Taking over TV is quite the coup for a platform that got its start just 15 years ago above a pizzeria in San Mateo, California, and it’s not just late-night television that’s ceding territory to the big red play button. Just about all video media consumed around the world, whether it’s a highbrow movie or a comedy variety show, has to acknowledge and interact with YouTube somehow—in its marketing, in its release, in its post-theater sale strategy. YouTube has become the world’s largest video hosting website, and one of the internet’s most popular search engines, second only to its parent company, Google. Woe betide the crusty CEO who sees it only as a cat video repository.
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Spiff Up Your Real-World Skills With Old-Timey YouTubeOf course, the cat video did have its heyday. When YouTube first became popular between 2005 and 2007, it was for short videos, not much more than three minutes. (Yes, many of them were goofy: cats, women wiping out while stomping wine grapes, and ohmygod shoes.) That wouldn’t seem to pose much of a temptation for (or threat to) mainstream television, but the overlap began almost immediately. SNL Digital Shorts (remember “Dick in a Box” and Natalie Portman rapping about what a badass she is?) were early TV-to-YouTube successes. In 2007, CNN and YouTube aired the presidential debates. A year later, YouTube had penned agreements with MGM, Lionsgate, and CBS to stream full-length movies and television shows on the platform. These days, you can buy almost any movie or TV show you’d wish for on YouTube, and they’ve even tried their hand at making a few of their own shows with boldface names like Jordan Peele.
YouTube the company isn’t really the driving force behind these changes in the trends and norms of television, though. It’s YouTubers themselves, the independent creators responsible for the majority of the nearly 5 billion videos watched on the platform daily. For younger generations like millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha, YouTubers are as culturally significant as any traditional pop or movie star, if not more so. In the beginning, they were Anybodies— people with webcams, charisma, and a fair amount of luck—and to a certain extent that’s still true. YouTubers are able to attract followings in the first place because they offer something of value to a specific community that at least seems to be “authentically” theirs. Often, it’s subject area expertise born of years-long personal interest, like makeup or humor or history or bicycles. Over time, though, the most successful YouTubers are the ones who have been able to parlay the popularity they gained from sharing their original interest (say, videogames for PewDiePie or nail art for Simply Nailogical or pranks for the Paul brothers) into a more generalized form of celebrity. When enough people have come to care about you as a person, they’ll evidently watch you do just about anything.