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They Did What?: 

10 Years of YouTube: The Viral Videos That Defined A Decade

What was life like before YouTube? No really, what was it like? Because we’re genuinely struggling to remember.

While YouTube is only celebrating its 10th birthday this week, it feels as though we’ve been staring into its bottomless well of clips, content and cat videos for a whole lot longer. Apparently if you wanted to access any of those things before 2005 you’d have to either buy a cat, buy a video camera, or, at the very least, delve a lot deeper into the darkest depths of Google.

Feeling nostalgic? Us neither, but while we’re reminiscing, let’s take a minute to remember the viral videos that defined the YouTube decade.


Look, every website has to start somewhere. ‘Me At The Zoo’ might not make for riveting viewing in 2015, but as YouTube’s first ever video it holds a special place in both internet history and our hearts. Sadly, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim has never posted a follow-up, but we would love to hear his valuable insights on other zoo animals. The giraffe, for instance – we’ve heard it has a really, really, really long neck.


Gaming clips are still hugely popular on YouTube today – and still hugely serious too. Any time you need some light relief, just close your eyes and think of Leeroy Jenkins. In truth, this video works much better without any context whatsoever, but if you feel like losing the mystery then the legend of Leeroy was well documented back in 2007.


2007 was a huge year for YouTube, best remembered for early viral hits like ‘Dramatic chipmunk‘, ‘Chocolate Rain‘ and ‘Charlie bit my finger – again‘. Any one of those might have been our top video of 2007, but ‘Leave Britney Alone’ takes it for being a true sign of the times. It told us that we are the generation of user-generated content that, as well as remembering when people still said user-generated content, recorded our most embarrassing moments and uploaded them to the internet for public consumption.


First a confession: ‘rickrolling‘ actually first started on 4Chan in 2007, but it was a year later that the phenomenon really caught on. The meme is still massively (and annoyingly) popular, and was even responsible for partially reviving Rick Astley’s career. It’s not our favourite YouTube video from 2008 though – that would have to be this one.


Beating off competition from ‘David after dentist‘ (37 million views) and ‘JK wedding entrance dance‘ (33 million views), Susan Boyle’s X Factor audition was by far the most watched video of 2008. More than 128 million people watched it over the course of the year, proving that a good heart-warming story still has plenty of stock in the internet age.


‘This Too Shall Pass’ is not the most viewed music video on YouTube, but for a band the size of OK Go to reach nearly 50 million views is unheard of. Recognising the potential of YouTube early on, the band have built a career out of making memorable music videos and this is arguably their best.


One of the beautiful things about the internet is that not everything has to make sense. Nyan Cat has 117,724,270 views and counting.


Yes, Gangnam Style was robbed, but the most surprising success of the year was Kony 2012. Essentially a microcosm for the nature of viral video, within just a few weeks the politically-charged film had received 100 million views, was widely shared without hesitation, and then heavily criticised once we’d all had some time to reflect – cue a lot of backtracking and political fallout. Regardless of its intentions, for many, Kony 2012 was a lesson in think before you share.


The silly dance to end all silly dances. Once the Harlem Shake took off, there was very little that was going to stop it. They even called in the military at one point, but that proved just as futile.


If you were thinking that this brief history of YouTube was curiously short of animals (because cats = the internet, right?), then you’ll be pleased to learn that last year’s most watched video was Mutant Giant Spider Dog. That features two animals, in a way, and it racked up more than 132 million views.

BONUS: 2015

That brings us to the present day, and in just 10 years time we’ve gone from ‘Me at the zoo’ to an exclusive interview with the president of the United States. Imagine where we’ll be ten years from now?

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