Its founders offered women $20 each to upload videos of themselves to the fledgling site.
A decade ago today, Jawed Karim uploaded "Me at the zoo" to his brand new dating website, www.youtube.com. Yes, his dating website.
Karim's iconic trip to the zoo—the one where he stands in front of the elephants, what with their really, really, really long trunks—has become part of internet folklore. But, somehow, YouTube's original destiny, to be the best video dating website in all of the land, is rarely mentioned. It's been "rumored" and passed off as fact in one-liners in books, but Karim spoke at length about YouTube's origin story at his University of Illinois commencement speech back in 2007.
"We didn't even know how to describe our new product. To generate interest, we just said it was a new kind of dating site," Karim said. "We even had a slogan for it: Tune in, Hook up."
As a dating site, YouTube had very few users. It didn't give you the option to select videos—instead, it chose them at random. The server used to host the videos cost $100 a month. No one used it.
"We didn't have any videos. Realizing videos of anything would be better than no videos, I populated our new dating site with videos of 747s taking off and landing," Karim said. "The whole thing didn't make any sense. We were so desperate for some actual dating videos, whatever that even means, that we turned to the website any desperate person would turn to, Craigslist."
Karim and his cofounders, Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, took out ads on Craigslist in Las Vegas and Los Angeles in which they offered to pay women $20 to upload videos of themselves to the site. No one took them up on this offer.
"It didn't even matter. Our users were one step ahead of us," Karim said. "They began using YouTube to share videos of all kinds. Their dogs, vacations, anything. We found this very interesting. We said, 'Why not let the users define what YouTube is all about?' By June, we had completely revamped the website, making it more open and general. It worked."
Naturally, I found this video on YouTube (with an assist from our features editor, Brian Anderson, who happened to be at the commencement when it happened). Karim has long since left the site, which was bought by Google for what now is the laughable sum of $1.65 billion worth of Google stock.
On its 10th birthday, you don't really need me to tell you how important YouTube is or how it's changed the world; how it's arguably one of the top repositories of knowledge, primary sources, and, OK, idiots with a webcam the world has ever seen.
But I find it interesting that Karim has since deleted the videos of 747s taking off that he posted all those years ago. The Jawed channel is gone. The only one he left up, the only trace of Jawed on YouTube, is him at the zoo. Forgive me, but I guess it really is your tube now.
And that's pretty much all there is to say.
Brian Anderson contributed reporting to this story.