- Fifteen years ago, YouTube broke ground when it allowed internet users to upload and share videos in a more efficient way than ever before.
- YouTube quickly skyrocketed to become the most popular online video platform in the world. Now, more than 500 hours of content are uploaded to the platform every minute.
- Some videos, however, have had more of an impact than others. These clips went viral and were ingrained into internet culture, setting a precedent for both the immediate and long-term effects that online video could have.
- Business Insider has selected 17 YouTube videos that have been the most influential in shaping the platform.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Nike’s Ronaldinho “Cross Bar” ad — October 2005
A Nike ad featuring the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho was the first video to rack up 1 million views on YouTube. In the ad, Ronaldinho puts on a golden pair of Nike’s new Tiempo cleats, effortlessly hitting the crossbar again and again as the ball boomerangs right back to him each time. In a feat of marketing genius, Nike uploaded the video under the alias “JoeB,” as if it was any other YouTube user instead of the multinational sneaker conglomerate.
“We didn’t even know exactly how it was being shared. All of the sudden, this two-minute video was getting more traffic than they were seeing with any other marketing video,” YouTube cofounder Steve Chen told Business Insider. “We were just seeing a huge amount of traffic from that video, and that actually led us to go up to Oregon to visit Nike’s headquarters. I remember walking through the office talking about the potential of YouTube.”
“Lazy Sunday” from “Saturday Night Live” — December 2005
The “Saturday Night Live” digital short “Lazy Sunday” features Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg rapping about cupcakes and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The iconic skit went viral after a random internet user posted it to YouTube. A few days later, NBC, sent YouTube a notice asking the platform to take down the clip, along with 500 others, or face legal consequences. YouTube complied, but the clip had already racked up over 5 million views, setting an early example of YouTube’s potential for virality.
“Evolution of Dance” — April 2006
Judson Laipply’s “Evolution of Dance” routine – a compendium of dance moves through the ages he performed as a motivational speaker – became the first YouTube video to hit 100 million views. The video maintained its spot as the most-watched clip on YouTube for more than three years, solidifying Laipply’s place as one the platform’s earliest celebrities. At age 30, Laipply became the first “poster boy” for YouTube, he told Business Insider.
“I honestly figured it would all die down in a year or two,” Laipply said. “I never thought that 14 years later, I would still be talking about it.”
“Shoes” by Liam Kyle Sullivan — May 2006
Liam Kyle Sullivan was not only the songwriter behind “Shoes,” but was also the viral video’s director, editor, and star (which wasn’t uploaded in full to YouTube until February 2007). As an independent comedian without any backing or funding, Sullivan created a high-quality, music video.
Sullivan helped pave the way for other creators to use YouTube as a launchpad for sketch comedy with high production value. He also led an entire generation of young people who forever will associate footwear with a bratty teen named Kelly.
OK Go’s “Here it Goes Again” music video — July 2006
After MTV had turned its focus from music to reality shows, musicians didn’t really have a place for the videos that accompanied their singles. But OK Go – a relatively under-the-radar band without another hit song – put YouTube on the map as a new home for music videos. The band performed a synchronised dance routine on a series of treadmills, and filmed in one shot, which took 17 attempts to get right. The result is a intricately choreographed performance that won a couple Grammy Awards and became an early viral music video.
Blendtec’s “Will it Blend?” series — October 2006
Blender maker Blendtec has released dozens of YouTube videos since October 2006 showing the power of its products. But the company took a unique approach in creating its infomercials, choosing its loveable founder Tom Dickson to blend everything including iPhones, marbles, glow sticks, and Justin Bieber CDs.
Blendtec created one of the internet’s earliest viral marketing campaigns – one that’s still remembered today. Dickson said the company saw an immediate impact on sales and that the campaign established “Blendtec as the premier blender manufacturer.”
“Potter Puppet Pals: The Mysterious Ticking Noise” — March 2007
It could be a risky move to riff off a wildly popular series like “Harry Potter,” but the team behind Potter Puppet Pals proved the payoff could be significant. In contrast to “Shoes,” the Potter Puppet Pals showed that videos didn’t have to have high-quality production or even star humans to be found funny by millions.
