May 12, 2010— -- It's a whole new world. One where a Canadian mom can post videos of her son, Justin Bieber, singing and turn him into a teen idol. One where the cell-phone video of a 26-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, shot dead at an Iranian protest can become the face of an uprising.
It's a world where a politician finds that loose lips ... make viral clips. (When Republican Sen. George Allen was caught on camera making an alleged racial slur, his 2006 reelection campaign never recovered.)
Twelve-year-old Greyson Michael Chance is the latest to find fame. His rendition of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" from a middle school concert has jumped from 40,000 hits to over a million overnight.
It all wasn't possible before YouTube, the popular video-sharing site where clips get passed around to millions of people far and wide. Late last year, there were a billion video views on YouTube per day and the site is only reaching its fifth birthday.
That's right. Five years ago none of it existed. When the start-up launched in May 2005, it was housed above a pizza parlor. Google bought it in 2006 for $1.65 billion and now YouTube has a global headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., where management caters to hundreds of millions of users worldwide.
"Twenty-four hours of video [are] uploaded every minute," said Hunter Walk, director of product management. "In just the time we have been talking, we have multiple days of new video on the site."
That's simply astounding. But even more so is how this place works as a business. It's like a restaurant where customers cook the food for other customers -- and pay for the ingredients -- because all the video is our own home movies, our musical parodies, our stupid stunts.
As one of the founders and CEO Chad Hurley told me, YouTube makes the tools but the human race provides the content.
"We didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "We just knew that we wanted to create a site that we would enjoy and others would enjoy and the fact that people have the chance to do that kind of tells us something."
Users Take 'Broadcast Yourself' to Extreme
Users have seized the promise of YouTube. You can indeed "broadcast yourself," as the slogan goes, to hundreds of millions. The little guy didn't remotely have a chance before and now the site has given many their chance to glimpse fame and fortune.
Meet Ryan Hige, a high school student in Hawaii who started posting his comedy shtick on YouTube. With more than 2.2 million subscribers -- way bigger than the audience of Comedy Central's Jon Stuart -- his YouTube channel is the most subscribed of all time.
There's also endless room for ambition. I type in "how to make sourdough bread" and not only are their dozens of people already posting their methods, some of these folks are doing the full-time Julia Childs thing, posting full-blown, produced cooking shows of their craft. (By the way, the bread turned out fine.)
You've also got teachers like Sal Khan, who runs math, physics, biology, chemistry and economics classes on YouTube. As part of a partner program, he can run ads on his catalogue of more than 1,000 videos, which he says brings in about $2,000 a month. YouTube gets a cut, too.
"I quit my career to do this," Khan said. "I think this is a huge social return on investment. The cost of producing these videos and having it up there is lower than supporting a small rural one house schoolhouse. It's a ridiculously small cost where you can educate the world."
Nebraska teen Lucas Cruikshank, who began portraying fictional character Fred Figglehorn -- a 6-year-old with a high-pitched voice -- is said to be making $1 million on ads on his popular YouTube channel. (His YouTube channel was one of the first to cross the one-million-subscriber mark.)
There's also something priceless YouTube has done. Consider the video "Dramatic Chipmunk 6." It's only six seconds long but more than 20 million people have watched it. Why? It's a viral phenomenon.
The same holds for the keyboard cat, the infectious refrain "Charlie Bit Me," or Susan Boyle, whose YouTube audience was vastly larger than the British TV audience that discovered her. That's big and, to think, it's only been five years. That's some short history of making history.