YouTube At 10: A Look Back Through Each Year’s Defining Moment

And nary a Bieber to be found.
By Jonathan Harris
  • I first heard about YouTube in 2006. Someone pointed it out to me as a way I could watch old music videos from the 80s and 90s. I went to, typed in “Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer” and found that, indeed, the classic music video was available to watch, right there, within seconds.

    My interest piqued, I then typed “Tom Waits” into the search box and found a performance on David Letterman’s show that I know I’d never have been able to see otherwise.

    This is what YouTube was to me at first. A way to watch old music videos and live performances that in any other era would have been lost in a sea of radio waves years prior. In some ways, that’s still what Google’s mega-popular, world-changing website provides. It’s a link to our past – a portal that allows us to follow our cultural landmarks in real time.

    On the 10th anniversary of YouTube’s launch, we’re taking a look back at each year’s Primo Video – the videos that weren’t necessarily the best or even the most popular, but those that defined what YouTube really was that year. Some of these were way ahead of their time.

  • 2005 – Me at the zoo

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    This video is in no way special except that it was the very first uploaded to YouTube. Co-founder Jawed Karim’s elephant analysis still exists on YouTube in its original form.

    In a way, the beginning of YouTube mirrored the beginning of all motion pictures. Simple videos with one shot, a descriptive title, and under 20 seconds. The Lumiere brothers would have been proud.

  • 2006 – Flea Market Montgomery

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    And then we were off to the races. Users soon discovered that YouTube allowed you to show all of your friends that ridiculous public access show, local commercial or Alabaman news broadcast without sending a VHS tape thousands of miles in the mail.

    Any number of classic tape-to-Internet videos could have been the Video of 2006, but none has brought me as much consistent joy of Sammy Stephens’ Mini Mall Rap.

  • 2007 – Charlie Bit My Finger

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    Still reigning as one of the most popular user-uploaded YouTube videos of all time, “Charlie Bit My Finger” inspired millions of parents to email you links of their supposedly adorable children.

    Stories from your friends next door

    They never told

    You might be a star tonight

    So let that camera roll

    You’re the red, white and blue

    Oh the funny things you do

    America, America this is you

    Truer words were never sung.

  • 2008 – Sarah Palin Can’t Name a Newspaper She Reads

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    In 2008, we had the first U.S. presidential election in the YouTube era. Much like the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, an emerging technology came to define the election cycle.

    Embarrassing quotes, flubs and hiccups have always been a hallmark of American politics, but Sarah Palin’s still-unfathomable inability to name a newspaper found a second life online and would serve as a caution to anyone in the 21st century public eye: your mistakes will not just fade away.

    Plus, even Diddy got to weigh in.

  • 2009 – Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent

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    Upworthy was still three years away when the first “They Made Fun of Her, But Then What She Did Blew Them Away” headline crossed the Atlantic and made an international sensation out of a British reality show contestant. Susan Boyle was a TV personality in the UK, but her cultural explosion in the United States was all on YouTube.

    I cried at 1:17.

  • 2010 – Bed Intruder Song

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    One of the only Songifications to outshine its source material, The Gregory Brothers’ remix of Antoine Dodson’s “hide yo kids, hide yo wife” moment on local Alabama television became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, prompting as much quoting sessions among friends as any fifth season episode of The Simpsons would have among my 6th grade class.

    In fact, if “Flea Market Montgomery” had come out a few years later and received the Gregory Brothers treatment, it might have cracked the Billboard Hot 100 as well.

  • 2011 – Rebecca Black’s “Friday”

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    What to say about this one? Rebecca Black, for her part, understands where her fame came from and is a super good sport about it; and Patrice Wilson, the mastermind behind “Friday,” arguably topped himself with painful and racist “Chinese Food.”

    But, “Friday” will always be remembered as the original – the song so silly and pointless that even Crazytown had to bow down.

  • 2012 – Psy’s “Gangnam Style”

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    I mean, what else would you put here? It’s been watched over 2.3 billion times. That’s once a second for over 73 years. If you started playing “Gangnam Style” now and then restarted it immediately for every time it’s been viewed, it wouldn’t end until the year 20,471.

    “Gangnam Style” is a part of our legacy as human beings. We might as well embrace it.

  • 2013 – The Harlem Shake

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    The Harlem Shake was one of those things that everyone had to do. Today, our trends last for maybe 4-5 hours (see: Llamas or The Dress) – but back in 2013, a weird video trend could go strong for weeks.

    Every morning, there would be a new group of people uploading their own twist on the Harlem Shake. In a pool, on a football field, with a goat, on a boat. I almost wish I had created a Harlem Shake video and held it for today. I’d upload it and people would wonder what the hell I was thinking.

  • 2014 – Everyone Sings “Let It Go”

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    You sang “Let It Go.” So did you and you and you.

    They did it too. It doesn’t matter who you are. You sang “Let It Go.”

    The Ice Bucket Challenge could have gone here, but that was about celebrities. The “Let It Go” trend was really about you, which is what YouTube is/was ostensibly all about.

    Let’s keep going and see where we are in ten years, weirdos.