An unfortunate re-telling of digital media history

Let me begin by saying that a recent lecture by Jawed Karim, the until recently silent founder of YouTube, is a great listen for anyone interested in how startups really start up. The talk involves are very well-spoken pursuit of the larger context in which YouTube (and online video sharing sites) rested, in an attempt to argue why the company succeeded. Alongside this macro view, is a good account of the iterative attempts by the team to figure out how to get people involved with the website. I think many would agree that a combination of good design, cunning, connections (can anyone say PayPal), culture, cash, copyright violations and luck were involved. Unfortunately, the lecture also engages a somewhat unfortunate re-telling of the history of digital media – specifically what we consider today to be “participatory culture.”

First, and foremost on the list is the claim that “Hot or Not” was the first website to which any user could post media. I reckon to anyone older than 26 this claim seems a bit off the mark. We shall accept that fact the Usenet is not a website, while at the same time remark that Usenet is a rather massive collection of user-submitted media dating back quite some time. And let us ignore as well the file-sharing realm, from Hotline to Napster to Kazaa to Limewire, since these are not websites. However, I think we would all agree that P2P applications enabled perhaps the largest aggregation of user-submitted and generated media.
A little site IUMA, back in 1994/1995 was accepting audio (specifically music) from pretty much anyone happy to submit. Then there was that little website called, and the collection of other sites (Audiogalaxy, dMusic,, etc) who all accepted music/audio from pretty much anyone. Let’s not forget the homepage phenomenon, and the fact that anyone who could use the tools could submit photos, text, audio and even video.

Second, is the apparent claim that video sharing websites did not really exist before 2004/2005. Again, not really true. There were a number of video sharing sites online from 1999-2001, including sites still around today like iFilm and Guba. In fact, if my dusty memory serves, I believe Odeo was originally a site for sharing user-generated videos back in the good ole days.

Finally… I don’t really have a finally. My point here was not to be snarky, but rather to make it clear that internet history is a rather rich phenomenon. Even Jawed comments that its unlikely that any idea is a new idea. Perhaps it really is just broadband penetration. South Korea and Japan have enjoyed video sharing sites for awhile, and both countries have seen broader access to high-bandwidth internet connections. Or Jawed’s attention to the higher-quality video encoding in shockwave seven.

Oddly, I think the domain name really stuck with people and became a source of habit. It would also seem that the submission and availability of copyrighted, but otherwise unaccessible material was important. That final point, as sad and empowering as it may seem, might actually be the major factor. As YouTube now focuses on cleaning out copyrighted content . Who knows.


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