A YouTube decade

It seems inevitable and permanent now, as much a fixture in the American mind as McDonald’s or Time magazine. But YouTube, it is easy to forget, did not exist when the current decade opened. It didn’t exist in 2001 or 2002. There was no YouTube in 2003 or 2004, either. Not until “Me at the zoo,” a video of cofounder Jawed Karim standing in front of elephants at the San Diego Zoo, was posted in April 2005, was there, really, a YouTube.

Yet despite being around for fewer than half of the last 10 years, the video-sharing service is the decade's most influential popular-culture force on the Internet.

From Karim talking about the length of the elephants' trunks in the still-available 19-second clip, it has spearheaded the widespread availability of video on the Web, everything from golf's Masters tournament, live, to brand-new episodes of popular sitcoms such as "30 Rock" in the same week they aired on TV.

These developments, of course, threaten traditional and long-standing delivery systems.

YouTube became the clearinghouse for the short, shared, "viral" videos that were key to making Internet culture into mainstream culture, and started to play a role in politics, especially in the 2008 presidential campaign.

It developed as a kind of chaotic library, a go-to reference resource for people seeking video of musical artists, old cigarette commercials or the latest news sensation.

And it has championed the decade's DIY aesthetic: Skip the professionals, was YouTube's implicit message.

Shoot your own video. Upload it here, fast and easy.

And in the end, it doesn't matter so much if your backyard trampoline-stunt footage (ouch!) isn't great art; what matters is the validation it seems to get by being hosted on an external site.

With YouTube, if you wanted your friends to watch what you made, you didn't have to drag them into your living room and plug the camcorder into the TV.

You just sent them a link, and they watched it at the same Web site that also has professional material by TV stars. The site echoed similar revolutions happening in writing, as blogs came to prominence, and in photography, where people shared photos on sites including Flickr. But with YouTube, it was even more so, because the bar to getting videos shown in public had been higher.

Professional creators of content tried to fight YouTube for a while, policing their copyrights zealously and seeking takedowns whenever possible. But eventually, they decided they'd rather switch than fight.

Deals were struck, and the providers who didn't form their own YouTube channels to show highlights (as CBS, for one, does) offered the equivalent of YouTube clips and much more on their own sites or on professional aggregators — iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu.

YouTube created the expectation among consumers that video would be available online, on-demand, freed of the boundaries of network schedule or DVD. It got so big, so fast that Google was moved to buy the service for $1.65 billion in late 2006, an admission that Google's own stab at a video-upload site, Google Videos, had lost.

It was quite a climb for the service that began with a founder at the zoo. Karim, Steve Chen and Chad Hurley had met while working at PayPal, the Web-based money-transfer service. Chen was a graduate of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, in the suburb of Aurora, and, like Karim, had studied computer science at the University of Illinois.

But even as YouTube has become a ubiquitous brand, virtually the synonym for Web-based video, it hasn't yet proved that it can translate its traffic — it is ranked among the top five Web sites — into revenue. The site has struggled to integrate advertising in a manner that won't alienate customers, who value it for instant accessibility and the lack of clutter.

And indeed, Hulu, which might be termed a professional version of YouTube, has announced that it will, next year, begin charging its users.

But the battle of getting people to pay for content on the Web — or of getting content to pay for itself via ads — is a question for the next decade.

The decade's 10 key Web moments

2000: The (first) Internet bubble bursts. Lots of people made a lot of money, lots of people lost a lot. But the collapse's effect, similar to a forest fire, cleared the way for a lot of new growth and a more mature, more reality-based Web.

2000: Craigslist starts its march to national prominence. The San Francisco tech-geek message list started expanding beyond the Bay City, adding nine cities. By decade's end, it is everywhere.

2001: The first iPod is introduced. Apple's portable player of music in digital-file format would pave the way for music sales on the Internet (iTunes), challenging the share-with-everyone-but-the-creators model of Napster. iPods also, of course, would lead to the iPhone, which puts the World Wide Web of mobile entertainment, plus a phone, in people's pockets.

2000-02: Poltical blogs get going in earnest. Political sites would be the first to prove that writing Web logs wasn't just for hobbyists, that there was money to be made and influence to be wielded. Among the pioneers were Markos Moulitsas' Daily Kos (2002), and John McIntyre's and Tom Bevan's Real Clear Politics (2000).

2001: Wikipedia begins. What Wikipedia proved was the potential to harvest the Web for massive, nonprofessional collaboration, a lesson that political campaigns would soon take to heart.

2003: MySpace is launched. It would grow within three years to become the most popular social-networking service in the United States. In addition to paving the way for Facebook's growth in more recent years, MySpace demonstrated that many, many Americans wanted to have personal Web pages and conduct social lives online. The service also became an effective vehicle for music promotion.

2005: The "Saturday Night Live" Digital Short "Lazy Sunday" premieres. Besides being a precursor of short-comedy video sites like Will Ferrell's "Funny or Die," it proves fundamental in establishing the Web for watching video. "The viral expansion of that clip," said Bill Tancer, an executive with the Hitwise Web measurement firm, "was what really allowed (YouTube) to surpass all of the other video search services."

2006: Broadband Internet access takes hold. By mid-2006, nearly three-quarters of Net users were accessing the Web via cable or DSL modem. If people were still using telephone lines to connect to the Internet, the online video revolution wouldn't have been possible.

2006-07: Internet stars flirt with the mainstream, but the mainstream goes home alone. Lisa Nova, a YouTube performer, has a stint on Fox's late-night sketch show "Mad TV" but doesn't last. Brooke Brodack, another YouTube star, signs a development deal with Carson Daly's company, but nothing of impact has come of it. Amanda Congdon, host of the hit, Internet-based news show Rocketboom, signs with ABC News but, again, doesn't last.

2006: Twitter is created. The site gives everyone from bored journalists to bored celebrities a place to jot and share their micro thought bursts. While it's too soon to know the ultimate impact, the growth curve has been phenomenal.