The team struck gold with in its live-action puppetry series with “The Mysterious Ticking Noise,” a skit that had all the makings of a viral video: a catchy tune, intricately designed puppets, and a naked Dumbledore.
The original posting of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video — May 2007
Rick Astley’s song, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” was released back in 1987, years away from resonating with the YouTube generation. But thanks to the timeless bait-and-switch prank of “Rickrolling,” the bop – which made VH1’s list of top 50 Awesomely Bad Songs – has taken on a new meaning among millenials.
The origins of Rickrolling aren’t quite clear: Internet history tracker Know Your Meme credits its founding to a YouTuber who called into a radio station in 2006 and played the Astley song instead of talking. But 2008 seems to be when the internet meme garnered mainstream attention, after YouTube Rickrolled anyone who clicked on one of the featured videos on its homepage for an April Fool’s joke.
“Charlie Bit My Finger” — May 2007
There’s nothing extraordinary about the 55-second-long video of a young British boy named Charlie biting the finger of his older, 3-year-old brother. But the sheer simplicity of the moment captured in “Charlie bit my finger – again” is likely what made it so popular. YouTube began as a depository for the world’s videos, and the video of Charlie and Harry fit into that vision. A silly home video was posted on YouTube, where millions could laugh at and share it with others.
“Leave Britney Alone” — September 2007
In its infancy, YouTube was home to creators who took advantage of the public platform to share intimate video diaries and personal stories that never had a place before. “Leave Britney Alone” was an early example of that, capturing Chris Crocker’s emotional plea for the media to let Britney Spears be during a time when she was having a highly publicized breakdown.
The video has a more significant role in YouTube’s history because of the backlash Crocker received from viewers. He’s said he was “mocked” for his femininity, was the target of gay slurs, and was a victim of an early internet “public beating.” The year 2007 was a less accepting time for the LGBTQ community, and Crocker suffered before the queer creators who came after him would thrive.
“Friday” by Rebecca Black — February 2011
Rebecca Black was only 13 when her first single, “Friday,” was released. The music video for the song accrued viral attention a month later, after it was shared by a prominent comedian on Twitter and by Comedy Central’s Tosh.0. By the end of March, Black’s music video was the most-disliked video on all of YouTube.
Despite all the hate and ridicule “Friday” received, it’s hard to deny its impact. For months, and years, teens were singing the impossible-to-forget lyrics whenever the end of the week rolled around. In a way, “Friday” invented the hate-watch – most people only know of Black because of the song.
The original “Friday” video was taken down a few months later in 2011, but Black’s official channel uploaded its own copy to YouTube that September.
“Kony 2012” — March 2012
No YouTube-first documentary had captured the attention of millions the way Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” did. The 28-minute film drew awareness to a little-known warlord named Joseph Kony, who was reported to have abducted more than 60,000 children in Uganda. The video gained immediate virality: It had 100 million views in just six days, trended on Twitter for days, and garnered support from celebrities, including charitable billionaire Bill Gates.
The “Kony 2012” documentary stands out in not just its popularity, but the real-world consequences. President Barak Obama dispatched US troops to Uganda to help hunt Kony, and the US government set aside funding for the effort. Invisible Children raised $US32 million in the aftermath. But the nonprofit was also subject to criticism about its shady financial dealings, the founder’s very public meltdown, its white saviour complex, and whether the Kony situation was as serious as the video made it out to be.
“Gangnam Style” by Psy — July 2012
This viral music video broke YouTube – literally.
Because of “Gangnam Style,” YouTube was forced to raise its view count limit in 2014 from just under 2.15 billion to more than nine quintillion. It took less than six months for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video – an intricately produced, whimsical film that took 48 hours to film – to become the first YouTube clip to reach 1 billion views. The South Korean singer exemplified the global power of YouTube, and also previewed the global popularity of K-pop that would only expand in years to come.
PewDiePie’s “Surgeon Simulator” Let’s Play-style video — April 2013
In the early 2010s, teens started coming to YouTube for a new kind of entertainment – watching others play video games. Quickly, video game developers took notice of the hype, sending gaming YouTubers versions of their newest games in the hopes they would play them and share them with their millions of subscribers.
