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What Is YouTube? A Comprehensive Guide to the Video-Sharing Giant

Published August 11, 2023

The popular video-sharing platform YouTube allows everyone to watch and upload videos for free. Though originally invented as a video dating site, YouTube quickly changed its policy and started allowing everyone to post videos of all kinds, as well as like, share, and comment on them.

But what is the secret of YouTube’s success? Most likely, a variety of content. The platform hosts 800 million videos, so it’s not difficult to imagine that everyone could find their niche. In addition, even TV show hosts post snippets of their programs on YouTube, realizing this medium’s power.

And considering that YouTube was launched back in 2005, it’s certainly not just a passing fad. The platform is here to stay, and, at least for now, there is no real competitor in sight.

YouTube’s Brief History

YouTube starting out as a small platform for sharing 30-second videos doesn’t come as much of a shock — all large platforms had to begin somewhere. What may surprise you, though, is that co-founders Steve Chen, Jawed Karim, and Chad Hurley originally wanted YouTube to be a video-dating platform. To find potential users who would upload videos of themselves on the website, they turned to Craigslist, seeking out primarily attractive women.

Unfortunately, not even the promise of a $100 reward for uploading was enough to gather interest, and the co-founders had to change their strategy. The new website, officially founded on February 14th, 2005, became a place to upload all kinds of videos — no longer limited to dating. Only two months later, co-founder Jawed Karim posted a video, “Me at the Zoo.” This 19-second video, now with over 268 million views, was the first-ever video uploaded to YouTube.

Since then, YouTube’s popularity rapidly grew, and it began hosting various content — from cat and meme clips to professionally shot music videos. Soon enough, a new profession was born on the platform, as video creators (YouTubers) started attracting larger audiences. Eventually, the initially small website with short-form content became a giant platform that essentially replaced television, at least among younger generations. Its features and interface have changed significantly over the years, but its purpose remains the same — to allow people worldwide to watch and share videos for free.

Key Facts About YouTube in 2023

Even eighteen years after its launch, YouTube remains one of the world’s most visited and most successful websites. Although it’s no longer the only available video-sharing platform, it still manages to keep the competition at bay, retain its loyal user base, and attract new watchers. That in itself is impressive, yet the full scale of YouTube’s success is best expressed in numbers:

  • YouTube has 2.68 billion active monthly users, and the number keeps increasing;
  • The video-sharing website is the second most popular social media platform, just behind Facebook;
  • There are over 114 million active YouTube channels;
  • YouTube generates almost $30 billion every year;
  • Approximately 2,500 videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which equals 183 hours of footage;
  • Between 25,000 and 30,000 channels have over one million subscribers, with seven channels reaching a 100 million milestone;
  • The most-watched video on YouTube is Baby Shark Dance, with over 12 billion views;
  • The top earner on YouTube is Jimmy Donaldson, better known as Mr. Beast, who reportedly makes over $54 million a year;
  • On average, a person spends 29 minutes and 37 seconds on YouTube per day;
  • The longest currently available video on YouTube is called 223 hours video.

YouTube’s Key Features in 2023

YouTube has been around for so long that it’s hard to imagine there are people who have never used it. Still, since its active number of users keeps growing month after month, some introductions are certainly in order. And even if you visit the platform daily, a little refresher on its key features won’t hurt. After all, the video-hosting giant regularly introduces tweaks and improvements to ensure the best possible user experience.

Video Uploading and Sharing

YouTube’s basic feature, first introduced in 2005, is still the cornerstone of the platform eighteen years later. Of course, it has evolved over time — YouTube introduced 5-minute and 10-minute upload limits soon after it was launched, only to remove them when long-form content gained popularity. Nowadays, new and unverified accounts can only upload up to 15 minutes of footage, while verified channels are typically limited to 12 hours.

To upload a video, you need to be signed in to your YouTube channel using your Google Account. Then, by clicking the Create icon next to your profile picture on the computer or tapping the plus icon in the bottom sidebar on your phone, you will access the Studio dashboard, allowing you to select and upload video files. Once uploaded, the videos can be further edited, trimmed, tweaked, and finally published.

In-Platform Editing

It’s no secret that successful YouTubers use third-party apps and programs to edit their videos before uploading them. After all, polished videos with high-quality audio and neat editing perform much better in all YouTube niches. And YouTube’s built-in editor doesn’t offer a range of features that professional software does.

Still, it’s worth noting that YouTube does, in fact, have an in-platform editor — a feature many casual users aren’t aware of. This editor is fairly simplistic, allowing the user to trim and cut the video, blur specific parts on screen, add music from a royalty-free library, and insert end screen and info cards. Sure, it doesn’t allow you to be creative with transitions, filters, and effects, but its basic features are perfect for a quick tweak of an already edited and uploaded video.

Choosing Your Audience

Now, don’t misunderstand – you can’t prevent certain groups of people from watching your video once it’s published. In essence, public videos on YouTube can be viewed by anyone who clicks on them unless they’ve been age-restricted. However, you can choose the size of the audience that can see your video by setting its visibility to ‘private,’ ‘unlisted,’ or ‘public.’

When your video is private, only you can see it — it doesn’t show up on your channel or in any search results. You can share it with selected people even when using this mode, but you need to manually invite them to the video by typing in their email addresses.

