Over a year ago, on March 10, 2016, I’ve posted an entry regarding the timeline of YouTube’s #1 most watched videos of all time. In that entry, I referred to a relative lack of sources for early periods, and to a slight uncertainty regarding crossover dates for later periods.
Such sources have since been found (quite surprisingly for me); so, as promised in the original post, here’s an updated version, now with several more video descriptions!
(I’ve actually been working on this updated version since the summer of 2016, so it’s well overdue; sorry.)
Thanks to /r/videos for (indirectly) referring me to a bunch of early 2006 articles on most viewed videos (and some details on a few of those videos), and to MattStan10 for his incredible Google spreadsheet (I’m assuming it’s his – please comment if you know of a different origin for it) and for (also indirectly) reminding me that early video pages specifically listed the all-time rank (I have no idea how I missed that originally).
In the meantime, a separate version of the #1 timeline, based on said spreadsheet, had appeared on Wikipedia (and, a few weeks ago, had even been fixed into something actually resembling correct shape).
It appears fairly likely that, with some caveats (as mostly described below), the following list is indeed the actual true progression of YouTube’s #1 most watched videos from circa October 28, 2005 to the present day (and perhaps even a little into the future).
If there were any #1 videos in said period that do not appear in this list, they must have only held the top position for a few days or less, and it might be entirely impossible to find any proof of such today (if anyone has any information either on any such videos, or on records prior to October 28, 2005, please comment).
Anyway, the list…
What: Me at the zoo, by “jawed”
When: late April 2005?
How many views: the first few
As the first public video uploaded to YouTube, this was presumably the most viewed for the first few days of its existence (i.e. the last few days of April 2005).
It probably wasn’t viewed very much in its early days; eventually, as YouTube became more famous, this video gained some notoriety as YouTube’s first, and is now the sixth most viewed video uploaded in 2005, with 38 million views.
Don’t look for the first five on this list, though; and in fact you won’t see any of the #1 most viewed videos of any other year on this list either until way down at number 15 (though everything after that is #1 of its year). History is fickle, and many of the old records have long since been overshadowed today.
For somewhat obvious reasons (not a lot of archived copies), just about nothing is known about what happened to the records in May, June and July of 2005; there wouldn’t have been anything in August either (and indeed there’s pretty much nothing else for September and most of October), if not for a single blip in the sea of ignorance, described below…
What: “Money, get a way!”, by “DeKku”
When: early August 2005?
How many views: ca. 127 thousand?
The video listed as #3 below – the true oldest attested record – is attested as the 3rd most viewed a few days prior to its brief top placement in late October 2005.
There is not enough evidence to say 3rd after what, and there’s almost enough evidence to say (or at least highly suspect) that at least one of those two videos had probably been deleted (or otherwise removed from the running) soon after. This video had certainly not been one of them (having had less than 200 thousand views on November 2, 2005); no, it appears here for a different reason entirely.
Said reason being, that it is attested on August 9, 2005, with 127,030 views.
Now, August 9, 2005 is crazy early in YouTube history. It’s not only before the official launch, it’s actually prior to any news appearances (that I’m aware of, anyway); even the original Slashdot appearance (that probably significantly expanded YouTube’s popularity) happened a few days later.
Which obviously means that any video that somehow managed to rack up 127 thousand views before that must have been insanely popular. (Or helped by a bot, I don’t know, it’s probably impossible to say a decade later.)
Either way, I feel comfortable enough putting this video in this list; just remember that it is the only listed video (aside from the two “future” entries, obviously) that is not actually conclusively attested as the most viewed, and might theoretically have never held that spot in reality.
DeKku, the video’s original uploader, had started a blog about videos sometime later in August 2005; after some moves to other domains, said blog is now known as No Fat Clips, and was last updated in 2012. There appears to be nothing about this particular video on it, however.
