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Ya Dun Goofed and SmoshIllustration by Callum Abbott

YouTube’s viral stars on how the platform changed the internet forever

Creators from the early days – Ya Dun Goofed, Anthony Padilla from Smosh, and EatYourKimchi – cast their minds back to the video platform’s first years

It’s hard to imagine a world without YouTube, a world where you waited for new music videos to come on MTV, when you couldn’t watch online instructional videos of how to boil rice, or rabidly consume apologies, meltdowns and viral feud videos. 15 years ago, this was the case. There were video hosting platforms, but they didn’t let you upload for free so that anyone with a dial-up anywhere in the world could watch, comment and follow, until YouTube was invented by three Paypal employees above a pizza shop in California on February 14, 2005. The site itself was launched two months later, with one of the founders posting a 19-second video called “Me at the zoo” (it is literally him at the zoo).

Skip forward to today, and now YouTube has more than 2 billion viewers every month – it has made careers, made millionaires, and accidentally made some people very, very famous. Below, we talk to three viral stars from YouTube’s history about how the platform changed their lives. YouTube creator Anthony Padilla, who joined in 2005, was one half of Smosh, at three points in YouTube’s history, the most subscribed channel on YouTube. Damien Leonhardt, formerly known as Jessi Slaughter, was just vlogging to friends on their webcam when they made a video that went viral, in which their dad screams at their cyber bullies “ya dun goofed!” And Simon and Martina, a couple who together created the YouTube food and culture channel Eat Your Kimchi, and who posted some of the earliest YouTube food content. 

ANTHONY PADILLA

“I started the channel with my best friend. We had started making some lip-sync videos to cartoon TV-songs from our childhood and putting them on smosh.com, a website I had created when I was fourteen, in 2002. With the video hosting platform I was using, I actually had to pay for the bandwidth whenever someone would watch a video on there! One day in 2005 I did a Google search, and I found that someone had taken one of our videos and uploaded it on a site called YouTube and it had dozens of comments. I was amazed at how many people were watching it, but also that I might not have to pay for the bandwidth anymore. I sent them a message asking them if they could delete the video because I wanted to re-upload it myself. So it was never our plan to become big on the platform, we didn’t think that this platform was even going to amount to anything!

“There weren’t many creators that were creating multiple pieces of content weekly, for example. Smosh became that” – Anthony Padilla

At that time, 2005, making videos was definitely a hobby, it was to get a laugh. I was bored. I had access to a webcam that my dad had let me borrow, and I was fascinated by technology, the internet, and the idea of connecting with people. So, one of the big driving factors, in the beginning, was the comments and building up a fan base that was interested in what I had to say.YouTube was mostly lip-syncing videos or funny home videos. There weren’t many creators that were creating multiple pieces of content weekly, for example. Smosh became that. At first, we had no money to fund any of these projects. We were only making maybe one video every two or three months. But there was some interest from people in Hollywood and other businesses wanting to team up with us. We kind of took that as a sign that we should take this more seriously and started a bi-weekly process in mid-2006. Switching over to a more scheduled release really helped propel us into what ended up being a very successful brand.

We were the most subscribed YouTube channel at three different points... I don’t really know how that happened. I think a big part of it was listening to what the fans wanted. Anything related to Pokemon was huge for some reason. So whenever we did a parody that was somehow Pokemon-related, that would propel our following. Then we built our own brand of characters and formats, finding ways to really quickly and concisely do parodies of different movies or TV shows or video games.

In 2011, we sold Smosh to a company. At that point, I’d become an employee of this company, and I realised a few years later that I had no control over this brand that was my baby and a part of my identity since I was 14. I really had to step back and think about what it was that I wanted to say, the kind of messages that I wanted to spread with my platform, and I left Smosh in 2017 to start my own channel. In my early twenties, it was really about getting a quick laugh... there was no bigger goal. As I grew older, I wanted to have a clear message, empower people and make them realise that they were capable of more in their lives. I’m doing now is a series called "I spent a day with..." and I fill in the blank there with a misunderstood subculture or group that is marginalised or doesn’t have a platform to speak.

By the time I left Smosh, the algorithm on YouTube had changed too. When the algorithm changes, the types of videos that become popular also change. In the beginning, there was really no regulation in terms of rewarding creators because of longer view times or anything like that. A 10-second long video would have the same visibility as an hour-long video. It became more rampant for people to create short videos just for clicks or trick someone into watching something they weren’t expecting. YouTube changed the algorithm to stop this happening so videos that were longer started becoming more and more popular.