Unlisted videos are similar in that they also don’t appear in the search or on your channel. However, anyone with the link to your unlisted video can share it or add it to a public playlist. As a result, you have less control over your audience than when your video is set to private.

And finally, if you set the visibility to ‘public,’ everyone can find and view your video both on your channel and in search results. You have no control over the video’s sharing on other platforms, and people can interact with it in various ways. However, you can easily switch your video’s visibility to ‘private’ or ‘unlisted’ even after it has been published.

Like, Comment, Subscribe

There are plenty of ways you can interact with videos and creators as a viewer, all of which can be summed up in every YouTuber’s favorite catchphrase — like, comment, and subscribe. If you want to show support and increase engagement on a specific video, leaving a like or a comment goes a long way. You can, of course, leave a dislike as well, but it’s worth noting that the number of dislikes hasn’t been visible since 2021.

If you regularly watch content by the same YouTuber and want to see when they upload new videos, you can subscribe to their channel. All your subscriptions appear in a separate box, where you can easily click on them and see their recent uploads. Once you no longer want to be subscribed to someone, press the Unsubscribe button, and they’ll be gone.

And those who never want to miss a single upload from a specific creator can go a step further and click the bell icon next to the Subscribe button. As a result, you will be notified each time they upload a video, so you can be among the first people to watch it.

Live Streaming

YouTubers and viewers who enjoy interacting in real time will certainly love YouTube’s live-streaming feature. With only a few clicks, creators can go live and play games, answer questions, try different challenges, or count to 100,000. Once they start streaming, their subscribers receive a notification and can join the stream. Then, they can leave comments in the live chat and donate money to the YouTuber.

When the live session ends, you can choose whether you want to publish it, set its visibility to ‘private,’ or delete it entirely. If you decide to leave it on your channel, it will behave like any other video — viewers can rewatch it whenever they want, comment, and leave likes. For many YouTubers, this is an excellent way to garner additional engagement.

YouTube Shorts

For many years, YouTube’s focus was on long-form content. Hour-long playthroughs, video essays, deep dives, and podcasts were all the rage, perpetuated by the firm belief that 10-minute or longer videos had a higher chance of generating ad revenue. Even today, most content creators on YouTube strive to hit the magical 10-minute mark. However, with the birth of TikTok, YouTube’s policy has slightly changed.

In 2021, YouTube introduced YouTube Shorts, a section dedicated to short-form content typically found on TikTok. The videos in this section cannot be longer than 60 seconds, making them ideal for quick skits, short announcements, and brand promotions. To compete with TikTok and Instagram Reels, YouTube reportedly promotes Shorts heavily, causing many well-established creators to try out and occasionally use the feature. As of today, it works quite well but doesn’t have the versatility found on TikTok.

Although YouTube is less niche-oriented than, for instance, TikTok, there are still obvious genres of content on the platform. That becomes particularly evident once you watch a particular video — you’ll likely get many similar ones in the recommended tab. These videos belonging to the same genre make up YouTube communities, and we will introduce you to a few in the following section.

1. Gaming Community

Not too long ago, the general public was taken aback by the fact that gaming on YouTube is not only popular but can also make a decent living. Nowadays, though, this once small niche counts thousands of creators from across the globe who daily post their playthroughs or do live streams. Plus, one of the seven channels with over 100 million subscribers belongs to Pewdiepie, a YouTuber who started his career as a gamer. Clearly, the interest in gaming on YouTube doesn’t wane!

2. Beauty Community

When you need makeup tips and tutorials, where do you go? Nowadays, there are several options, but YouTube still offers the most comprehensive step-by-step guides. Whether you want to find out how to properly do a winged eyeliner or watch a talented creator paint their face like a canvas, it’s all just a few clicks away on YouTube. But we must warn you — the beauty community is known for drama, so don’t be surprised if you hear all the latest rumors while trying to learn how to apply eyeshadow!

3. Commentary Channels

Speaking about commentary channels isn’t easy since they belong to a broad and diverse category. On the one hand, there are commentary channels that talk about politics, current events, social issues, celebrity and YouTube drama, or any other topic they find interesting. However, many YouTubers who do book and film reactions and reviews also consider themselves commentary channels. Ultimately, the common aspect of all commentary channels is that they use the platform to express their opinions on various topics.

4. Vloggers

How can watching a person go about their daily life be interesting to anyone? That’s a hard question to answer, but there’s no doubt millions of people across the globe love this kind of content. You don’t have to live a particularly exciting life or travel every month to a new country to become a vlogger. In fact, it’s enough to turn on the camera and be relatable or entertaining. That may sound easy, but not everyone can draw in audiences just by living their life like Emma Chamberlain. It takes some skill to do that!

Broadcast Yourself on YouTube

For a social media platform, eighteen years is a long time, and it’s impressive that YouTube not only survived for that long but also grew its influence. Even with numerous competitors on the market, it seems unlikely that any video-sharing platform will overtake YouTube any time soon. And if nothing changes, we see YouTube celebrating many more birthdays and giving birth to countless new creators, communities, and trends.

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Written By:
Jessica is a writer who specializes in social media, marketing, and digital strategy. She is a graduate of Antioch College and earned her MBA at Boston College’s Carroll Graduate School of Management, specializing in STEM Management. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals and mainstream publications. She lives in New England with her husband, two children, and three dogs.
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