How YouTube’s popularity lets its top users make millions

YouTube's first video was uploaded on April 23, 2005. In the decade since, the site has grown so dramatically that people can make millions from producing popular videos.

A still from "Me at the zoo," the first YouTube video ever posted, in which YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim discusses elephants.

On April 23, 2005, shortly before YouTube’s public debut, co-founder Jawed Karim posted the site’s first video clip. “Me at the zoo” is an unremarkable 18-second video in which Mr. Karim, standing in front of an African elephant exhibit, observes, “They have really, really, really long trunks … and that’s pretty much all there is to say.”

Ten years later, YouTube has grown from a small site for hosting short video clips to a media juggernaut in its own right. It’s the home of long-form documentaries, live concerts and events, and virtual town-hall meetings with presidential candidates.

And as YouTube’s audience grew – from 100 million views per day in 2006 to more than 4 billion daily views today – the site became home to a cottage industry of professional videomakers.

YouTube's industry-changing success all comes down to ads. More than a million advertisers, ranging from small businesses to giant corporations, use the ad platforms of YouTube’s parent company, Google. Every time a video is played and an ad is served, the video’s creator gets a small cut. That means the most popular YouTubers, such as Swedish video gamer PewDiePie and Chilean comedian HolaSoyGerman, make millions of dollars a year from their content. (The top YouTubers are also more widely recognized than mainstream celebrities by American teenagers, a Variety survey discovered last summer.)

A video that garners a million views can bring in between $800 and $8,000 to the video’s creator, according to Adweek. The most popular YouTube video of all time is the music video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which has gotten more than 2.3 billion views and earned more than $6 million in revenue.

YouTube’s popularity as a platform also means that popularity on the video site can spill over into other forms of media, as well. Comedy Central’s "Key & Peele" sketch comedy show gained a huge following on YouTube following the series’ debut in 2012 after several of the sketches went viral. One of the best examples of a YouTube hit, “Substitute teacher” – a skit centered on an inner-city substitute teacher who is impatient with a class of suburban high schoolers – gained nearly 75 million views on YouTube and will be turned into a feature film by Paramount Pictures. (For a time, Key & Peele videos even ran with an introduction that stated, “We know you like watching Key & Peele on YouTube, but you’ll love watching the whole show even more on Comedy Central” – an indication that the show’s producers wanted to make sure that its YouTube popularity translated into a real-world audience.)

As YouTube continues to grow, there’s no telling what the site will look like in another 10 years. But the video site’s main societal contribution – the idea that someone can achieve wealth and fame solely through producing popular online content – will probably always be true in the future.

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