Overall, YouTube has made a huge difference in my life. I’d say the worst part was probably the amount of pressure that I felt to keep up our number one status with Smosh. The actual popularity itself was overwhelming. When I was walking down the street and people would stop me, it was almost frightening for a person like me, who had social anxiety. I grew up a very shy kid, really insecure. But I do think hiding behind a camera gave me the confidence to speak my voice. I also grew up relatively poor, too – I had big ambitions but YouTube propelled my entire career at such a huge velocity. Seeing the success, seeing some money come in, and knowing that I could spend all my effort creating something that I was proud of, that was extremely exciting. It still is.”

DAMIEN LEONHARDT, YA DUN GOOFED 

“I started making videos on YouTube in 2009 when I was ten. They weren’t really being watched by anyone except for people that I went to school with and like maybe 150 people who followed me on Stickam and MySpace. I was making videos about fashion, clothes and local drama that was happening within the party “scene” here in Florida at that time, so when I made videos it was kind of for people to go and see what the fuck the eleven-year-old was saying about the latest party drama. I was recording these on friends' webcams and then putting it on a hard drive and taking it back to my house to upload. Back then I used to watch stuff on YouTube at my friends’ houses, like Charlie the Unicorn and Lamas with Hats. I have always had a camera in my hands, so seeing that it was a place where you could post things, I was like, ‘that’s great!’

It was just before my twelfth birthday when I posted the video that became famous. I was in sixth grade, there was a girl who I was friends with who had lied to our mutual friends about something, and then I told the mutual friends that she had lied and it started a back and forth situation. Then she posted an article on MySpace and on an internet tabloid called "Sticky drama" about me and I made the video in retaliation to that. I was trying to be all cool and hard, but it was really just two twelve-year-olds yelling at each other on the internet. I do think that it was the original girl who posted the video of me on 4chan, because she was the only person I knew who used 4chan. That’s where it really blew up. 

I didn’t even realise my dad was coming in. My dad was native American and ‘ya dun goofed’ is just a family term on that side of my family if someone messes up. The worst part is my family never stopped saying it since so I still hear it non-stop. I say it in my daily language because I was raised with it. There would be times I’m out in public and I’d say it very loudly and then some people who I don’t even know would look at me and start giggling and realising who I am.

“After it went viral, I was getting very bullied, not just from kids in school, not just from people on the internet, even the authorities figures around me” – Jessi Slaughter 

When I look back at that video now I don’t feel bothered by it. I can’t even remember filming it because I was having a manic episode at the time. The internet really has a thing for trying to take people down a peg, so they saw me and they did what they saw fit which is seek and destroy. The internet is meatgrinder and it does that often, it’s unfortunate. After it went viral, I was getting very bullied, not just from kids in school, not just from people on the internet, even the authorities figures around me who were supposed to protect me they were instead basically criticising everything I had done. I felt like someone going to do an internet raid on me – where people call your house repeatedly or delete your accounts. At first, it was very much like being in the middle of a stormy ocean, on a boat, and you’re just trying to stay afloat. Then after my dad died in 2011 it was more like surfing, trying to keep on top of the waves. 

I feel that, like with any tool, YouTube can be good or bad. A dead body can be promoted in the front page of YouTube, it’s frightening, but the ability for individual people to make entertainment for their peers is important and not just for people who are extremely popular, but for the very unpopular vloggers too and I think it’s, even if I hate to use this term, a great place for the marketplace of ideas. But I do think that it should be moderated better. From an individual standpoint, if a person is getting bullied I recommend turning on moderation of the comments and possibly getting a friend that helps read through them because comments can be harsh. Still, I’m coming back to YouTube this July. I’m doing a limited video project that is an art project exploring the trauma of the Jessi Slaughter incident for the ten year anniversary.”

MARTINA STAWSKI, EAT YOUR KIMCHI 

“We started Eat Your Kimchi in May 2008. We’re actually certified high-school teachers from Canada and came to Asia to work, so it was never an intention to be YouTubers. And of course, that concept did not really exist in 2008! We started making YouTube videos about our life in Korea so that our family knew we were OK. But slowly we started to get so many people watching them because they wanted to come to Korea and there was very little information on it, that we decided to do it full-time. We got business visas, opened up our studio and started putting out seven videos a week. We would do a food segment, we would translate menus, we would do K-Pop reviews. I think we did the first review of “Gangnam Style”! 

