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The YouTube videos that shaped pop culture as we know it

15 years on, we look back at the video platform’s earliest hits, biggest channels, and most influential trends

Put yourself in 2005. It was an innocent time: the internet was young and terms like ‘viral’ and ‘meme’ weren’t yet intrinsic to our internet hivemind. A new website called YouTube had just been registered by three friends Jawed Karim, Chad Hurley, and Steve Chen, marketing itself as a video sharing platform. Of course, no one could have predicted the cultural impact it would ultimately have.

No longer exclusively the virtual home to cute dogs and Nyan cats, YouTube has become its own ecosystem, with 500 hours of footage uploaded to the site every minute, with its biggest stars earning upwards of $50 million every year. Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, we’re taking a trip down memory lane to spotlight the videos that shaped YouTube.

LONELYGIRL15 (2006)

Remember Lonelygirl15? The 16-year-old is credited as one of the world’s first confessional video bloggers: a friendly viral sensation named Bree, who posted her first video in 2006. Through the grainy lens of a webcam (the chunky kind that would sit clumsily atop your Dell desktop), Bree would pour her thoughts – her boring town, being homeschooled, her best friend Daniel – to a ballooning viewership that grew increasingly fascinated by her life. At its height, even The New York Times had a recurring blog about her.

But plot twist: Lonelygirl15 wasn’t real. Bree and her best friend Daniel were actors paid to perform their roles by a small team of writers, who wanted to try their hands at making YouTube’s first web series. It worked. Fast-forward some time, and Lonelygirl15 became the first YouTube series to feature product placement, and while ‘Bree’ was killed off after two years, the show inspired its very own UK spin-off Lonelygirl15: the Resistance, and its impact is woven into the fibres of YouTube forever.

“LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” (2007)

Within 24 hours of posting it, Chris Crocker had accumulated over two million hits on his YouTube video, which by 2007 standards, was huge. The then-unheard-of 19-year-old skyrocketed to viral fame (perhaps one of the first people to do so) with a grainy webcam video titled “Leave Britney Alone”, where he attacked commentators for criticising Britney Spears after her disastrous comeback performance at the MTV VMAs. A prototype of the 'viral hit', Crocker’s video represents an unrestrained time where the media was allowed to gleefully mock celebrities for their mental health. Over a decade on, his message still rings clear: “Leave Britney alone.”

MUSIC VIDEOS THAT LAUNCHED THE CAREERS OF POP SUPERSTARS (2000s)

Today, it’s hard to imagine a pop star not launching their career online; some of 2020s biggest stars – including Lil Nas XDoja Cat, and Ashnikko – are dominating the charts off the back of their songs going viral on TikTok. But in 2010, when an unknown, floppy-haired kid dropped a chart-topping track, it was difficult to fathom that he’d been found on the internet. Justin Bieber was discovered by talent manager Scooter Braun in 2007, after he clicked on one of the 13-year-old’s videos by accident. Certain he’d spotted a star, Braun tracked down Bieber and had him singing with Usher a week later. Though he’d dropped a few successful hits already, it was the video for “Baby” that made Bieber a global superstar. This method of talent-scouting was also employed by dutch singer Esmée Denters in the late 2000s, who went from innocuously covering Justin Timberlake and Natasha Bedingfield on YouTube to becoming one of the first musicians to exceed 100 million views on the platform. See also: Ed Sheeran, Carly Rae Jepsen, Alessia Cara, and Clairo.

“HIDE YO’ KIDS, HIDE YO’ WIFE” (2010)

Considered one of the best news interviews ever, “Hide Yo’ Kids, Hide Yo’ Wife” is a prime example of early memeship. Taken from a news clip where a local TV reporter is interviewing Kevin Antoine Dodson following an attack on his sister, the interviewee is captured saying: “Hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband ‘cause they’re rapin’ everybody out here.”

Shortly after the video went live, a remix of his interview by the Gregory Brothers – now known as the “Bed Intruder Song” – launched Dodson as a viral sensation, and is one of the earliest examples of an unintentially funny thing being adopted into the memescape. In 2010, it was the 25th most bought song on iTunes, and sold over 10,000 copies in its first two days. It was even on the US Billboard charts at one point.