What: “I/O Brush”, by “iarfus”
When: the last few days of October 2005
How many views: ca. 220-260 thousand
No, I have no idea how anyone managed to find and check this video originally; my reference for it comes from the above-mentioned Google spreadsheet.
As explained in more detail in the original uploader’s extensive comment, the name “I/O brush”, presumably short for “input/output brush”, refers to a kind of digital painting device produced by a team at MIT. The original video, which had since been deleted from YouTube, was presumably some kind of presentation video for said device, with the song “S’il Vous Plait” by the band Fantastic Plastic Machine as the background (note: I have never heard of this song, or this band, before).
I highly suspect that this video, uploaded in 2007, contains the same info (with perhaps the same song). Or you can watch a more certainly original version on the Internet Archive.
It was actually rather common in the first few years of YouTube to use random songs as background sound to a video when there would not have been much sound otherwise. Due to the stricter copyright practices of the 2010s, this had become somewhat less common today (and due to an apparent review of the copyright enforcement methods in the mid-2010s, many of those that still remain are now silent).
What: “Ronaldinho: Touch of Gold”, by “Nikesoccer”
When: Oct 31, 2005 – Jan 8, 2006, give or take a day (but see below under #5 and #8)
How many views: ca. 0.26-2.3 million
Yes, this is the Nike commercial. (Perhaps the official version, judging by the uploader.) Yes, this is the video that was the first to reach a million views. Yes, this is the video that would, most likely, have held the record for most views of all time on the day of YouTube’s official launch (December 15, 2005) – though (see below) someone who opened said tab on that day might have thought differently.
The transition from the previous video to this one is perhaps the flimsiest point in this entire timeline (aside from the known gaps, obviously). Pretty much the only proof we have is the previous video being attested as #2 as of Oct 31, 2005. But #2 after what? This one, says MattStan10, citing a lucky Wayback Machine attestation from Nov 2; but there simply aren’t many other sources for early November 2005 (in particular, no other definite archive versions of this video until Nov 25). In principle, it’s perfectly possible that some other video took the top spot sometime in November.
I’m not really sure what else to say about it. Even a link to a current version of this video would really be redundant (you will soon see why).
What: Cross Bar, by “joeB”
When: Dec 10-20, 2005 (perhaps a day or two more)
How many views: ca. 1.06-1.13 million
The consistent #2 most viewed from late November to late December 2005, this video randomly jumps to #1 for a few days in December – apparently because the video above briefly dropped out of the running (contemporary archive pages of the above video don’t show any rank at all). As it happens, those few days included the official YouTube launch date. No, I do not know what was going on. Yes, I’m pretty certain the view count of the other video was higher.
This is, in fact, the exact same Nike commercial as the above; and this is why linking to a current version of the previous video would have been redundant – this one is already a current version, as, unlike both of the above, this video is still viewable today!
(The next two videos on this list that are still viewable are #10 and #14; there are no missing ones after that, however.)
The current existence of this video led it to appear in at least one list of “most viewed videos uploaded by year”. (For the record, no, it’s only the 19th most viewed remaining video from 2005.) It was not, however, the reason for its appearance in my previous entry – that was purely Wayback Machine territory.
What: “SNL – The Chronic of Narnia Rap”, by “youtubedude”
When: Jan 9 – ca. Jan 21, 2006
How many views: ca. 2.3-3.5 million
I’m actually surprised that this one was missed by the Google spreadsheet; I pretty much checked it on a whim.
(And in fact eventually the spreadsheet author found it too, so it does appear in the version you would see today.)
I listed it under the rather long-winded title that it was actually listed as; but the YouTube historians (if there are any) are much more likely to know it by a completely different name – Lazy Sunday. (It is by this name, of uncertain origin, that it is occasionally mentioned as a significant reason for YouTube’s acquisition by Google. No, don’t ask, I don’t understand that either.)
