Group 4

The golden age of YouTube

We fell down the rabbit hole of early YouTube, from the Brit Crew to Leave Britney Alone, to determine what made this era so special


Text: Rukiat Ashawe

These days, whenever we end up in a YouTube rabbit hole full of strange and obscure videos, we call it the ‘weird’ or ‘dark’ side of YouTube. But once upon a time, this was all our beloved video-sharing platform was, random vids uploaded by random people who were simply experimenting and having fun with a shiny new concept.

This era of YouTube is typically referred to as the ‘The Golden Age’, roughly spanning between the platform's inception in 2005 and 2012 when the concept of a YouTuber was officially a thing, with the so-called Brit Crew becoming the “the internet’s most famous friends” and a legion of beauty and lifestyle gurus like AndreasChoiceMichelle Phan and Jackie Aina taking centre stage and becoming major commercial successes.

But what made this era of YouTube so special? What made it golden? Well, when I think about the Golden Age of YouTube, I am instantly transported back to when I was in technology class in school and someone shouted, ‘Have you seen this new website called YouTube?’ We all rushed to the screen to get a glimpse of this peculiar site, laughing at the random and not-safe-for-students content before our school blocked us from accessing it (although we were pretty tech-savvy back then and used proxies to bypass the school rules).

This era was unique because what you encountered on the homepage and through the algorithm’s recommendations felt organic and mismatched, giving us Leave Britney Alone alongside Soulja Boy’s Crank That before it became a global hit and the Jenna Marbles classic How to trick people into believing you’re actually good looking. Although YouTube has always been a long-form video platform, prior to 2010, the video-length limit was 10 minutes. Creators posted short clips that would become the first video-based memes – think Charlie bit my finger or Miss Teen South Carolina fumbling through a question on stage — both of which are under one minute long. Sound familiar? Looking back, this “never know you’re gonna get” mode of discovery plus the short-and-snappy time limit is pretty similar to the secret recipe of TikTok’s success today. In a sense, the Golden Age was a predecessor to the terms of our present day attention economy.

From a creator perspective, even though the YouTube Partner program, which allowed creators to monetise their content, was launched in 2007, it was still the early days and there was no pressure to share professionally edited content with expensive equipment in order to cultivate an audience. Long time YouTuber Tiffany Ferg recently spoke about the woes of being a creator on the platform today, popular gaming creator CoryxKenshin called YouTube out for favouritism and racism in its review process, and many others have also pointed out the increasingly stifling nature of the platform’s community guidelines. 

While YouTube is still the second most visited website in the world, perhaps leaning back into what made us love it in the first place will help it emerge from post-TikTok limbo (most recently failing to fully deliver the rewards promised with its long-awaited Shorts revenue share program). YouTube’s slogan ‘Broadcast Yourself’, which used to accompany its logo on the site, perfectly encapsulates its Golden Age. It positioned YouTube as a platform with endless opportunities to showcase whatever you wanted. After a while it felt as if ‘Broadcast Yourself’ became ‘Market Yourself’ as the platform became more popular, and creators felt more pressure to please the algorithm, AdSense and their audiences.

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