REBECCA BLACK, “FRIDAY” (2011)

In 2011, 13-year-old Rebecca Black released a music video that would turn her into an overnight success for all the wrong reasons. The song in question, “Friday” – which has been the subject of hundreds of parodies – was the perfect internet storm: a poorly-written steam-of-consciousness with cereal bowls, a weird Usher lookalike, and a CGI car – basically, the lot. While Black has recently opened up about her struggles following the track’s relentless mocking in 2011 (“Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun!”), it remains a cultural touchstone to this day, and remains a prime example of the dark side of YouTube and hate culture.

“KONY2012” (2012)

It all started on March 5, 2012, when Jason Russell, the unknown director for non-profit organisation called Invisible Children, released “Kony2012”, a bizarre 30 minute video that explained why the world needed to bring Joseph Kony, a central African warlord who abducted 30,000 children and turned them into soldiers and sex slaves, to justice.

Despite the video more resembling a Pepsi Max ad than a socio-political call-to-arms, “Kony2012” skyrocketed to virality, reaching over 100 million hits in five days. In the words of Charlie Brooker: “The only way a video could get more viral is if Susan Boyle and the Cat Bin Lady teamed up to eat shit out of one cup.”

As “Kony2012” reached fever pitch, and posters were plastered across every street in even the most obscure UK towns, the unpredictable happened. The movement’s shadowy figurehead was found running naked across the streets of San Diego, screaming obscenities until he was eventually escorted away by police. This, too, became a viral video. If anything, the swift rise and fall of the video’s popularity shows how quickly a video can go viral before disappearing into nonexistence.

VINE COMPILATIONS THAT SURVIVED THE PLATFORM’S DEMISE (2013)

Whenever I’m feeling glum, or bored, or – TBH – any emotion that exists, I type “vines that keep me from ending it all” into YouTube. I’m always looking for one specific video and despite having watched it probably close to 50 times, I still find each hand-selected clip perfect and hilarious. The short-form video sharing app closed in 2017 after four beautiful years, but will always live on through YouTube compilations created both during its heyday and after its death. Typically uploaded with idiosyncratic titles like “vines that toast my buns” or “clean vines for the children of jesus”, the compilations tend to celebrate the weird and wonderful videos now emblematic of the platform. In fact, many people – myself included – never used the app and are only familiar with Vine through its compilation legacy. A legacy that TikTok has to thank for its own success – there’s now even compilations called “tiktoks that radiate the same energy as vines”. 

The illustrious Vine compilation reignited the popularity of short-form video mixes – think: bitesize versions of You’ve Been Framed! – paving the way for compilations like Le Zap de Cockaïn and those hard-to-watch “Ultimate Fails” videos. And now, with the news that Vine is returning in the form of six-second video app Byte, we’re set to be treated to YouTube compilations until we actually do end it all.

THE RISE OF FOODIE VIDEOS (2010s)

When I’m incredibly hungover and lazily deciding whether to get out of bed and go to Tesco, or suck up the £2.50 Deliveroo charge and meekly manage the 20 steps to the front door, I like to watch food videos. The logic is: I’m hungry, and watching other people eat weirdly satiates me. And, as it turns out, I’m not alone. Formats including “Cheat Day” videos – where a fitness vlogger eats whatever they want in a day – and “What I Eat in a Day” clips have soared in popularity in recent years, with influencers like Stephanie Buttermore even launching her own food Instagram account. For people actually looking for recipe inspiration, cooking and food review shows are some of the most watched on YouTube, with BuzzFeed’s Tasty video series surpassing 17 million subscribers, filmmaker Andrew Rea’s – AKA Oliver Babish – channel, Binging with Babish, hitting six million followers, and American food magazine Bon Appétit reaching over five million subscribers – just to name a few. The joy of these kinds of videos is that you can discover almost any cuisine in almost any country – the kind of content you just wouldn’t get on Ready Steady Cook IMO.

