Take your Wayback Machine back to 2006 — a simpler time for the Internet, before social media made its mark as a form of business, rather than pure entertainment. It was the year that Google purchased YouTube, sensing the potential for a platform constructed and marketed as a place for anyone to upload a video and, with it, find their 15 minutes of fame. The same promise can be offered today, eight years later, but the landscape for both the video creator and the viewer has changed in remarkable ways.
When Judson Laipply uploaded his “Evolution of Dance” video to YouTube in April 2006, he couldn’t have possibly known what a staple it would become. At its height, it was the most-viewed video on the platform in its history. Laipply had been performing that dance since as early as 2001, as part of his motivational-speaking tour on high-school, college, and corporate campuses — the key difference this time being that it was recorded, shared, and left to find a global audience.
Because Laipply’s dance has seen sequels, parodies, and other dances modeled off of its format, by today’s standards it seems quaint, and even cliche. At the time, Laipply had wonderful vision for people’s craving for nostalgia, music, and originality; yet, the era when an unknown on a stage performing a rehearsed, regular routine could achieve Internet fame has arguably passed. If you watch the video today, you’ll find it difficult to get through the entire 6-minute routine without tuning out (“We get it”), and that it’s more puzzling than amazing.
With Google getting behind YouTube — through both funding and promotion — possibilities awaited for how others would take the lead and use the open mic. Looking back now, you can see how viral videos from the first few years after the purchase show a certain, well, uncertainty from users. Two of the most popular user-generated hits of 2007 were “Leave Britney Alone” and “Chocolate Rain,” both of which thrived on their weirdness, but also opened up larger questions about whether we were laughing with, or at, the subjects. In the social-media age, they would receive immensely more scrutiny than they did back then.
They did, however, usher in the heart and soul of YouTube. Between 2008 and 2010, people flocked to the network to see what it was all about, trusting that their peers around the world were crowdsourcing and moving the best of the best to the top. Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, and other feeds helped with the curation, but people were also beginning to visit YouTube, just clicking around, searching, and discovering for themselves, based on their own tastes and preferences.
Videomakers responded in kind. “Where the Hell Is Matt?,” “JK Wedding Dance,” “David After Dentist,” and “Bed Intruder Song” all opened up new entertainment forms that proved to work at least once and led others to try and test them until they were deemed unoriginal. During these years, people grew accustomed to the fact that every morning they’d have at least a handful of viral videos to sift through, all thanks to the magic of the Internet.
But the playing field changed in the years that followed, when late-night-show hosts, celebrities, fame-seekers, and, most notably, brands got into the game. The changes, in hindsight, can best be perceived through “Charlie Bit My Finger.” The video first found its way to YouTube in 2007, but didn’t get discovered and spread until two years later; and by 2011, Gerber saw an opportunity to promote its products. Take a look at the version Gerber remixed (which can’t be found today on YouTube) and how the baby-food company overlaid its message on the original.
This is the perfect example of what was happening during the clutter days of YouTube in 2011 and 2012, as everyone jumped in the pool. YouTube was reportedly working with hundreds of families that had risen to the top, pairing them off with brands to help the families cash in on their success and put some money away for the cute kids’ college tuitions. As always, once money entered the equation, the art suffered. The top viral videos of 2011 tell that story best.
Which brings us to the modern era of YouTube. Once increased promotion and a lack of authenticity began to turn up in and around viral videos, our cynicism went sky-high. It’s also led to improvements, though, as we behave more selectively about who we reward with a click and who we endorse with a share. Music videos and commercials dominate the space, but for marketers to get what they want, we require them to adhere to and accommodate the rules of the web. Do not demean or mock audiences while trying to get in on the latest trend.
The same principles for marketers exist online as offline. Laipply had a vision for what “Evolution of Dance” could do for his career long before YouTube rolled around. With the advent of the channel, he executed the next stage. He belonged there then. But as advertising and video marketing have transitioned in the digital age, a performance like Laipply’s feels novel by comparison. There’s room on YouTube for marketers today; they just have to better blend in with the rest of us.