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Why 2007 was the golden age of YouTube

Can the site every recapture its former glory? 

Storms and gales ravaged the UK. In room 552 of the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, JK Rowling finished writing the seventh – and final – Harry Potter book. Northern Rock began to fall. To mockery and derision, the logo for the London 2012 Olympics was unveiled. Tony Blair stood down; Gordon Brown stood up. The Bee Movie was released.

In many ways, 2007 was a remarkable year. (In many more ways, it wasn’t). Yet outside of the eye of the mainstream media, a true subculture was beginning to flourish. On YouTube.com – a simple white and grey website with a simple slogan, “Broadcast Yourself”, to match – people were first learning that they could make money by uploading videos to the internet.

“It was such an exciting and innocent time,” says Michael Buckley, whose YouTube channel was one of the first to make money on the site after being chosen for YouTube’s Partner Programme. In 2006, he began his show What the Buck? – in which he dissected celebrity gossip with unnerving rapidity – and became one of the site’s most popular entertainment channels in just five months.

“No one knew what YouTube was,” he tells me over email. “If you told people you were making videos online it sounded silly or pornographic. There was no thought of making money doing this. It was just a whole lot of fun.”

On 19 March 2007, the lives of Nyac and Milo changed forever. Previously just two sea otters bobbing along the calm waters of the Vancouver Aquarium, the pair transformed into overnight celebrities (though did, in fact, remain otters). A clip of them holding hands – oh my God, they’re holding hands!!1! – was uploaded to YouTube by a woman named Cynthia, five years after she had first filmed the footage. Within a fortnight, it had over a million views.

“What is that mysterious ticking noise?” The question was asked just four days later, in a now-iconic Potter Puppet Pals video that today has over 173 million views. Just a day shy of a month after this, Tay Zonday debuted the dark and deep tones of Chocolate Rain (**he moves away from the mic to breathe in). Exactly a month later, Charlie bit his little brother’s finger. Ouch Charlie! Ouch.

“I mean, I am an OG YouTuber!” answers Buckley when I ask him to confirm my theory that 2007 was YouTube’s golden age. “If I had an ego of course I would say yes 2007 was the golden age of YouTube and I was a huge part of it. However, I truly hope that the best is yet to be.”

Buckley is, perhaps, optimistic. 2007 wasn’t simply great for its viral videos (which also include Leave Britney Alone, Miss Teen USA 2007 - South Carolina Answers A Question, and the one and only Dramatic Chipmunk). It was great because of the very way in which these videos went viral.

Back in 2007, YouTube had a “Featured Videos” section on its homepage, where the site selected up-and-coming videos that it felt deserved to reach the masses. As well as “Featured”, there were categories such as “Most Viewed”, “Most Discussed”, and “Top Favourites” and they were structured in a way that truly meant anyone and their pet could go viral. Nowadays, YouTube only showcases “Trending” videos – which are almost always music videos or clips from late night chat shows. It is much harder for a newbie on the site to get exposure, and many rely on social networks like Facebook and Twitter to get noticed and shared.

“The biggest change for me definitely was when [these categories] went away,” says Buckley. “I got most my views because I was on the Most Subscribed List and had all my videos on the Most Discussed, Most Liked lists and the moment those were no longer there, it became much harder to find me on the site.”  

Nowhere was this aspect of YouTube’s golden age better illustrated than in the videos of Geriatric1927. A pensioner from Bakewell, Peter Oakley made videos about his past and present – from tales of serving as a mechanic in World War Two to updates about his life as a widower. In 2006, his channel became the most subscribed on YouTube. The sound quality was terrible, the picture often fuzzy, and Minecraft didn’t even exist. His videos are incredible, now and then - but would they reach the top today?

Oakley’s rise to fame illustrates the brilliance of YouTube at the time. Though the site is still home to many diverse voices, the most popular channels are currently the Vevo channels of singers and/or the channels of male gamers. “We were such a bright eyed motley crew of very different people from very different backgrounds having the time of our lives with no clear idea what was happening,” explains Buckley of the mid-Noughties. “It felt like a safe and inspiring place to share yourself with the world.”

There is no doubt, obviously, that in the last ten years the quality of YouTube videos has changed. The top YouTubers have agents, book deals, complex systems of lights, and – perhaps most importantly – millions of pounds. No one can begrudge them this, as their success also illustrates the beauty of YouTube. But the concept of “YouTube fame” has changed the dynamics of the site. Where previously people made videos for fun, now they make them for fame, popularity, and what Buckley calls “Pewdiepie money”. Algorithm changes even mean the already-YouTube-famous make videos based not on what they love, but on what will secure the most profit. In 2016, top YouTuber Pewdiepie revealed that creators automatically make more money if their video is over ten minutes long.  

“It feels very forced now. Everyone is trying really hard. Which is great but it is not easy to find someone who is just in it for the joy… The charm is gone,” says Buckley. He explains that he had to create hundreds of videos before being noticed, but now people want instant fame. This will only be exacerbated by YouTube’s recent decision to stop anyone with less than 10,000 views making money on the site.

YouTube is still undeniably brilliant. There are pimples to be popped, reaction videos to react to, and an abundance of things to literally and figuratively unbox. Buckley, now 41, has had his ups and downs on the site, but although he feels YouTube’s algorithms have affected him negatively over the years, he doesn’t blame the site for any of his “failures”. He now makes self-help and life-coaching videos, and even has a tattoo of the YouTube play button on his wrist.

Despite the ongoing brilliance of the site, though, it certainly feels like there are plenty of things to miss about 2007. When I ask Buckley what he misses, he notes that he lives in the present, and doesn’t really like to dwell too much.

“But yeah,” he writes, “I guess if I had to pick one thing I miss it would be the charm of it all.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.