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Digital Culture

Gangnam Style, ice buckets and biting brothers: YouTube turns 10

Be honest: Biting Charlie, Psy and the Harlem Shake have brought us all just a bit closer together. Here's how, in just a decade, YouTube has revolutionized how and what we watch.

Each minute, around 300 hours of new video content is uploaded to YouTube. That makes for more music videos, beauty channels, funny puppies, household tips and world's funniest home videos than we can fathom.

As many as 20 billion users visit the platform each month. And since ads were introduced, that equates to heaps of cash.

Broadcast yourself

YouTube founders Jawed Karim, Steven Chen and Chad Hurley weren't necessarily planning to revolutionize the Internet when they founded the site 10 years ago. It was just about creating a platform where people could share short films they'd made themselves.

"Broadcast yourself" was their motto - and that at a time when Facebook was just one year old and the iPhone was still on Apple's drawing board.

The first video Jawed Karim uploaded was just 18 seconds long, but included one key ingredient for going viral: cute animals.

With "just" 22 million hits, it did not become the platform's most-watched video. In the meantime, other videos have reached entirely new dimensions. "Gangnam Style," for example - Psy's phenomenal global hit from 2012 - has been viewed 2.3 billion times, making it the most-watched video of all time.

Fun fact: Thanks to Psy, YouTube had to update its counting mechanism to even be able to register a 10-digit number.

Korean pop isn't the only YouTube success story, of course. Sometimes all you need to get 800 million clicks is a cute kid with a British accent, like in the super-cute "Charlie bit my finger" video.

The biggest hypes

On February 2, 2013, Filthy Frank posted a short video sequence showing four guys dancing in body suits. A week later, Norwegian Kenneth Hakonsen uploaded a 30-second clip of a small unit of soldiers standing in the snow. What followed was the "Harlem Shake" phenomenon that got practically the whole world on its feet.

Some 40,000 versions of "Harlem Shake" made it on YouTube. In lecture halls, on the beach, in the subway, even on Mount Everest - it turned into a contest to find the most creative setting for the song. It's not just about following a trend, but personalizing it.

After Pharell William's hit, "Happy," the same thing happened: Covers abounded, with smiling people dancing across YouTube on streets all over the world, from the "Cologne Dance Edition" to hotel employees in Dubai.

One particularly impressive viral campaign in 2014 didn't have anything to do with feel-good music, but with cold water - and a good cause. A former athlete who was suffering from the neural disorder ALS poured a bucket full of ice water over himself and challenged other prominent athletes to do the same. If they refused, they had to donate money to ALS research.

Ice Bucket Challenge Rio Ferdinand, Copyright: imago/BPI

Ice Bucket Challenge: Nearly everyone did it

But it didn't stop there. Everyone from Microsoft boss Bill Gates and US President Barack Obama to your next door neighbor started pouring freezing water on their heads in front of a camera. A lot of people decided to take the Ice Bucket Challenge and also donate money, and $100 million were collected for ALS research in just a few weeks.

Who's behind the screen?

With YouTube it's possible to become a global celebrity - without ever going out in public (theoretically, at least). Felix Kjellberg of Sweden alias PewDiePie is one of the most celebrated YouTube personalities and runs a channel with 36 million subscribers. His fans love the smart blond who seems to do what we all can only dream of - just messing around all day. He films himself playing video games and laughing his head off.

"I'm just a guy from Sweden who likes to laugh and wants to make other people laugh, too," he says of himself. That's a description that could fit a lot of us - except for the Sweden part - but PewDiePie's got that extra spark that earns his clips as many as 60 million clicks a piece.

Kjellberg has become a millionaire through his work on YouTube and has been involved in charity projects, like the World Wildlife Fund. In 2014 he collected $250,000 for a water development project.

What might look like a self-made novice clip was produced with professional equipment. The YouTube star has a production company behind him, "Maker Studios," which is associated with other successful channels like Epic Rap Battles. They have 12 million subscribers and feature rap battles between celebs from all walks of life.

Everyone wants a piece of the pie

Production company Endemol has also recognized the enormous potential of the 10-year-old platform and has sent its subsidiary Endemol Beyond into the race. They've signed big names like superstar Michele Phan, who offers beauty, fashion and lifestyle tips to more than seven million subscribers.

When everything goes well, it's a win-win situation: The YouTube channel gains subscribers and both the distributors and the personalities profit from the advertising revenues. But media attorney Christian Solmecke warns it's not always that simple: "So many clauses are not transparent because they're not formulated clearly." Often YouTubers have had to pay a high price for the huge range they gain through the network.

Mediakraft, for example, signed some of the biggest names on YouTube: Y-Titty, LeFloid, Apecrime, and Simon Unge. But many of them left because they felt their channels were being used more for advertising others, but couldn't do anything about it.

The future of TV

YouTube's biggest advantage is that it has no real competition. Even when record labels and music licensing organizations in Germany put a damper on the fun for copyright reasons, there's still plenty to watch.

The majority of users are still under 25 and know what they want: Freedom. Today media consumers want to decide for themselves what they watch and when. In just 10 years, YouTube is forcing linear TV to rethink itself or get out of the way.

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