Nine years ago today, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim uploaded the very first video to his new site. It was an 18-second clip entitled “Me at the Zoo.” It’s a wholly unremarkable span of footage in which he points out that the elephants behind him have “really, really, really long trunks.”
Today, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Kids who grew up with the Internet recall particular YouTube videos the same way their parents fondly remember their favorite Saturday-morning cartoons. To pay tribute to the website, we honor the most influential YouTube stars of our time. Though they might not have much in common aside from the medium where they launched to fame, they’ve been united by the serendipity of Internet virality.
Be warned: Some of these videos contain adult language.
1. Nyan Cat
Nyan Cat is much more than just an adorable eight-bit animation of a kitty with a pop tart for its body. It is, in many ways, a monument to the ease of artistic collaboration on the Internet.
Its backstory goes like this: Illustrator Chris Torres posted the original animation of the cat on a comics website in 2011. After being passed around on Tumblr and turned into a full-blown animation, a lady posted it on YouTube set to a looping Japanese Vocaloid song called Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya. Within two weeks, the video had gained more than a million views.
Hardcore fans added their own variations of the character (including Rasta Hat and Toast Cat), uploaded 24-hour-long loops of the video, and uploaded reaction videos to the 24 hours of looping animation. At one point, YouTube developers even paid homage to the meme by giving the original Nyan Cat video its own customized progress bar.
2. Rick Astley
If Nyan Cat is a symbol of collective human creativity, Rick Astley’s 1987 music video “Never Gonna Give You Up” stands as evidence that the people online are out to get you.
Shortly after the first versions of this music video were uploaded onto YouTube in 2007, a trend called “Rickrolling” sprouted from an infamous Internet forum called 4Chan. Someone would share a link with a hidden URL promising one thing, and when the victim clicked, she’d instead land upon Astley’s YouTube video. (This was, of course, before the age of YouTube advertising.) Nothing like the old bait-and-switch.
To be Rickrolled back then was a coming-of-age ritual for every child of the Internet.
3. Dramatic Chipmunk
The name is self-explanatory: This six-second clip of an emotive rodent first surfaced on the Japanese TV Show Hello! Morning. It made its way to YouTube in June 2007, set to music from the 1974 film Young Frankenstein. The rest is history.
Though the popularity of charismatic animals is by no means a novelty on YouTube, Dramatic Chipmunk stands alone as the precursor to the now-omnipresent reaction GIF (an animated graphic that expresses an emotion). It’s also just. that. special.
4. Liam Kyle Sullivan, the OMG SHOES Guy
Though not the most sophisticated of the Internet comedian circuit, Liam Kyle Sullivan is probably the most memorable. The L.A.-based actor quickly became famous after uploading his bizarre four-minute production, OMG SHOES, in February 2007. Though low budget and lacking a plot, Sullivan’s portrayal of Kelly, a stereotypical American teenager, was mesmerizing.
So mesmerizing, in fact, that it earned a 2008 People’s Choice Award, solidifying YouTube as a medium of discovery for many a mediocre comedian.
5. The Double Rainbow Guy
No person has or will represent pure human awe and amazement better than Double Rainbow Guy, also known as Paul Vasquez. Vasquez recorded his candid reaction to seeing a double rainbow in Yosemite, Calif., in which he says “Whoaaa,” laughs, hoots, and eventually breaks into tears. At one point he even wonders aloud, “What does this mean?” Vasquez uploaded the video in January 2010, and it was eventually discovered by (who else?) Jimmy Kimmel.
Vasquez later said that he was not at all fazed by his sudden fame. “I’m not surprised by the attention,” he told Know Your Meme’s Internet scientist Elspeth Jane. “I always knew someday I was going to go viral. I knew when I shot the vid that it was special, it was a reaction to the Holy Spirit and people would react to my reaction. It’s as expected.”
Either that, or the collective Internet had already grown so cynical that it rejoiced at seeing a person so genuinely awed by such a simple natural occurrence.
6. The Man Who Edited This Interview Between Charlie Rose and Charlie Rose
In this video by filmmaker Andrew Filippone Jr., Charlie Rose interviews Charlie Rose about “the future of technology.” It starts off like any other program, but it soon deteriorates into a soup of sound bites and dramatic pauses, highlighting the sometimes-inane dialogue of talking heads on TV. Uploaded in March 2008, it earned critical acclaim from magazines like New York, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic. But more importantly, it paved the way for a new subgenre of sleight-of-hand YouTube videos that appear to seem serious, but in fact are slyly edited to contain ridiculous content (see Bad Lip Reading).
7. Responders to the Great “Ching Chong” Crisis of 2011
In March 2011, UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video entitled “Asians in the Library,” a casually racist rant in which she offered a glib impression of Chinese people, among other sweeping generalizations. Within hours, an angry Internet mob came at Wallace with figurative pitchforks, denouncing her viewpoint and circulating an embarrassing bikini photo shoot from her past. A day after it went up, Wallace sent a letter to the school’s newspaper apologizing and announcing her withdrawal from UCLA. Hundreds of people posted YouTube video responses (like the one above). Even the university’s president was pressured to join in the movement.
No matter how racist her screed, Wallace did not deserve to be harassed. But she stands as proof that no horrible YouTube video will go unnoticed, and in some cases offenders may be dragged into the spotlight and publicly shamed. All in a mere 24 hours.
8. Antoine Dodson
The world met Antoine Dodson by chance, when a terrible man sneaked into his home and attempted to rape his sister. A local news station sent a camera crew to investigate the story, and his sassy interview stole the show.
The video soon went viral. And that’s when some genius soul thought it appropriate to auto-tune and remix Dodson’s cameo. Within a few days, a new phase of YouTube history dominated by “Autotuning the News” was born.
9. Chris Crocker
File this one under “Viral Videos That Piggybacked on Other Viral Videos.” Chris Crocker posted a tearful response to Britney Spears’ much-discussed and admittedly horrible “comeback” at the 2007 MTV Music Awards. In the clip, he’s seen wearing smudged eyeliner, enclosed in a white sheet and pleading for his viewers to “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE.”
His response to this buzzy news item became a news item in itself, earning coverage on daytime television shows and many mainstream websites. The Crocker method of fame would eventually go very mainstream and give birth to viral sites like BuzzFeed.
Honorable mention goes to that kid who had a really hard time dealing with the drugs from the dentist. By my calculations, he’s about 12 now, and still has a lifetime ahead of him to accomplish something bigger than being the star of a YouTube video that’s been viewed 124 million times.