These “Let’s Play” videos fed into the popularity of mainstream successes like “Call of Duty” and “World of Warcraft,” and brought back older games like “Minecraft.” But gamers like Markiplier and PewDiePie also started recording themselves playing lesser known games, ones that had bizarre plots, sloppy controls and low quality. Among the first to catch on of these types of games – dubbed “YouTube bait” – was a game called “Surgeon Simulator.” PewDiePie’s Let’s Play videos earned millions of views, and turned the quirky game into a success.
Since then, “YouTube bait” games like “Goat Simulator,” “I am Bread,” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s” have seen success. Let’s Play content has become one of the most popular subsections of YouTube, turning creators into household names, and spawning a billion-dollar esports industry. PewDiePie is now the most popular solo YouTuber on the platform, and his influence on the sales of games he features on his channel has established a trend known as the “PewDiePie effect.”
The “Baby Shark” song — June 2016
The “Baby Shark” song has been around for years, but it only took on new widespread notoriety after an accompanying animated video was posted on YouTube by a South Korean educational brand called Pinkfong. To many adults, “Baby Shark” is a reprehensible earworm. But to a generation of young kids growing up on YouTube, the song represents the role the video platform has established in the heart of children’s education and entertainment.
In the years since the viral video was published, children’s content on YouTube had exploded, taking on big networks like Sesame Street, Disney, and Nickelodeon. YouTube debuted a platform in 2015 dedicated to kids’ content called YouTube Kids, which now has more than eight million users a week. Young kids have turned into influencers, earning millions as stars of their own YouTube channels where they unbox toys, go on adventures, and perform skits. Suddenly, children’s media has become more accessible, affordable, and widespread.
PewDiePie’s “Death to All Jews” — January 2017
Around 2016, in the wake of a contentious election that put tech companies under greater scrutiny, viewers started to cast more of a light on YouTube’s offline influence. People started to put pressure on YouTube for the effects of its content and decisions, with some claiming that its recommendation engine highlighted extreme or polarising videos.
With 104 million subscribers, Swedish creator PewDiePie – aka Felix Kjellberg – has held the title of most popular YouTuber since 2013. His wild and crude behaviour has gained him a loyal following, but has also garnered backlash. In January 2017, PewDiePie posted a video featuring two men he had paid to hold up a sign, reading “Death to All Jews.”
It was only his latest stint in a long history of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, but it cost him. In the fallout of a bombshell Wall Street Journal story, Disney cut its ties with PewDiePie. YouTube suspended an upcoming season of a show it was producing with him called “Scare PewDiePie,” and removed him from its preferred advertising program.
This incident also had far-reaching implications in driving a discussion about what YouTubers should be able to say and present to their young audiences. After the incident, PewDiePie has not backed down from controversy, and he still is raking in brand deals and millions.
Logan Paul’s “Suicide Forest” — December 2017
YouTube faced even more scrutiny at the end of 2017, when Logan Paul posted his infamous video showing a dead body in Japan’s “suicide forest.” YouTube punished Paul by removing him from the its monetisation program (like it did with PewDiePie), but many critics didn’t feel like that was enough. Like PewDiePie, Paul remains a big name on the platform today.
Paul’s video piled onto what was already a bad year for YouTube, which had been slammed for not removing videos showing child exploitation, surfacing inappropriate videos on its Kids app, and restricting LGBTQ content. In a movement PewDiePie dubbed “The Adpocalypse,” advertisers had dropped from YouTube in droves for fear their campaigns could appear next to controversial content.
YouTube had released a new set of advertiser-friendly content guidelines for creators, applying stricter criteria on what videos could be monetized. While YouTube’s changes were designed to help brands, they frustrated creators, who saw the money made from their videos decrease dramatically.
In response to Paul’s video, YouTube enacted a drastic policy change that put limits on which channels were eligible for its monetisation program, restricting it to creators with more than 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time in the prior 12 months.
Avery Hartmans contributed to the reporting for this story.
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