“10 HOURS OF WALKING” (2014)

Back in 2014, 24-year-old actor Shoshana Roberts responded to a Craigslist ad to make a viral video in New York for video marketing agency Hollaback. Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, Roberts spent a day walking the streets of New York with a hidden camera recording the ridiculous number of catcalls she received (disclaimer: a lot).

In less than 24 hours, the video reached over ten million hits, bringing catcalling to the forefront of the public consciousness. Naturally, the video also gave birth to hundreds of spin-offs – think along the lines of “10 hours walking as a mime”, “10 hours walking as a goth”, “10 hours of walking in a hoodie covered in $100 bills” – you name it, it exists.

MUKBANGING (2015)

If you haven’t heard of Mukbang, where have you been? The South Korean trend, which literally translates to ‘eating broadcast’, has become a viral addiction worldwide, with millions tuning into watch YouTube videos of people eating either through pre-recorded videos or live streams, where viewers can interact with eaters in real time.

With mukbang stars like the Fine brothers and Eat Your Kimchi popularising the trend in the west, South Korean stars like Yuka Kinoshita has garnered more than 1.75 billion views on her videos that range anywhere from 20kg of ramen to four buckets of KFC – in one sitting. It’s an impressive feat.

THE YOUTUBE APOLOGY (2010s)

If you haven’t made a YouTube apology video, are you even an influencer? With social media bringing fame into everyone’s grasp, it’s now commonplace to document every moment of your life – especially for vloggers. But because we’re all idiot human beings, we’re bound to make some dumb decisions and comments, and if you’re filming every second of your life, an audience is going to see these usually-private mistakes. Enter: the YouTube apology. From Logal Paul’s desperate remorse over bewilderingly filming a suicide victim in Japan’s Aokigahara forest, to a vlogger saying sorry for faking his own girlfriend’s death for hits, apology videos are now a staple of YouTube – and even act as a way for influencers to up their subscriber count, as prying eyes obsessively follow the drama. After all, there’s nothing that the internet loves more than a pleading, public apology from some richer and more successful than them.

LO-FI HIP HOP RADIO (2016)

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you’re probably familiar with the many 24-hour lo-fi radio stations available on YouTube right now. These stations, which exist on the fringes of underground microgenres like chillhop and vaporwave (or its trippy offshoot Simpsonswave), use YouTube’s live stream feature to play relaxed beats, characterised by jazzy old school hip hop beats paired with looped animations of depressed-looking anime characters or lethargic Bart Simpsons.

Run by amateurs and enthusiasts, these stations have amassed crazy cult followings. As I write this, Chilled Cow, the user behind “lofi hip hop – beats to study/relax to”, has 4.44 million subscribers, and the numbers continue to grow.

It's the interactive chat function that’s the main USP for these channels, which function in the same way as the chatrooms and message boards of the early internet (never forget). These anonymised chats function as a safe haven for users swap advice and discuss trivialities outside the judgement of social media channels like Instagram and Twitter.

THE JAMES CHARLES AND TATI WESTBROOK FEUD (2019)

So the story goes like this: Beauty vlogger Tati Westbrook released a 43-minute (!) YouTube video titled “Bye sister”, announcing the end of her longtime friendship with viral makeup artist James Charles. According to Westbrook, Charles posted an ad for Sugar Bear Hair vitamins on Instagram, a big no-no for Westbrook, whose vitamin brand Halo Beauty was its top competitor. She also accused Charles of making advances towards straight men – a claim that lost Charles a whopping three million subscribers on YouTube and half a million followers on Instagram (including the Jenners, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Shawn Mendes).

But Charles snapped back with his own video “tati”, where he provided receipts to disprove basically all of Tati’s accusations. Since the drama, Charles has regained all three million of his followers. Balance has been restored.

The beef was a worldwide event, with hundreds of ‘tea accounts’ (aka. Perez Hilton-style YouTube channels dedicated to revealing scandals about fellow YouTubers) reporting on the happenings just like tabloids. If anything, the attention surrounding the drama speaks to a wider obsession with YouTubers as this generation’s celebrity.