It can be hard to remember what life was like before YouTube. If you wanted to listen to a pop song, you couldn’t just line it up online. You’ll have to find it on the radio, download an MP3 file from iTunes (or any number of file-sharing websites), or wait for MTV to play the video in its infinite rotation. Celebrities were the only reality TV stars and the most popular show was American Idol (won in 2006 by Taylor Hicks).
In short, old media still dominated, but the culture was in a strangely liminal stage. Almost everything that mattered was still happening on TV, but much of the talk started on the Internet. This is essentially the landscape that YouTube has entered.
The site got off to a relatively slow start in April 2005, with a video from YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim talking about a visit to the San Diego Zoo’s elephant enclosure. In August of the same year, the site had no fewer than 58,000 visitors. By the end of the year, it had a traffic rocket on its back: by mid-2006, 20 million unique visitors were logging onto YouTube each month. Today, more than 1.3 billion people use the site around the world and watch five billion videos every day.
As far as competition goes, we’ve come a long way from zoo visits today. Modern YouTube stars can bring in millions of dollars through sponsorships and businesses they own and run (often built on the foundation of their videos). Polish and spot can match most of what you would find on TV or streaming services. Accordingly, someone like Jacob Sartorius is better known to a generation of young men and women than many mainstream celebrities.
But even in the early days of YouTube, there were people making videos and sort of growing a community — only their experiences were quite different from today’s meteoric rise of video stars, many of which end up in lucrative business partnerships or studio-based opportunities. What happened to those original viral video pioneers who paved the way to success for today’s YouTubers – the innovators who discovered the first bloom of fame before YouTube became a media juggernaut? Where are they now, and, perhaps more interestingly, how do they feel about what their beloved platform has become?
A few personalities
Michael Buckley chugs slowly through traffic at the end of a vacation weekend at his parents’ summer home on Cape Cod. “It’s a good time to talk,” he draws, his languid voice playfully up and down the loudspeaker of his automobile. “I have nothing else to distract me, so you have my full attention.”
For those who weren’t there at the beginning of YouTube, Buckley was kind of the Jimmy Fallon of his day: a public TV talk show host who switched online and gained a bit of fame by starting a YouTube channel in the summer of 2006. His schtick was simple but effective: Buckley played the snarky host of his own show, what the buck??. In short, snappy videos that rarely lasted more than three minutes, he ran through (and recorded) the celebrity news of the day with biting and sharp humor. “My online persona 10 years ago was a bitchy, rambling pop culture expert talking head,” Buckley says today. And the viewers loved it. At one point, he had four of the top 10 most viewed videos on YouTube.
Looking back at the first of 10 seasons of What the buck? shows how different YouTube was in 2006. Buckley’s first videos were just a low bitrate, slightly more daring version of what you’d see on public TV late at night. Buckley faced a poorly keyed green screen and delivered a scripted monologue in one take with no cuts. Pictures appeared over his shoulder as if he were a newscaster. While it may share the same bones, it feels a world away from the fast-paced, well-lit jump-cut monologues of modern YouTubers like Grace Helbig, the Vlog Brothers, or Zoella.
However, other early YouTubers bridged the gap between these two seemingly disparate worlds. If Michael Buckley represented the old, nasty side of celebrity culture, another early site personality represented the cuddly, sparkly side. As bitchy and negative as Buckley’s personality was, Olga Kay came across as quite the opposite.
At the time, Kay (actually called Olga Karavajeva), an accomplished juggler at the Ringling Brothers’ Circus, was trying to break into the wider world of show business. For much of 2006, she auditioned for TV shows, movies, and commercials, but failed to break through.
Some of Kay’s friends recommended that she open an account on a new website called YouTube. Not only could it help her gain attention and an audience that could propel her to mainstream television, but it would also help them. As aspiring YouTubers who upload juggling videos themselves, they were eager to enlist their family and friends to rate their videos and rank them. “At first I thought they said U2.com and it was related to the band,” she recalls. “It took me a while to figure out exactly what the site was.”
