YouTube created the creator economy

Its Partner Program paved the way for today’s multibillion dollar industry.

Koren Shadmi for Engadget

Nineteen years after Jawed Karim uploaded the very first YouTube video, the awkward, 19-second clip in front of San Diego Zoo’s elephant enclosure is memorable today only because of what it represents: the start of a multibillion-dollar juggernaut that defines so much of what it means to be an online creator.

Today, YouTube is the most dominant social media platform by a sizable margin, especially among teenagers. Its influence is so vast it feels almost impossible to define. The service has birthed thousands of memes and internet personalities. Its recommendation algorithm has been credited with supercharging bizarre trends and viral misinformation.

But one of the most powerful ways YouTube has wielded its influence is through its Partner Program. The revenue sharing arrangement has generated billions of dollars for its most popular users and helped define the multibillion-dollar industry we now call the creator economy. Today, there are dozens of platforms and business models for making money via content creation, but it’s difficult to imagine any of them existing without YouTube’s Partner Program.

While YouTube is hardly the only platform that has made becoming an online creator feel like a viable career path, it has played an outsized role in creating and fueling the industry. When Google first introduced the Partner Program in 2007, there weren’t many ways to make a living from online content. The blogging industry was well established, but online media dynamics were already shifting away from independently run operations in favor of established platforms and brands.

YouTube, on the other hand, was a rising upstart in online media. Google had acquired the video service in 2006, before it had ads or even a mobile app. And when it announced it would make some of its most popular creators “partners“ in its business, it promised some of Google’s ad money could flow directly to the people making content.

It would take several more years for the Partner Program to grow into the money-printing machine it is now. But the Partner Program arrived, in 2007, when there was a growing demand for online video. Between 2006 and 2009, the audience for online video doubled, according to Pew Research, and YouTube was the biggest beneficiary. By the fall of 2009, YouTube was seeing more than one billion views a day.

That same year, YouTube made another important change to its monetization policies. It decided to spread the wealth so any single viral video could be eligible for revenue sharing, even if the creator wasn’t a partner, affirming that YouTube was the place to make money from viral content. In 2012, the Partner Program officially opened to everyone, and by 2014 there were one million creators making money from YouTube, according to The New York Times.

The flood of creators looking for a payout (and the sometimes scammy tactics that drove them) eventually led YouTube to again tighten its requirement for partner status in 2017. But YouTube had already cemented itself as the platform for amateur creators to turn their videos into a steady income. Today, there are more than three million channels with partner status, and the company has paid creators more than $70 billion in the last three years alone.

Of course, creators starting out now have many options available besides YouTube. Nearly every social media app offers some kind of monetization opportunity, though few have generated anything close to the eye-popping eight-figure sums made by YouTube’s top talent.

Other companies' creator funds, in which all creators draw payouts from the same pool of money fronted by the platform, have been underwhelming. YouTube star Jimmy Donaldson, better known as Mr. Beast, regularly tops the lists of YouTube’s highest earners. In 2022, he shared that he was making less than $10,000 a year from TikTok’s creator fund. And other apps’ monetization features, like tipping, subscriptions and virtual gifts, are difficult to scale.

Unsurprisingly, the number of YouTube-made multimillionaires has drastically changed teens’ ideas for career paths. In 2005, the year YouTube came online, teens said their top career aspirations were to become teachers or doctors, according to a poll conducted by Gallup. By 2021, YouGov found becoming a YouTuber or streamer was the top aspiration for Gen Z. In 2023, Morning Consult reported that 57% of Gen Z would like to pursue a career as an online creator “if given the opportunity.”

Polls like this often prompt a lot of eye rolls and snarky headlines. But it’s never been easier or more lucrative to be an online creator. At least one university offers a major in content creation and social media. Whether we like the idea of influencing as a career path, the industry of independent streamers, vloggers, newsletter writers, podcast producers, VTubers and others is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.