This video was rather infamously deleted in one of YouTube’s earliest copyright-related crackdowns, on February 17, 2006. However, regardless of what the articles say, it was (almost certainly) not, in fact, the most viewed video by then; no, that title went to another…
What: “Jay Leno Phony Photo Booth”, by “mugenized”
When: ca. Jan 21 – Feb 17, 2006
How many views: ca. 3.5-5.5+ million
So apparently the Tonight Show with Jay Leno made some funny episode involving a photo booth, and that episode became insanely popular.
Like, insanely popular enough to end up with more views than even Lazy Sunday.
Okay, apparently it wasn’t a single funny episode; it became a regular feature under Kira Soltanovich (no, I have never heard of that name before either). This means that it would be pretty hard to figure out whether any references to the “Jay Leno Phony Photo Booth” are to the December 2005 one or to some other.
In any case, that video was apparently also deleted in the February 17 crackdown (for the purposes of this timeline, I’m treating the two deletions as simultaneous, because there’s no way we could possibly find out which was earlier – if any). As such, the #1 most viewed (“of all time”, ha ha) title went – probably (see below for the caveat) – to the next video on the list…
What: Myspace: THE MOVIE!, by David Lehre (note: uploaded by “eggtea”, who is not David Lehre)
When: Feb 18? – ca. Mar 12, 2006
How many views: ca. 2.7-4.3 million
Apparently a movie that parodies the (then still popular) social networking website MySpace. Might or might not have led to its demise. (I’m kidding, it probably didn’t.)
You might have noticed that this says Feb 18, not 17. We do not actually have data from Feb 17 – but a simple fit of the existing data would indicate that this video passed Touch of Gold (#4 above) sometime in the morning of Feb 18 (or perhaps the very late evening of the 17th).
This means that – yes – Touch of Gold was probably briefly #1 most viewed for the next few hours after the crackdown (which is fairly securely dated to Feb 17). There is no definite proof, however, and it is possible that the biggest surge happened earlier.
(The spreadsheet author decided to avoid the whole issue by dating the crackdown to Feb 18, without apparently backing this up by any actual data. Even so, it’s still very close.)
Then again, an article from February 24, 2006 – perhaps the first journal article directly referencing YouTube’s most viewed videos – seems to describe the previous video as still being the top most viewed on the 24th, a week after the crackdown. Though, to be fair, it’s not clear, given the next paragraph, that whoever wrote the article didn’t just miss the news about the crackdown until the article was nearly written already.
(It does make sense that the videos were both deleted in the same crackdown if they featured shows from the same network – I didn’t know enough about American shows to catch that directly.)
What: Pokemon Theme Music Video, by Smosh
When: ca. Mar 12 – sometime mid-May, 2006
How many views: ca. 4.3-10+ million
By this point there was quite a bit of news coverage of YouTube; there’s a rather comprehensive article from April 3, 2006 about what was then the several most viewed videos. It mentions this video and the video above as the first and third most viewed, in that order. (The second video on that list had apparently never made it to the top position.)
In my old post, I said nothing about this video (except that it was, eventually, deleted for copyright-related reasons), because I had no idea whoever Smosh was or why did they make a Pokemon video. In this version of the post… I’m also not really sure what to say, because the two linked articles explain it better.
Apparently (as also mentioned in the Wikipedia article), this is a semi-official reupload of the original video. Meanwhile, this is an official reaction video to the copyright takedown.
This video (and #6 before it) are perhaps the first witnesses to the trend that dominates YouTube to this day – the most popular videos tend to be music videos. In fact, out of the entire following list, only one video is not a music video (while the other 9 are).
Smosh continued to enjoy popularity on YouTube; their channel again became the most subscribed in 2007-08, and yet again for a few months in 2013. (And it has only gone down to 8th as of today.) None of their videos had ever reached the #1 most viewed spot again, however.