When Kay found the website, she created an account and looked beyond her friends’ juggling videos. What she found surprised her. “I remember meeting the original creators like LonelyGirl15 and LisaNova and being so mesmerized by these people looking at me through the screen and telling their stories,” Kay says. “It was the first time I experienced that breach in the fourth wall, with someone talking to me through the screen.”
Soon, Kay wanted to be a part of it. “I remember thinking, I can do it better – if only I knew how.”
Kay had no camera or special editing software; she made her first forays into YouTube recording videos using her computer’s built-in webcam and iMovie. She taught herself the basics of video editing and observed the tips and tricks other more established YouTubers used to give the veneer of professionalism. And for two years between 2006 and 2008, Kay spent an estimated 12 hours a day making videos. She looked at other creators on YouTube and then started poking around for her own content. She would upload it, comment on her favorite channels and invite others to watch her videos too, working hard to draw attention to them.
All the work, no pay
Both Buckley and Kay quickly came to the paradox of early YouTube. To become popular on the required site a lot of work, but the payout was in no way immediate or obvious. “I had 100 videos before anyone knew who I was, and I was working on this 50 hours a week,” Buckley explains. “I had a 40-hour job, and I was still writing, editing, and promoting every hour of the day, and really building my YouTube character. It was a lot of work, but it was fun I didn’t know where it would lead, but I just saw great potential.”
Kay’s 12-hour days didn’t spark any explosive growth, either, but all the research soon made her realize that some YouTubers had ads before their videos. While Kay couldn’t find any information on how to get that, it would quickly become important to monetize her videos. Around this time, the YouTube community began to slowly expand into the real world: the occasional real encounter at events like VidCon (which is a media mammoth these days). During these gatherings, a handful of creators met in New York City’s Central Park or Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles to exchange tips, chat and record videos from the day that they would later upload. When Kay went to a particular event, she did well on YouTube, with a devoted following of about 1,000 subscribers. But she was caught that day on some of the more popular creators’ videos. Her 1,000 subscribers quickly became 3,000. It soon became more.
Kay describes the first check she received from YouTube as a momentous occasion, although at this stage, for someone early in a “video” career, the money was a pittance. Upon opening the envelope that arrived in the morning mail, she found a 54 cent bill. It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t get the money in her bank account until she made $100, Kay was excited. “I felt like I had a hobby that was not only fun but also made me money,” she says. “It turned out to be an interesting race: how do I get more people to watch?”
While Kay and Buckley worked hard to bring new viewers to their videos, sometimes struggling and hitting brick walls, the entire online video ecosystem slowly changed. Internet speeds got faster; celebrity as a cloak became more easily attainable. As YouTube became more popular and the concept of viral videos became more commonplace, the regular money poured into the platform.
That money trickled down to the makers. “You start making money and you think you’ve fooled the world,” Buckley says. “How did this happen? I did this for fun, and for free, and now I have thousands of dollars in my Adsense account. This is crazy. It’s nutty.”
In the years since Buckley and Kay made their first paychecks on YouTube, the site has become a much bigger goldmine for creators. Since 2007, YouTube has paid out more than $1.25 billion to rights holders for the ability to screen their content. And many creators, like Lisa “LisaNova” Donovan, one of the most successful YouTubers of this first generation, have traded a life in front of the camera for a life behind the scenes in the larger industry. (After her video starring days, Donovan co-founded Maker Studios, a YouTube multichannel network bought by the Walt Disney Company for half a billion dollars.)
Today, many young YouTubers can come to terms with cash much faster and set up their own businesses to handle the income from advertising sales, marketing-related connections, and in-person appearances at live events. For example, Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, one of the world’s best-known YouTubers, made $8 million in profit in 2015, according to company accounts filed in his native Sweden.
“Some of these YouTube stars have quite the device around them,” explains Alice E. Marwick, an online identity and celebrity researcher at Fordham University. “There are these influencer marketing companies that are trying to broker these kids’ exposure and sponsorship deals.”