A Very Brief History of Web Video

From lonelygirl15 to billions of viewers

December 1995-January 1999

After seeing Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s short Spirit of Christmas, TV exec Brian Graden commissions a second video he distributes to friends on VHS. The video—and Graden—help Parker and Stone land a development deal at Comedy Central that gives rise to South Park. Soon the video starts turning up in unexpected places, notably as an AVI file on the PlayStation game Tiger Woods ’99. From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to bulletin boards and burnable CDs.

January 1997

Macromedia acquires Jonathan Gay’s startup FutureSplash and shortens the name to Flash. It becomes the standard for Web video, though Microsoft and Apple continue to use proprietary formats. Competitor RealNetworks suffers. Adobe buys Macromedia in 2005.

February 2005

Three former PayPal employees, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, start a video-sharing website enabling users to upload, share and view videos. They call it YouTube. Because of South Park’s popularity, it and plenty of material from other TV series become the most popular kind of content on the video portal (and fodder for a massive and ongoing lawsuit) since most users don’t have digital cameras to film their cats. Yet.

February 2006

Motorola releases the Razr MS500, the first version of the trendy phone to include a video camera. The innovation proves extremely popular—much to the chagrin of Seinfeld star Michael Richards, who the following November is filmed at L.A.’s Laugh Factory hurling ethnic slurs at hecklers.

June 2006

Vlogger “Bree,” who calls herself lonelygirl15 (pictured here), starts posting videos to YouTube about life as a teen, but then begins dropping hints about her family’s involvement in a cult-like organization. It’s a hoax (the producers go on to found social media marketing company EQAL), but viewers don’t seem to care. Lonelygirl15 runs for 547 episodes, and by November Law & Order: Criminal Intent airs an episode loosely based on her.

October 2006

Google purchases YouTube for $1.65 billion, “brushing aside copyright concerns to seize a starring role in the online video revolution,” according to the AP. The following March, Viacom files suit against Google, alleging “brazen” and “massive” copyright infringement. The suit is ongoing.

September 2007

Pew Research reports that broadband penetration in the U.S. hits 50 percent. Smartphone use skyrockets, too, with 50 percent of mobile users using their phones for email, up from 19 percent the previous year.

March 2008

Three major entertainment conglomerates form a distribution platform of their own: Hulu, which distributes content—all ad-supported—from Disney, NBCUniversal and News Corp. The site launches March 12, 2008. By 2010, it’s able to charge for the privilege.

February 2009

With the success of the streaming service it added in 2007, Netflx reaches 10 million subscribers, prompting it to reevaluate its business model. It starts gently nudging consumers toward the digital-only experience (which is much more cost-effective for Netflix) and by September 2011 decides to restructure so DVDs are sent out by a subsidiary called Qwikster and users are charged more for the same service. The plan goes over like a lead balloon, and Netflix abandons the Qwikster idea after a month. It still loses 800,000 subscribers.

June 2009

Apple releases the iPhone 3GS, the first version with native video capability. Previous iPhones could be hacked and modified to shoot video, but from this point on the feature comes standard.

June 2009-October 2011