What: Evolution of Dance, by Judson Laipply
When: sometime mid-May 2006 – Oct 25, 2009 (but see below under #11, #12 and #13)
How many views: ca. 10-130 million
The previous videos on the list had all been brief wonders, none holding the top spot for more than three months (whether in a row, or cumulatively). However, Evolution of Dance had become a real YouTube sensation, having held the top spot for nearly three years (of which almost two were in a row).
Just as #9 above, this is a music video. And, like #5 above and #14-19 below – but no other videos on the list – it is, surprisingly, still viewable today.
Unfortunately, its rise was apparently so quick and unnoticed that it’s hard to say when exactly it became the most viewed; best I could guess is mid-May.
Not much else to comment on, sorry. (Might update this later.)
What: [long NSFW title snipped], by “CLARUSBARTEL72”
When: ca. Feb 29 – Mar 15, 2008
How many views: ca. 76-114 million
I’m not including much description of this song, because its title is not quite safe for work (an earlier draft claimed that the uploader name is NSFW as well; in fact it is not). If you want you could google it (or just check the Wikipedia list, which has the full title).
It was heavily suspected, not without reason, that this video’s view count was manipulated by bots. It’s probably hard to say either way nine years later (the uploader, a fan of the song, heavily denied any involvement, but the bots might well have been acting without any relation to him).
On March 15, 2008, this video was deleted by the uploader; I honestly have no idea why. (It was definitely not a copyright crackdown thing, but it might have been in reaction to the bot view scandal; again, hard to say nine years later.)
What: “Panda Disculpa los Malos Pensamientos (Evangelion)”, by “deuxjg”
When: ca. May 10 – Aug 19, 2008
How many views: ca. 85-97 million
Every so often, the videos that are suspected to have had their view counts manipulated by bots had been removed from the official top running.
But there was still a way to find the videos with the actual highest counts – make an empty search (or, technically, search for “*”), and sort by view count.
And every so often, some blogger or other decided to do that, and post the results. And in some of those results, this video took the top spot…
The earliest reference to it being the top that I could find was this thread (in German) from May 12, 2008; the latest was this one from August 19, 2008 [apparently not extant now – it used to be when I added it to this post a few months ago, but sadly the forum it was on had apparently closed down in March 2017], where the numbers made it clear that the next one (the video below, as it happens) will pass it very soon.
And this thread [apparently also not online anymore – though it appears to have originally been a 4chan post, so copies may be found at other 4chan archives; as I write this, here is an extant one] still has it as the fourth on May 8, 2008 (thus my “ca. May 10” overtaking date).
“Panda” is the band, since rebranded as PXNDX; “Disculpa los Malos Pensamientos” is the song (usually spelled “Disculpa los malos pensamientos” – the name is Spanish, and translates as “Forgive the bad thoughts”).
As for “Evangelion”, it is indeed the anime – hopefully famous enough that I shouldn’t link it here; apparently this particular video is an AMV, which is to say, it uses a compilation of anime clips as a music video for the song.
There are still some viewable versions of this video around (though they all seem to vary in length, so I have no idea of actual similarity); this one, in particular, points out the original’s brief #1 position as most viewed (having been posted during this brief period).
And no, I have no idea how the triangular heck it got that many views either.
What: “Girlfriend”, by Avril Lavigne
When: Jul 17, 2008 – Apr 30, 2009
How many views: ca. 93-118 million
I can only tell the specific crossover dates here because the race between this video and Evolution of Dance (#10 above) was extensively covered in articles and blogs. (Specifically, source for Jul 17, source for Apr 30; those were not the only sources for either.)
They were never far apart; often they were only a fraction of a million from each other (and from at least January 2008 to the eventual deletion in November 2009, they were never more than 5% apart from each other).
Even as Evolution of Dance regained the lead, and even as it lost the lead to the next video on the list (#14) several months later, this video still was less than a million behind (and might well have continued that pattern if it survived any longer).
At some point, this video got deleted (in yet another copyright-related crackdown), which is why I’m not linking to it. A viewable version is here (as mentioned in my original list).