Mukbang is its own YouTube genre now – basically sitting and eating a large amount of food, in videos that rarely change the camera angle and are mostly unedited – but in the early days we did a couple of those kinds of videos in Korea and we’ve done a couple of live streams. I would say we were definitely some of the first few people to do that style, but really we try and make higher quality food videos with a lot of research that goes into explaining the food and the history of it. So that has taken us out of the category of Mukbang. Anthony Bourdain was a big icon for us because he would travel around and eat in different locations.

“People have done the same thing as us, but that has never been frustrating because I don’t believe that anybody can be another person” – Martina Stawski

I’d say our audience are people who are similar to us. They’re very interested in food, trying new things, reading, movies and just being generally nice to each other. So we’re very close with them. We set up tours in Europe and in America to meet them. We don’t have any particular skill, like we don’t sing or dance, but we would do a live comedy show with background stories on events that people hadn’t seen on camera, competitions, Q&As and picture sessions. We organised everything ourselves – we even built the site to sell the tickets. You can do that on YouTube now in-platform, but we didn’t have that back then! Back then you also couldn’t remove comments. You couldn’t change the front page to have any impression of who you were. There are no banner images, no playlist, other languages. It was a very different world. I think it’s becoming a lot more accessible. There are a lot of people that want subtitles for hard of hearing... so we used to hard-sub, that’s when we actually record the sub into your video and export it. Now you can do it automatically. So it’s interesting to see how things have gotten more convenient. 

Yes, people have done the same thing as us, but that has never been frustrating because I don’t believe that anybody can be another person. I know that sounds cheesy but I try to tell younger vloggers, if you want to cook pasta, the way you do that and the way you talk to the camera, it’s your own special personality. We follow people for different reasons. We always try to encourage people that if they want to start a YouTube channel, really start it with something you love. Because these days, we see a new kind of Youtuber emerging where they’re on a set, they’re like a personality, they’re hired like a TV presenter or Hollywood actor doing a job. But they don’t actually edit the videos or upload them, or communicate with their fans. For us, it was always about editing the videos to have personality – that can take weeks. But talking to audiences in a different part of the world, in different time zones, can become very overwhelming! We definitely have gone through a phase where we had no life.”

SIMON STAWSKI, EAT YOUR KIMCHI 

“It was around 2010 that advertisements were added to Youtube videos for YouTube Asia. So for the first two years, we did it for free, because we wanted to be helpful and useful to other people, then I quit and started working on our channel full-time. My first pay-check was five dollars – and realised I made a terrible mistake! But the channel kept on picking up and after a year Martina was able to quit her job as well. And then we both became dedicated to just making Youtube videos for a living. I’m pretty sure we might be the first professional Youtubers in Asia. In Korea for sure. Even bringing our papers to immigration, they were like ‘what is Youtube and how do you make a living off of it?’ It was a very confusing conversation. My family was also very upset because this was right around the like financial collapse from 2008-2009 and here we were quitting our careers for YouTube! But luckily it paid off. It’s been freeing in the respect of not waking up to alarm clocks, having bosses, micro-management, frustrations with co-workers. This career takes away those obstacles and lets me be my best self.

We live in Tokyo now but back when we were in Korea, we made like seven or eight videos a week. Now we make maybe one or two. Even now it’s still hard for us to have those hard boundaries between work life and personal life because so much of our videos involves our personal life and our personalities. When do you draw the line? When is it just dinner or when is dinner a video moment? A lot of people don’t have that – when they check out of work they go home, they don’t think about it. I think for us it is always on our minds. 

I would be comfortable saying – and somebody might want to fight me for this – we are the first foodies on YouTube. I don’t think people were doing it before us. But even if you try to look at our content now, it’s not necessarily food-focused, it is not necessarily Japan-focused, a lot of it is just us connecting with the community that we have now. We’ve connected with so many over the years IRL, who we had known by their usernames, who had left comments, who watched us. So I think that we have a very different take on YouTube than others, or those who are just trying to put up content, trying to make money. For us it’s been a way to make a community.”