YouTube was first conceived 15 years ago, and it wasn’t long before it was evident that its cofounders Jawed Karim, Steve Chen, and Chad Hurley were onto something.
Could they have foreseen their video-sharing platform reaching more than 2 billion visitors per month and watching over a billion hours of video every day? Probably not. But being acquired by Google for $1.65 billion within two years of its creation was a pretty good sign that YouTube was on track to revolutionize digital video, and, subsequently, create a new economy of creators.
But that title of “creator” and its flashier cousin “influencer” was nary a thought in 2005.
If you watch enough YouTubers today who’ve been on the platform since the early days, you’ve surely come across some sort of opining for the old days of YouTube, when it—and really the internet at large—was a little simpler, and a lot less frenetic.
While YouTube’s growth has generated a new class of millionaires and celebrities, the platform’s growing pains, and oftentimes contentious relationship with its creators, hasn’t eased over the years. From demonetization backlash to mishandled cases of toxic behavior to becoming a gateway for misinformation, conspiracies, and child endangerment, YouTube, like many digital companies, is having to wrestle with how to police the community it’s built around.
Essentially, YouTube is still in its awkward teen years, and as it inches toward adulthood, some creators have been left behind, others are skeptical, and some hopeful for where the platform is headed.
Fast Company caught up with some of YouTube’s early success stories to see how their relationship to YouTube has evolved over 15 years.
Creator: Michael Buckley
Years on YouTube: 12
Big break: “I had a video about the movie Dreamgirls where I told offensive and meant-to-be off-putting jokes about Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. It got 200,000 views. And that was a huge moment when I realized, ‘Oh, there is something here!'”
Creator: Anthony Padilla
Years on YouTube: 15
Big break: “Shortly after one of Ian Hecox and my videos was uploaded under the moniker ‘Smosh,’ it landed on YouTube’s front page by a miraculous stroke of luck. We still don’t understand why it happened, but it garnered thousands of views as it sat on the front page for roughly 24 hours.”
Creator: Alisha Marie
Years on YouTube: 12
Big break: “I would say my big break was around 2014 when I really dove into a higher production level for my videos. I had transitioned into lifestyle versus before when I focused on fashion and beauty.”
How has your opinion of YouTube evolved over the years?
Buckley: “YouTube is a great love of my life. It is like a wonderful ex-boyfriend. For many years, it was my entire life. I loved it so much. Then by the middle to end of our relationship, I was annoyed and resentful of it. Now I am nothing but peaceful and loving and grateful for all the amazing gifts it has given me.”
Padilla: “YouTube began as a place for one-off home videos with nothing rewarding highly produced content. The idea of a YouTube star didn’t even exist as every video almost felt disposable, without any sense of branding. It’s evolved to be highly produced with a heavy focus on branding and has legitimized itself as a platform. With this evolution comes some growing pains, but I feel YouTube will ultimately become a platform that can appease both homegrown, independent creators and the billion-dollar conglomerates currently climbing the ranks with their ability to churn out dozens of highly produced videos each week.”
Are you still on YouTube regularly?
Buckley: “At the height of my career, 2007 to 2012, I took no breaks. Maybe one week? But I loved it so much I never felt like I needed a break! I loved making videos! I loved the money! I loved the engagement with the fans! I also saw people take breaks, and it seemed like they never came back strong, so I am sure I was nervous to take a break but truly I didn’t want to. By 2014, I was pretty done, so I would take weeks or a month off here and there. I had lost interest in the content I was making and the audience had lost interest in me, so it was easier at that point to just slow down and reconfigure myself before I retired my program in 2016 and have just posted occasionally and casually for fun since then.”
When you think about what YouTube has become, has it gone in a positive or negative direction?
Padilla: “YouTube’s expansion has been both positive and negative in many ways. The sheer amount of viewers the platform now brings in every second is gargantuan. More than 500 hours of content is now being uploaded every second, which leaves little room for new creators to find footing. I’m not sure I’d have been able to make any impact on the platform if I were to have started this year. But with so many viewers comes great benefits for those who are already established on the platform.”
How does YouTube stack up against other platforms where creators can build an audience and a career, such as Instagram and Tik Tok?
Marie: “YouTube really specializes in giving back to their creators and being there for them. They make a conscious effort to do that through something as simple as appointing YouTube managers to us. I’ve never had as much direct contact with a platform than YouTube, and I am extremely grateful for that.”
Padilla: “YouTube is in a unique position. Other platforms don’t appear to be competing for the same demographic, as YouTube is specifically tailored to slightly longer content, around the length of average TV shows or shorter. Other competing platforms are targeting much shorter content. YouTube’s monetization, when it’s working as intended, gives many content creators a steady income regardless of their ability to secure sponsorships. This is highly encouraging for anyone who can find a way to slowly invest their earnings into turning their channels into businesses.”
What would you change about YouTube today?
Padilla: “I would wish for more attention to be drawn to individual creators, just as it was in YouTube’s earlier life. I believe YouTube shines brightest when individuals are given an opportunity to make an impact and reach the eyes of millions of viewers who believe in them. Content uploaded by multi-billion dollar conglomerates and production houses are currently given the same, if not more, attention, which can be disheartening for individual creators.”
Marie: “It’s funny. A year ago, I would’ve said for YouTube to promote quality over quantity uploads. However, within the past year that’s exactly what has happened. I no longer feel the need to produce just ‘okay’ videos, I’m glad I no longer feel the pressure to crank out as much content as I used to. Now I take my time and focus on one video and make it exactly how I would love for it to be. Before, I feel like it hurt you if you didn’t upload every week. Now I have the power to produce high-quality videos over quantity.”
Do you have any regrets about becoming a YouTube star?
Buckley: “None. Zero. I loved every second! Honestly the best part of it all was not the money or the fame or the lovely comments from people. It was when it all went wrong. That was the most powerful and important outcome of YouTube for me, when I was no longer a YouTube star. It is so cool to realize that! It felt like a very public failure to have been so successful on the site and then be a flop. Being both a major hit and a major flop have been such blessings that I would not have had without YouTube!”