Things on YouTube could be better. Current challenges include: Videos that display kids’ cartoon characters doing disturbing stuff, fake views to bolster monetization, conspiracy theories and fake science thriving on the site’s algorithm, and racist prompts in the search bar. But these problems didn’t come out of nowhere. As illustrated by a series of charts of the site’s most viewed videos at different points in time, imgur user davidjl123 shows that money has driven people on YouTube to take advantage of the site’s search algorithms and monetization methods since its launch back in February 2005, such that the most popular videos were never actually popular in earnest.
Ten months after launching, the most-viewed video was, depressingly, just an advertisement for Nike. However, the remainder of the top nine videos were “Hey clip” and “WOW meets Porn,” both fan-made satire of music videos. “I/O Brush” and “Man dancing” marked some of the earliest versions of YouTube comedy.
Late 2006 marked the upload of “Evolution of Dance,” making user judsonlaipply the most viewed and subscribed channel on the site. At this point, all of the top content on the site was still viral videos created by regular users. It was a simpler time.
In late 2007, Evolution of Dance (of course) remained in the top slot. But 2007 also marks the year YouTube rolled out “InVideo” ads, or ads that appear at the bottom of a video. Ever since, the vast majority of the site’s top-viewed videos have been music videos as artists turned to the platform.
2008 marked the emergence of a still-major problem on Youtube: view manipulation. “Panda Disculpa los Malos Pensamientos,” “Cut Chemist,” “YouTube Worst Video of All Time,” and “XXX Porn XXX” all took advantage of viewbots in order to boost their numbers, and by extension their prevalence on the site. 2008 also marks the year YouTube introduced “Insight,” now known as just “Analytics,” which gave content creators access to viewer data sorted by factors like date, time, and location.
After YouTube mobile traffic tripled in 2010, the site introduced mobile ads. By 2011, “Charlie bit my finger” was briefly the most viewed video on the site before being surpassed by two cultural forces of nature: “Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Gangnam Style” by PSY—both of which surpassed one billion views.
This is the most-viewed landscape of YouTube today: All music videos curated by multi-million dollar record labels that can afford the partnerships, advertisements, and production that can garner several billion views. The rest of the graphs of most popular videos by year is hosted here.