YouTube started, Google decided to remind us this week, on 23 April 2005 with the posting of a test video. But a clearer defining moment in its short history came in early 2007 with a remarkable and half-forgotten video from the Iraq war.

This video changed my view of YouTube as being just another one of those startup Internet services with a democratic solution (post your own videos) to a problem the world didn’t have (are your home videos that interesting?).  

The video in question is camcorder footage taken from the cab of a Halliburton truck by employee Preston Wheeler on 20 September, 2005, as the supplies convoy he was a part of was ambushed travelling through Iraq.

Wheeler’s convoy got lost due to inaccurate maps, took wrong turns into dangerous territory, and was for a while abandoned by its US military escort as it was attacked. Three truck drivers were gunned down by Iraqis opposed to the US, ‘insurgents’ in media speak. Wheeler kept on filming events despite being injured. He was eventually rescued when the escort returned.  

The video had been posted around the Internet months before appearing on YouTube, but it was its appearance on the site that gave what happened that day a prominence it might not otherwise have had.

The video’s significance for YouTube was that it showed the video when media outlets had ignored it, fearing perhaps a political backlash, accusations of some kind of bias against the war, or of handing a propaganda victory to the Iraq revolt. Oddly, they did start to show it once it had appeared on YouTube.

YouTube had the same effect for many events in Iraq, bringing that war to people’s home computers in a way that the established media were frightened to do. I would even go as far as to say that YouTube’s founding at the precise moment the US found itself mired in a hugely controversial but otherwise tightly-controlled foreign war was a dash of luck it needed to help its war videos become viral.

The Iraq war is not necessarily popular on YouTube today in absolute views, but it helped to change its history.

An echo of this shock value is the recent posting by Wikileaks of a 2007 video allegedly showing US helicopter pilots gunning down unarmed Iraqis. Interestingly, this too, has been on youTube since 3 April 2010, having been viewed 6.3 million times since then.

Media magnates still call YouTube the barbarian at the gates and you can see why. They didn’t think of it. More profoundly, they couldn’t have thought of it and had they imagined its significance they would undoubtedly have buried it.  Who wants media without news anchors, journalists, camera people, and even experts? Not them for sure.

Media visionary, Marshall McLuhan, would doubtless have been overwhelmed by its democratic inversion of received notions of importance, and I can imagine sly French semiologist Roland Barthes writing essays disentangling its forest of cultural signs. It’s doubtless the Internet service that launched a thousand media studies essays.

Most see Google as being a temple to the power of moving images to embarrass the powerful and elevate the insignificant. They are right. But let’s not worry about that first video from April 2005. YouTube’s finest moment could yet lie ahead of it.