This was the last deleted champion, however (so far); every video that held the top spot after it (including #10) is still viewable today.
What: Charlie bit my finger, by HDCYT
When: Oct 25, 2009 – Apr 14, 2010
How many views: ca. 130-178 million
The epitome of what YouTube stood for, this hilarious home video is probably the only top most viewed video in YouTube history (excluding the uncertain #1 and #2 candidates) that is not a professional project of any kind.
Plot: Charlie Davies-Carr, a little playful toddler, bites the finger of his older brother Harry (himself barely out of toddlerhood). Harry complains. Charlie laughs. That’s pretty much it.
Ironically enough, it was not supposed to receive any significant amount of views at all – it was only uploaded to YouTube because that was more convenient than emailing it to the intended recipient (the boys’ grandfather). But then it became viral, and the rest was history.
The video is still somewhat popular, though nowhere near its original heights; in fact at some point it had passed the video following it on this list. Last time I checked it was still in the top 100 by all-time views – though only just barely.
What: Bad Romance, by Lady Gaga
When: Apr 14 – Jul 16, 2010
How many views: ca. 178-245 million
Seriously, who can dislike Lady Gaga?
At least, as long as she doesn’t dress in a meat costume or something. But as far as I know, she did nothing like that for this particular song – it’s actually fairly mild for her.
Unlike the previous and next videos on the list, this video had apparently just mostly sunk into obscurity.
(When I was researching for the original list, way back in March 2016, I found some references actually claiming that the next video on the list usurped the title directly from the previous one. As if the three months it was champion for were not a part of history.)
However, it had definitely existed, and its reign does show up in contemporary references.(down to the exact day).
[And – fun fact – it is the first video on this list to still be the most viewed video uploaded in tts respective year. All four of the next ones also hold the first place for their years, however.]
After, as mentioned, three months (and a little bit) of a “most viewed” reign, this video was handily beaten by an upstart challenger (#16 on the list).
Said challenger came from one of the relatively few musicians with an even more polarized public opinion (than Lady Gaga had) – and of course it didn’t help that the specific video in question was released less than five months earlier.
And who it was, you want to ask? Well, who else but the Canadian child prodigy (or worst nightmare, depending on your opinion) – Justin Bieber.
What: Baby, by Justin Bieber
When: Jul 16, 2010 – Nov 24, 2012
How many views: ca. 0.25-0.8 billion
What else can I say? Justin Bieber.
As far as the internet is concerned, Justin Bieber is either very good, or very bad (most people seem to be in the latter camp).
In this case, it had manifested in the video having an excessive amount of dislikes – to this day it is the first most disliked video on YouTube (having held this particular “title”, with occasional short interruptions, ever since 2010).
This did not, however, prevent the video from accumulating a ridiculous amount of views; it successfully passed the previous video on the list in mid-July 2010, and held the title for nearly two and a half years (the longest such unbroken period until 2015).
I could have probably written much more about this particular video (or the previous or next one, for that matter) if I really wanted to, but I’m in a bit of a hurry writing this post – you’ll soon see why…
What: Gangnam Style, by Psy
When: Nov 24, 2012 – present day (but not for long – see #18 and #19)
How many views: ca. 0.8-2.9 billion
This famous Korean video is as hilarious as it is unintelligible (to non-Koreans, anyway – though I’ve been told that the lyrics aren’t actually as cool as they sound, so maybe it’s less hilarious to Koreans too).
Most of my readers would probably have heard of it already – it took YouTube by storm in 2012, became the first video to gain a billion views (in late December 2012), and stubbornly stayed at the top for over four years.
As far as I can tell, its genre is named “K-Pop”, which is essentially just a fancy term for “Korean music” (again, as far as I can tell).
…When I started writing this post, slightly over a year ago, it looked like Gangnam Style would stay at the top for a while yet – maybe a year or two.
