Meet Jawed Karim. I'll give you more information about him right after this very brief documentary. For now all you need to know is that on April 23, 2005, he uploaded to YouTube its first video, titled "Me at the zoo":
Though I've since found out that this is probably the most famous YouTube video of all time, I was unaware of its existence until a week ago. Of course I've heard of YouTube, which regularly supplies this blog with its moving pictures, but never gave much thought to its origins. Not knowing anything about this video when I first saw it other than that it was the first, I assumed that young man was still in high school when it was created. I mean, he looks and even sounds like a teenager, doesn't he? In fact, Jawed Karim was 25 at the time. Admittedly, that's not too long after high school, but shouldn't he at least have, I don't know, a five o'clock shadow or something? Noting the contrast between his thoroughly Americanized speaking style and--I hope this doesn't come across as too xenophobic--foreign-sounding name, I figured he must be a first-generation American. As a matter of fact, he's a naturalized American citizen, born in a country then known as East Germany to a Bangladeshi father and German mother. Not too long after he moved with his family from East Germany to West Germany. When he was about 13, he and his family emigrated to the United States, settling in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he graduated from high school. English, then, is not his first language, as he would have spent much of his growing up years speaking either German or Bengali, though I detect no trace of an accent, evidence of the transcendent, multicultural power of the phrase "that's cool".
9, 868,404? That was years ago. It's now up to 161,518,949. There are 11,118,151 comments, and a few of the comments themselves have many comments. For instance, the comment, "I learned more about elephants in this video than I did in 12 years of school" has 500 replies (one of which is "Not even school can tell you whether they're long or not 😔.") Then there's the thumb up/thumb down. 182 thousand viewers didn't like the video. That's a lot of people, but it's dwarfed by the 7.5 million who did like it. As for subscriptions to his YouTube channel, "jawed", they're at 1.82 million. Certainly not everybody but I imagine at least some of those subscribers have been waiting for the full 16 years for Karim to post an encore video, whereas there's one subscriber that I know of--me!--who's been waiting a whole week. Don't fret. I'm patient. In the meantime, I have to ask, how did he come to post that 16 year old video in the first place? Did he answer a help wanted ad placed in the newspaper? Or, more appropriately, in the Wired classifieds?
In a sense, it turns out that he was the one doing the advertising. Jared Karim cofounded YouTube with Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. The three twentysomething males met while working at PayPal, an online money transfer company, a kind of digital age version of Western Union. PayPal was acquired by eBay in 2002. The story then gets a bit hazy, but Karim, Hurley, and Chen seems to have been bought out as a result of the acquisition, and with their newfound riches (which were nothing compared to riches yet to come) decided to form their own company. How did they happen upon video sharing? Stores vary, from Hurley and Chen wanting to start an online dating service specifically focusing on attractive women to Karim frustrated that he couldn't find Janet Jackson's infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction online (I guess I should emphasize that these were three twentysomething heterosexual males.) Whatever its inspiration, YouTube was founded on February 14, 2005 (though not as an online dating service after all,, despite it being Valentine's Day.) By mid-April, the three techies had worked out all the bugs, and that's when Karim uploaded his video. So his primary motivation wasn't to be the next Lester Holt or Anderson Cooper, but just to have content for his own website. His video might encourage others to use the service. And so it did. Within a year, 65,000 videos--a mixture of DIY, as was Karim's, and third-party, i.e., movie and TV clips--were being uploaded every day, and the site was receiving 100 million views a day. That's a lot of supply and demand.
I doubt if artistic considerations (or the rules of title capitalization) were uppermost in Jawed Karim's mind when he and a friend (the guy holding the camera) put together "Me at the zoo," but can we regard it as art anyway, or is it just an audio-visual post-it note, with a computer screen in place of a refrigerator? And if it's not art, why is the video so popular? Well, I didn't read all 11,118,151 comments, but the 20 or so that I did skim through would indicate that much of it has to do with simple curiosity. "2021, time to watch the first video on YouTube", as someone named Lonely Sandwich puts it. Obviously, if that video debuted today, it would be less of a sensation, and the San Diego Zoo would find little reason to feel honored. Some naysayers feel the video is of substandard quality. Well, in my opinion, it's substandard in the same way that Gertie the Dinosaur (the first widely-seen animated cartoon), the Model T Ford (the first affordable automobile) and Pong (the first video game) are substandard. Immensely popular in their respective days, those things would be met with a shrug at best were they being introduced for the very first time in 2021. What one has to do is stop obsessing about all the innovations that have since come down the pike, and accept a famous first on its own terms. Do that and the appeal becomes immediately apparent, it becomes fresh again, the sense of promise is once more there. Karim's low-key, tongue-in-cheek approach fit perfectly with the experimental nature of early YouTube. While it's no The Wizard of Oz, I personally got a kick out of "Me at the zoo" and laughed out loud when Karim concluded by wryly saying, "...and that's pretty much all there is to say." Why not laugh? I truly believe he meant to end it on a humorous note. And finally, it is cool that elephants have such long trunks. If you don't believe me, then go to the zoo and see for yourself!