The YouTube Gurus

How a couple of regular guys built a company that changed the way we see ourselves

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MICHAEL GRECCO FOR TIME

Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and hundreds of the videos that helped turn YouTube into a sensation.

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YouTube became a phenomenon in 2006 for many reasons, but one in particular: it was both easy and edgy, a rare combination. You can watch videos on the site without downloading any software or even registering. YouTube is to video browsing what a Wal-Mart Supercenter is to shopping: everything is there, and all you have to do is walk in the door. Want to see Mikhail Baryshnikov performing in Giselle in 1977? A user named "goldenidol" uploaded a clip in August. Want to see a sure-to-make-you-queasy video of a girl snorting a strand of cooked spaghetti and then choking it out her mouth? You're in luck: "asemoknyo" put that clip on YouTube last month. All it costs is a few moments away from whatever you're supposed to be doing on your computer--and who doesn't have 30 sec. to watch that priceless clip of Faith Hill mouthing "WHAT?" when she lost a Country Music Association Award this year? (That video has been viewed at least 6 million times.)

YouTube is a new kind of medium, but it's still mass. Your grandmother could use it (a search for "grandmother" on YouTube yields more than 1,800 videos). But because the site doesn't prescreen uploads--which is a lot cheaper for Chad and Steve than hiring a bunch of editors to police millions of users--it ends up hosting a lot of out-there stuff as well: obscure bands, tear-jerking video diaries, "dead dog tricks" (don't ask), a "German toilet" (please don't ask) ... The unmediated free-for-all encouraged the valuable notion that the site was grass-roots, community-run and--to use an overworked term--"viral." These are partial fictions, of course. YouTube controls the "Featured Videos" on its home page, which can dramatically popularize a posting that otherwise might fade. Also, the video in the top-right section of the home page is an advertisement, even though it doesn't always look like one. There's no porn on the site--overtly sexual material is flagged by users and removed by YouTube, usually very quickly. But there is an endless supply of kinda weird, kinda cool, kinda inspiring stuff there, which means you can waste hours on Chad and Steve's site.

That, in turn, means advertisers want to be on YouTube, which is why Google paid so much for it. If even, say, 10% of the $54 billion spent on TV advertising annually migrates to video sites like YouTube in the next few years, we will pity Chad and Steve for selling for a mere $1.65 billion. But for now, with YouTube still unproven--it has never made much money, and it could be crushed by lawsuits from content creators whose material shows up on the site without permission--the blockbuster acquisition price carries a whiff of the late-'90s Silicon Valley gold rush. It now falls to Chad, the CEO, and Steve, who runs the tech side, to prove that what they created with Karim will not become the next broadcast.com the video provider Yahoo! bought for $5.7 billion in 1999--and which now doesn't exist.

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