about touchy subjects? Then your videos may not be "advertiser-friendly." Many of the big companies that advertised on YouTube had expressed concerns that their ads were being associated with content that could damage their brand. And of course, if the ads were more appropriately placed, YouTube could charge more money and pump up its revenue. Suddenly creators who had been able to make a solid living off of their videos were finding most of their content stripped of all monetary value.
As the years have gone by, YouTube creators have adapted to each change to the recommendations algorithm, the community standards, and the advertising program. Short, unfocused, and silly clips like "Me at the Zoo" have given way to epic commentary videos that keep users engaged with the platform for longer stretches of time. Casual vulgarity has been replaced by careful euphemisms.
Many creators have found new ways to make money through sponsors, merchandise, and online patrons, and a new form of pseudo-professionalism has evolved with quick cuts and a familiar array of engagement-summoning incantations—"Make sure you like and subscribe," "Hit the bell icon for notifications," and "Let me know what you think in the comments."
There is seemingly no limit to the number of hoops dedicated creators will jump through to make the platform work for them, so there hasn't been much of an effort to make things easier for them. Though Google has tried to assuage some of their users' complaints—e.g., they no longer allow manual copyright claims based on short clips of music—the number of damaging and shortsighted changes to the platform over the years (remember when you had to have a Google+ account to comment?) has led to a knee-jerk distrust of the company.
If YouTube Does This It's Doomed www.youtube.com
Meanwhile, YouTube's growing cultural influence has required it to tighten its content rules, leading to criticism that it is both putting too high a bar on what can be removed as hate speech, and supposedly "targeting conservatives" (who upload hate speech). Still, among the biggest stars YouTube has produced are Logan Paul (a man-child who put out a video featuring the dead body of a man who had hanged himself) and PewDiePie (who blurts out racial slurs and thinks it's funny to throw up a Nazi salute or to pay strangers to hold up signs saying "death to all Jews").
Eventually their stars will fade, like so many YouTube "celebrities" before them. Trends shift. Pranks and trick shots have ceded ground to makeup tutorials, let's plays, and "life hacks." And the era of short, silly clips like "Me at the Zoo" and "Charlie Bit My Finger" have given way to epic, in-depth commentary that keeps users engaged for longer stretches of time. But perhaps the biggest change from the wide-eyed innocence of YouTube's early days to the media juggernaut it has become is the increasing dominance of big players.
In mid-2018 YouTube introduced new restrictions on its partners program. In addition to all the care creators had to take to conform to "advertiser-friendly" standards, they now had to have at least 1,000 subscribers (not a huge hurdle) and must have accumulated at least 4,000 "watch-hours" over the previous 12 months.
That second parameter was a much bigger change that has made it difficult for newer creators to get a solid footing on the platform. While many people who are currently big names on the platform started out making videos on the side—and basically making enough ad revenue to fund it as a hobby—that transitional phase is no longer really an option. Unless you have patrons or sponsors, it's no longer really feasible for small creators to treat YouTube as a fun side-hustle.
Top 10 Most Subscribed YouTube Channels (2011-2019) www.youtube.com
While that is hardly the only major shift for YouTubers, it exacerbated a broader trend. To make YouTube more palatable for advertisers, Google has continually shifted the platform to favor content from big companies and a handful of its most popular stars. While the platform started as an open environment for independent creators, where anyone could conceivably make a name for themselves, it is increasingly betraying those roots and being dominated by fewer, louder, and wealthier voices.
These days independent creators seem to spend as much time voicing their frustration at the platform's restrictions as they do actually making new content. It seems like it's only a matter of time before a competitor offers them a better option—but it's seemed that way for years. For now, YouTube remains the only real game in town, and it might just remain that way for the next 15 years.