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How Nipplegate Created YouTube

Who’s that thinking nasty thoughts?

Photo in illustration by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

YouTube at 15” is our package of stories to celebrate the streaming site’s anniversary. It’s hard to imagine, but there really was a time before makeup tutorials, conspiracy explainers, on-demand music videos — really, viral videos at large. Since it’s become such a ubiquitous part of culture, we set out to look at how it’s changed our world. To kick things off, contributing editor Rob Sheffield investigated its surprising origins.

Everybody knows the story of Nipplegate. Janet Jackson. Justin Timberlake. The 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. A wardrobe malfunction. A breast unleashed for nine-sixteenths of a second. A national outrage. The Bush administration goes ballistic. Miss Jackson gets demonized by the FCC as a threat to decency, killing off her previously indestructible career overnight. The MTV-produced pop spectacle changed the world in so many ways. But one of the biggest is perhaps also one of the least known: It gave birth to YouTube.

About a year after the spectacle, in Silicon Valley, a trio of tech bros from PayPal were getting some dinner and discussing Janet Jackson’s breast. Chad Hurley, 29, Steven Cehn, 28, and Jawed Karim, 25, lamented how tough it was to find any footage of this incident online. In February 2004, there was no such thing as a “viral” video — even a moment as iconic as the Nipple Bounce was still a case of “If you missed it, you missed it.” Everybody was talking, blogging, and AIMing about Janet and Justin — but if you skipped the Super Bowl and didn’t bother to set your TiVo or VCR, you had no chance to witness what all the fuss was about, beyond edited clips on the news.

As Karim told USA Today in 2006, the guys pondered how cool it would be to have an online site for people to share video of the Super Bowl snafu, or the recent horrifying Indian Ocean tsunami. “I thought it would be a good idea,” Karim said. A year later, they launched YouTube, not that anyone noticed at first. Karim uploaded the site’s first clip on April 23rd, 2005: a 19-second video of himself visiting the elephants at the San Diego Zoo. A year later, practically everybody on earth was addicted to YouTube.

Part of Silicon Valley lore is how huge cultural explosions get set off by the most trivial concerns. In The Social Network, Timberlake plays Napster’s Sean Parker, lecturing Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) about what separates a good idea from “a once-in-a-generation holy-shit idea.” He tells the sad tale of the Stanford MBA who founded Victoria’s Secret, but sold out too cheap, not realizing it was a gold mine. Justin smirks, “Poor guy just wanted to buy his wife a pair of thigh-highs.” YouTube had a similarly humble origin: someone just wanted to see Justin undo Janet’s bustier.

YouTube was the right idea at the right time. Social media was just starting in February 2004 — we were all on Friendster (just here to help!), MySpace was catching on, and Facebook launched three days after the Super Bowl. Yet it took a few months for YouTube to blow up — for most people, that came in December 2005, when “Lazy Sunday” hit Saturday Night Live and became a word-of-mouth sensation. The first time I ever heard of YouTube was after the “Lazy Sunday” sketch aired, when my friend Stephanie raved about it over dim sum: Andy Samberg, Chris Parnell, a Sunday afternoon macking on cupcakes and watching Chronicles of Narnia. Damn, I’d missed it — guess I had to wait six months for the rerun. Then she told me about YouTube. It’s hard to say which concept was more mind-blowing: the idea that something funny actually happened on SNL, or the idea that this new website existed.

“Lazy Sunday” and YouTube were made for each other: like The Wizard of Oz and Technicolor, like Dark Side of the Moon and stereo, like Duran Duran and MTV. “Lazy Sunday” was the ultimate gateway drug, inviting you to explore this gigantic new cultural memory machine. That sketch was how everybody I knew discovered YouTube. “Lazy Sunday” might have lured you in, but you didn’t stop there. Everybody remembers their second YouTube search, and mine was three humble words: “Damn, damn, damn.” I needed to see if it had one of the most iconic Seventies TV moments. Florida Evans, the long-suffering, God-fearing matriarch on Good Times, after her husband’s funeral, by herself in the kitchen, smashing a crystal bowl in tears.

I typed the words and hit send. A few seconds later, I was right there in the kitchen with Esther Rolle. Yep, they had it. Damn, damn, damn.

All these stray moments of TV memory, lost in time like tears in rain — all gathered here. I spent the rest of my lazy Sunday exploring the baffling new site on my iMac Blueberry. Bootleg footage of Prince jamming on a Stevie Wonder deep cut? Courtney Love and Kim Gordon on 120 Minutes? The Battle of the Network Stars where Robert Conrad challenges Gabe Kaplan to a grudge foot race? Phoebe Cates asking, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” How was this legal?

Funny you should ask. NBC began the long battle to pull SNL clips, as YouTube’s blog dutifully noted: “We know how popular that video is but YouTube respects the rights of copyright holders. You can still watch SNL’s ‘Lazy Sunday’ video for free on NBC’s website.” Not if you had a Mac, though — the NBC website’s video worked only with Windows. You could purchase the clip at the iTune store for $1.99, but it turned out people just wanted to keep watching it for free, and every time it got yanked down, somebody else uploaded it.

Janet’s breast bounced so “Lazy Sunday” could jump, but YouTube was off in flight. Nipplegate led directly to Netflix and the whole stream-and-binge economy. Back then, Netflix was still in the business of putting DVDs in envelopes and dropping them in the mailbox. But Netflix’s Robert Kyncl, now chief business officer at YouTube, took notice. “YouTube clearly demonstrated that people were willing to trade fidelity for convenience and speed,” Kyncl wrote in his book Streampunks. “Witnessing the popularity of YouTube was a revelation.” Netflix began streaming in 2007, right around the time my local Blockbuster closed. (The last movie I got to rent from them: Anchorman.)

To this day, NippleGeddon remains a mystery. It’s never been explained how it happened, how much of an accident it was, who was to blame. But for the Republicans running amok in D.C., it was too good to be true — a black woman’s body to symbolize every threat to the nation’s morals. Colin Powell’s son Michael was in charge of the FCC, and wasted no time leading the witch-burning mobs against Janet. “Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration,” he announced the morning after. “Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt.” He launched a federal investigation, but didn’t wait for the results to give America his verdict. “Clearly somebody had knowledge of it,” he told CNN, adding, in stomach-turningly creepy terms, “She probably got what she was looking for.”

I still weep for all the years of Janet we lost. This disaster was the moment where MTV finally decided to wash its hands of the whole music business — so much trouble to promote these pop brats, franchises you don’t control, and what does it get you? So MTV pulled the plug on music and took a hard right into My Super Sweet Laguna Teen Hills Jersey Mom Excluded From Chicken Cacciatore Night. And in a hilariously perfect irony, the halftime show’s sponsor was AOL — still regarded then as the future of the internet. But the next day, they announced, “AOL and AOL.com will not be presenting the halftime show online as planned.” Well, they got *that right. The AOL days were done, and a new era was coming on. So many dreams died in that wardrobe malfunction. But it’s where YouTube began.