HISTORY's Moment in Media: YouTube's Origin Story -- From Dating Site to Video Giant

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YouTube started out as a dating site. On Valentine's Day 2005 -- 18 years ago this month -- cofounder Chad Hurley registered the logo, trademark and domain name for YouTube.com. The idea was that users would upload videos talking about themselves and what they were looking for in a partner. There was even a dating tagline, "Tune in, hook up." There was also very quickly a problem: no one seemed to want to participate, not even after Hurley and his cofounders, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, put ads on Craigslist offering $20 to women who would post videos.

A more polished version of the story, apparently developed after the fact with help from a PR agency, describes Karim searching for but finding no way to access videos of two major news events from the previous year, Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the devastating tsunami in Indonesia. In another, Hurley and Chen were searching for a way to share some videos from a dinner party.

Whichever of these versions is true, or most true, the innovation was a site on which individual users could easily upload and share videos, without needing to download the clip to their own computers. Almost immediately the idea shifted to simply posting videos of anything. Indeed, the first post to the nascent site came from one of the founders in April 2005 -- 18 seconds of Karim standing in front of elephants at the San Diego Zoo and talking about their "really, really, really long trunks." It's still live on the site, known affectionately as "Me at the Zoo."

The next month, the site launched to the public, although still in beta. A few months after that, the high-profile Silicon Valley VC firm Sequoia Capital invested, giving the new company credibility. (Hurley, Chen and Karim had worked at PayPal, and the Sequoia partner who did the deal, Roelof Botha, was a fellow PayPal Mafioso.) And then it took off. In October 2005, a Nike ad called "Golden Boots," featuring Brazilian soccer superstar Ronaldinho, reached 1 million views, becoming the first YouTube video to do so.

By December 2005, YouTube came out of beta and reported 8 million views a day. From there, every few years it hit a major new milestone.

May 2007 marked the arrival of what is perhaps the first viral amateur video. Known as "Charlie Bit My Finger," the video featured 56 seconds of a baby biting his big brother's finger. Since then, it's been viewed nearly a billion times. In July 2007, YouTube hosted a presidential primary debate, together with CNN, becoming a political player, too. For that election, seven of the 16 candidates in the two parties announced their candidacies on YouTube. Then, just before the election, the viral video "Evolution of Dance," posted in September 2008, became the first video to reach 100 million views. And in October 2009, YouTube reached 1 billion views a day, with 20 hours of new video uploaded every minute.

At the same time YouTube was growing in popularity, it was growing as a business and developing powerful partnerships with legacy media brands. In February 2006, NBC required YouTube to remove the Saturday Night Live digital short "Lazy Sunday" from the platform for violating its copyright. By June of that year, YouTube and NBC reached a deal to promote the network's programming -- a forerunner of other deals to come. But an even more important business development came later that year. In October 2006, Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion, only 20 months after its founding.

What made Google decide to make the big purchase? A viral video, of course: Susan Wojcicki, the search giant's employee No. 16, saw a clip of two boys in China lip-synching to the Backstreet Boys and realized user-generated video would be huge. In 2020, when the search giant made YouTube's revenue publicfor the first time, it revealed that the video service produced a whopping $15 billion a year.

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