However, today it is obvious that it’s going to be overtaken any day now – so soon that it probably won’t still hold the title on its fifth anniversary (July 15, 2017, less than a week after this post), having lost it to the next video (#18 on this list).
(Mind you, as far as I can tell, until Gangnam Style, no video had held the most viewed title on its fourth anniversary either.)
What: See You Again, by Wiz Khalifa
When: due between Jul 9 and Jul 14, 2017 (but see below under #19)
How many views: ca. 2.9-3 billion?
In the original version of this list, I mentioned that Gangnam Style would likely be the first video to reach 3 billion views.
Now, 1.3 years later [that’s one point three], we know that it almost certainly will not.
(Ironically enough, we do not yet know which video would – it’s going to be a very close race between this and #19 below. But it definitely won’t be Gangnam Style.)
As I post this, See You Again is only 0.0024 billion views behind Gangnam Style. I have deliberately given this number in a way that makes it seem smaller than it is; this is because, for the purposes of this particular list, it is, in fact, rather small.
Which is to say, it means that the crossover will happen any day now – someone better at estimation than me could probably calculate the specific day (or perhaps even hour), but even I can tell that it’s going to happen in the first half of July, likely just short of 2.9 billion views.
However, its reign is unlikely to be long – in fact, it is likely to be the shortest since #8 way back in 2006 (not counting #11, which was deleted while in top spot). This is, of course, because the next video on the list is gaining very fast indeed…
What: Despacito, by Luis Fonsi
When: due in August 2017
How many views: 3+ billion?
If I was writing this list six months ago (come to think of it, I was writing this list six months ago… but let’s not get distracted), I would never have possibly thought to include this video on the list. Not even as a remote possibility. Because six months ago, this video didn’t even exist – it was not uploaded until January 12, 2017.
In the meantime, it had swiftly reached a billion views (the first video of 2017 to do so, and only the second fastest so far), then two billion (by far the fastest – everyone else who made it that far took over a year to do it), and last time I checked was the 5th most viewed, with over 2.3 billion views, and gaining ever faster.
It appears implausible that the view count of this video will slow down significantly within the next several weeks. But if it does not, then this is going to overtake the previous video on the list sometime in August 2017, right at the 3 billion view mark (close enough to it that at the moment it’s unclear which one will be first to 3 billion; but if I had to I’d bet on this one).
And then it will be the champion – which of course will probably only make it go up even faster. First to 4 billion? Why not – and probably before the end of 2017. First to 5 billion? Maybe that too – if, of course, no even faster challenger appears later.
What: No idea, sorry (not sure if it even already exists)
When: No idea, sorry (could be this year for all I know)
How many views: No idea, sorry (but probably over 4 billion)
Predicting the future is hard. When I posted the original version of this list, in March 2016, I might theoretically have guessed See You Again as the plausible next record holder (it was already in second place by then, if only barely).
However, I could never have guessed Despacito – not even theoretically – because in March 2016 it just plain did not exist.
And similarly, there is no reason to expect that the next video to take the spot – the would-be #20 on this list – is a video that already exists today.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that this video does not exist today, either. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say – and some videos definitely know slow and steady.
For example, Masha and the Bear: Recipe for Disaster, the 17th episode of a popular Russian cartoon series, had been around since 2012 – but this does not stop it from continuing to progress further, steadily gaining several million more views every day.
Over the last two years, it had been climbing up the ranks, topping out at #5 most viewed (where it stayed for several months, slowly closing the huge gap until the 4th position, before being pushed out of that comfortable spot by Despacito).
And who knows? Maybe one day Despacito slows down, and, with a huge lead over all the other music videos, it is overtaken by this Russian cartoon. After all, popular songs come and go, but Masha and the Bear isn’t going anywhere (except into the classics).
And if it happens – then, finally, for the first time since 2010 (and the second time since March 2006), the most viewed video on YouTube would be something other than a music video. It’s well overdue, really.