YouTube is the largest online space for video sharing in history—and it continues to grow and develop as a major provider of information, sharing, and storage. New data confirms that there are now more than 2,000 YouTube channels that have a minimum of 1 million subscribers each. The video sharing site has become a juggernaut, showing no signs of slowing down.
YouTube was established in February 2005 by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim as a platform for individuals to share home videos and other audiovisual work with a larger online audience. It didn’t take long for Google to notice the immediate popularity of the system, and it bought the California-based company a year and a half later for $1.65 billion.
According to the company’s official information, YouTube has more than 1 billion unique users—almost one-third of the planet’s population that is on the internet—and 40% of this traffic comes from mobile devices. Every minute, about 100 hours of video is uploaded. And more than 80% of YouTube’s traffic comes from outside the U.S. The service is localized in 88 countries and in 76 languages, which covers an estimated 95% of the world’s internet population. Currently, YouTube is the third most visited site online, just behind Google and Facebook.
The Birth of a Titan
As YouTube settled into the basic configuration it still uses today, it offered many key features that were appealing to users and have helped lead to its position of dominance in the digital video domain. One of the most important factors in YouTube’s success came from reimagining the site’s concept from a website for personal video storage and sharing to a platform for social expression. This positioned YouTube at the epicenter of the user-led revolution in the emerging Web 2.0 environment. YouTube was also first to develop key features such as video recommendations, email links for easy sharing, an embeddable video player, and commenting and other social features. It provided users with a toolset for multiple roles in the digital video environment, incorporating a high-volume website, a broadcast platform, a media archive, and a social network.
Offering shared advertising revenue to users and making ongoing investments in R&D has allowed YouTube to keep abreast of changing technology, user interests, and internet trends. The research it has amassed on user activity and online commercial placement has allowed the company to respond quickly to emerging trends and opportunities. In 2010, YouTube introduced TrueView in-stream advertising, allowing viewers to skip ads and directly access a video.
YouTube remains the premier video sharing website. But its continued and rapid growth makes keeping up with usage statistics difficult. comScore finds that “Google Sites, driven primarily by video viewing at YouTube.com, ranked as the top online video content property in February  with 182.2 million unique viewers. Facebook ranked #2 with 81.1 million viewers, followed by Yahoo Sites with 58.2 million, BroadbandTV with 45.3 million and VEVO with 44.2 million.”
Channels and Politics
Organizations, individuals, or corporations can create their own channel on YouTube, and individual users can sign in to subscribe to the channels that they choose. In the subject area of “university,” more than 1 million channels are available. More than 900,000 are available under the search term “cancer,” and more than 600,000 are available under “Obama.” Today, nearly 11.5 million people have subscribed to at least one channel in the system. The number of channels earning six figures per year on YouTube increases 50% annually.
YouTube emerged as a significant force in the U.S. political scene in 2006, when a video featuring a racial gaffe by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) was uploaded to the site. The video quickly gained momentum as both online and mainstream media outlets picked up the story. The ability for this political misstep to reach hundreds of thousands of viewers and attract the attention of the mainstream media was new to the political scene and signaled the emerging political power of YouTube.
The YouTube Politics Channel, which launched in October 2011, served as a hub for political videos, campaign messages, debates, news broadcasts, and parodies during the 2012 presidential campaign. Its various features provided analytical data for assessing candidates’ popularity, methods for tracking the latest political videos, opportunities to connect with candidates’ personal YouTube channels, and platforms for users to communicate their opinions of campaigns and candidates. The Politics Channel used the flexibility of the online environment to continually adapt content and maintain the channel’s relevance throughout the election cycle.
A 2012 Washington Post report noted that a disproportionate share of YouTube’s most popular programs feature minorities, in contrast with shows on mainstream media. Pew Research Center reports that YouTube has helped to develop the field of citizen journalism, which meets many needs for in-depth news coverage.
Ongoing Change and Innovation
University of Tampere professor Sanna Malinen describes YouTube’s community as “people interacting socially and sharing a purpose, of policies to guide the interactions, and of computer systems to facilitate the sense of togetherness.” YouTube is a good example of a thriving online community that is dependent on user-generated content to provide feedback, recruit new members, and strengthen relationships and participation.
The openness of the platform allows for a full range of video sharing, whether the content is professionally developed or home-brewed by amateurs. These categories of content can “co-exist and collide, but do not really converge,” according to YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Not that copyright hasn’t been an ongoing issue—recently, Taylor Swift and others signed a letter to Congress asking for a reform to the law that lets YouTube host unauthorized videos.