Time capsules are fun.
In 2006, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Now Playing on YouTube: Web Videos by Everyone.” Writer Virginia Heffernan took some hard stances about what the video site, still only a year old, was suited for.
“Skinny guys with moppy hair in modest houses have officially staked their claim to the latest medium for short, loud adolescent messages,” she writes.
That medium: YouTube.
In the nine years since the article ran, some of Heffernan’s musings — and other writers’, as discovered by Digg — have calcifed as hard truths, while others have evaporated into the ether.
In any case, the evolution of the world’s largest video-hosting platform shows us how unique, and fleeting, internet culture can be.
“It’s not semi-nudes or celebrity satire or kittens’ antics that dominate the most-viewed list at YouTube.com, the popular clearinghouse for international homemade video,” Heffernan wrote.
While 46 of the 50 most popular videos on YouTube today are official high-budget music videos, homemade videos, particularly those featuring celebrity impersonations and painfully cute cats, are practically magnetic.
Indeed, the “kitten antics” Heffernan was left searching for in 2006 have since garnered celebrity status.
Just recently, the adorably upset Grumpy Cat (subscriber count: 216,696) “threw out” the first pitch at an Arizona Diamondbacks game. Not to be outdone, her YouTube companion Lil BUB (subscriber count: 173,224) just launched her own advice column at NYLON magazine.
Not all of Heffernan’s observations have necessarily spoiled with time. Some have aged oddly gracefully.
“Videos with Asian and Asian-American themes get heavy play,” she notes.
In 2006, that looked like “anime clips and trailers, weird work like ‘Korean Madness,’ and the much-emulated comic stylings of ‘two chinese boys,’ who have multiple entries on the site,” Heffernan says. She calls them “the bread and butter of YouTube.”
The channel she is referring to, Blingchachink, is now a ghost town. None of the channel’s five videos was uploaded later than 2006.
However, the spirit of Heffernan’s observation may still hold true.
The most-viewed video of all-time is the 2012 uber-hit “Gangnam Style,” by the Korean artist PSY. It was the first YouTube video to reach one billion views and (as of this writing) is currently pushing 2.42 billion. PSY’s other smash, “Gentleman,” released a year later, is the 16th-most-viewed, with just shy of 874 million.
Those kinds of numbers were unimaginable when YouTube first launched. At the time Heffernan was writing, the most popular video on the site was the “Pokémon Theme Music Video,” with just 6.8 million views.
The original video has since been removed due to copyright claims, but its creators — Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla — are enjoying a special kind of longevity on the internet. Their YouTube channel Smosh is still the fourth-largest on the entire site, with an ever-expanding comedy empire taking shape in real life.
Though, the Times might have missed the mark back when Smosh first began. “Mr. Padilla and Mr. Hecox are viral video’s Matt and Ben,” Heffernan wrote, referring to the Damon and Affleck variety.
For all the changes to YouTube since its inception — a buyout from Google, the addition of lucrative paid channels, live-streaming political debates — one thing will never change, as Heffernan observes in Smosh’s famed Pokémon video.
“Judging from the effusive if subliterate comments section, it’s not disliked by anyone, which is rare,” she writes. “The comments section can be harsh.”
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