YouTube Was Going to Be a Very Different Place at First

The origins of the online giant you probably didn’t expect

Jamie Logie
Mar 2 · 6 min read
YouTube is one of the biggest platforms on the internet, but it started out as a very different place.
YouTube is one of the biggest platforms on the internet, but it started out as a very different place.
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

I won’t lie. I watch a lot of YouTube. You probably do, too. I definitely watch more of it than I do actual TV. Children and adults now watch one-third less TV than they did in 2010, preferring to view content online. And YouTube is the perfect platform.

It’s entertainment and education, instantly, and all at your fingertips.

YouTube is the second biggest search engine after Google. It receives over 1.5 billion logged-in users per month and feeds over 1 billion hours of video each day to users.

It’s also a platform where people can make millions of dollars. The top ten earners of 2020 made a combined $200 million. And if you want to feel sick, the highest earner made $29.5 million and is only 9 years old.

But the origins of the video giant differ greatly from what we now know. How did this online juggernaut get to where it is while starting out in a very different direction?

The Early Days of YouTube

YouTube has its roots in silicon valley. It was started by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim.

Their idea was simple: post videos online that you could share with your friends. This is back in the early 2000s, and the “simple” idea was of course extremely complicated. Video was becoming more prominent, but sharing them online came with an immense amount of challenges.

It’s not that it wasn’t possible, but the computing power just wasn’t there. A low-quality, two-minute clip could take upwards of 20 minutes to upload. When you’re forced to use the internet through a phone line, you would get around 0.056 Mbps.

Kids, if you don’t know what dial-up internet is — ask your parents. Looking back, getting online this way seems as archaic as rubbing two sticks together.

It’s not that video hosting sites didn’t exist, but they all struggled with the same issue. This is going back aways, but some of those early video hosting sites include:

  • Newgrounds
  • funnyjunk (not what it sounds like…)
  • Albino Blacksheep

But in the early to mid-2000s, broadband became more available, and cell phones could record videos. This would help the trio from Silicon Valley.

They were able to launch their site, and on Valentine's day, 2005, YouTube went live to the world. You may have seen the very first YouTube video, which was a 19-second long clip of Karim at the San Diego Zoo. But no one was watching.

There may have been a reason no one was watching: YouTube actually started as a dating site.

Why Go in This Direction?

This was a time period where big online dating sites had launched, including Friendster, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid — and my profiles have been ignored on all of them ever since.

Facebook was about a year old at this time and already had over a million users. It would experience a lot of growth in 2005 and hit 5.5 million users by the end of the year. This was still when Facebook was limited to colleges (it wouldn’t be open to everyone until late 2006) so there was still the relationship/dating/hookup aspect to it.

For a lot of students, Facebook was the “go-to website to hook up,” so did YouTube want to get in on the action?

When YouTube started as a dating site, the slogan was “tune in, hook up,” which is also on my Tinder profile. The idea was still based around video, as dating seemed to be the best application of it.

This is also a bit of a history lesson — depending on your age — but before online dating, there was videotape dating. You would get tapes of prospective partners and watch the dating messages that we would ironically laugh at years later on YouTube. (see if the guy at 3:46 looks like someone we now know…).

YouTube would be the modern version of video dating. People would upload videos of themselves talking about what they were looking for in a partner. The interface was pretty simple and you could put in who you were looking for, including an age range that went up to 99 for some reason.

An early pageview of YouTube when it started out as a dating site.
An early pageview of YouTube when it started out as a dating site.
pic via webarchive.org

How Did This Go Over?

Since we’re watching a lot of cat videos on it today, YouTube as a dating site did obviously not go over well.

Nobody wanted to use YouTube for their romantic interests. People couldn’t grasp the concept of uploading a video to find love. The trio scrambled and even took out Craigslist ads in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, paying women $20 to upload videos of themselves.

No one was going for it.

Desperate to have some content on there, Karim would upload videos of 747s taking off just so there was something to click on. If you happened to go to YouTube looking for love, you were just left confused.

What Led to the Early Success of YouTube?

The few people who went to YouTube for dating purposes saw a better option: this was a place they could upload a video from their life to share with others. It could be them cooking, traveling, or playing with their pets.

This is a pivotal point, as the founders realized the audience could dictate what the platform would be. They opened up the site to allow any type of video to be uploaded.

People really liked this idea.

The users now defined what YouTube was. Just like the internet itself, you could upload anything that interests you. You didn’t have to be stuck in a certain topic or niche. Whatever hobbies or interests you had, there was an entire community out there that felt the same.

The website was revamped and would end up being sold to Google in 2006 for what now seems like a steal at $1.6 billion. Google now says that YouTube is worth around $15 billion a year.

Key Takeaways

The origin of YouTube is a cool history story — but it also teaches an important lesson. The first is that no matter what you are working on, it’s ok to pivot and take things in a different direction.

Your original intent may get you started on the right foot, but transitioning may be necessary to get you on the right track. It’s also important to see what users are really looking for in your product or service.

The next lesson is about not being afraid to fail. If your first few ideas fail, that’s not the end of the world. What failure does is help eliminate what doesn’t work and get you closer to what does.

I’m not sure if platforms like YouTube will help to fully dethrone TV — but it looks like it’s heading that way. My nieces and nephew are all 13 and under and don’t watch any TV — it’s all YouTube.

A lot of kids now have the career goal of being a YouTuber as opposed to “traditional” jobs. They look at YouTubers as celebrities the way we used to look at TV stars. To them, TV is like the radio now, and this gigantic platform only continues to grow.

Pretty good for a place that started as “tune in, hook up.”

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Jamie Logie

Written by

Some health, a little marketing, and a lot of 80s| The Startup, The Ascent, Better Marketing/Humans, PSILY|

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