In 2016, there’s no question about YouTube’s place in the world. The streaming site is the go-to destination for music videos, comedy sketches, makeup tutorials, adorable pets, and any other video whim the internet has. But before it was so firmly entrenched in popular culture, YouTube had an entirely different aim: dating.
According to co-founder Steve Chen, who recently spoke at the 2016 South By Southwest conference, YouTube was initially conceived as a way for singles to upload videos of themselves talking about the future partner they hope to meet.
“We always thought there was something with video there, but what would be the actual practical application?” Chen said, according to CNET. “We thought dating would be the obvious choice.” Chen and his co-founders, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, launched a site with a simple slogan: Tune In, Hook Up. Five days later, not a single video had been uploaded.
In desperation, the team took matters into their own hands. “Realizing videos of anything would be better than no videos, I populated our new dating site with videos of 747s taking off and landing," Karim told Motherboard. They took out ads on Craigslist in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and offered to pay women $20 to upload videos of themselves to the site. Again, they came up short.
The co-founders made the decision to ditch the dating aspect entirely. Early adopters began using YouTube to share videos of all kinds - pets, vacations, performances, anything. YouTube took on a new meaning, got a physical makeover, and this time, it worked.
Although YouTube’s matchmaking element was a bust, it’s an interesting origin story that has inspired a small amount of superstition in its founders. Chen noted that they registered the domain name YouTube on February 14 - "Just three guys on Valentine's Day that had nothing to do," he said.
Today YouTube is hardly “nothing.” It was acquired by Google for a $1.65 billion in 2006. It has launched the careers of many stars, from Justin Bieber to Swedish gamer PewDiePie. The company is nothing short of an empire.
Chen now has a new project in the works. He was at SxSW with Vijay Karunamurthy, an early engineering manager at YouTube, in support of their new startup, Nom. The service describes itself as “a community for food lovers to create, share and watch their favorite stories in real-time.” The food-focused site, which lets chefs and foodies broadcast live video of their edible adventures, launched in March.