While you’re walking around the heavily air-conditioned halls of the Anaheim Convention Center the screams of teens and tweens alike would make you think Justin Bieber was getting a new tattoo in the middle of the lobby. Maybe One Direction is dropping an impromptu a cappella performance? Yet it is none of those people. The celebs here are YouTube personalities, many of whom started uploading videos from their very own bedroom. The Hollywood dream has been yanked from the starry skies and crash-landed in your own home (or wherever your smartphone is).
Many folks who come from the traditional media landscape don’t quite understand this ecosystem yet. Back in YouTube’s infancy they looked down on it as a fad, nothing that would stand the test of time or provide any type of viable business model. Zip forward to the present day and YouTube brings in one billion unique visitors a month, more than the viewing audience of every cable channel combined. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this is now the largest media platform in the world.
Yet the studio ignorance will not last forever and big moves have already begun to transpire. Disney, who owns ABC, recently bought Maker Studios, one of the largest YouTube networks. Other YouTube stars have been offered contracts with broadcast studios, book deals, and entire new platforms on which to continue growing their personal brand.
Of course, where there is fame and popularity, there is money to be made. YouTube holds a distinction among the major social sites and video platforms by actually sharing ad revenue with the uploader. Some complain about the cut not being enough in their favor, but they are often reminded by others in the ecosystem that it’s better than getting nothing at all, which is the life of pretty much every other site.
So what creates the intensity of this fanbase? Why did 18,000 people descend on this convention center for just a chance of seeing these digital celebs up close? There are tons of theories and surely a lot of psychology behind it, but my top opinion is two-fold.
First off, YouTube allows for a much more personal connection between the personalities and their fans. The community created on the platform is unlike any other offered in modern culture. Fans can comment and can reply through response videos or in any number of other ways to directly touch base with the star on the other side of the screen. That bond is nurtured, at least by the more responsible and caring YouTubers, and what is built is a trust worth more than a truckload of Bitcoins.
Second, watching the meteoric and sometimes frighteningly fast rise of these stars stokes the dreams of every viewer that it could happen to them. It encourages and persuades them to follow their passions and dreams with a simple camera and a click. Staring dreamingly at the TV or silver screen has long lost its ability to honestly foster the dream that we can all make it there, but on YouTube the idea is not only possible, it’s sometimes instantaneous. A very small percentage become super-famous and not everyone wants that, but nearly everyone will find a community of like-minded viewers, one custom-built just for them. It’s infectious and it’s not going to fade away.
Looking at this year’s VidCon specifically, I feel the need to point out some of the panels and personalities that continued to exhibit the youthful innocence and purity that makes the YouTube platform so attractive. Philip DeFranco and the SourceFed panel fielded numerous questions from the crowd about how to break into the YouTube space and make their mark. The most common reply was to be authentic to who you are, and not to chase the fad of the moment or try to please other people to gain followers. Just be you and be passionate about whatever it is that excites you.
DeFranco and others on another panel also openly praised pioneering folks in the digital space, such as Ze Frank, and admitted that in the beginning they were all just ripping him off, trying to capture some of that honest connection Ze Frank had fostered so early in the genre. As for Ze Frank himself, he questioned what can be done to keep that innocence alive when the platform is becoming more and more monetized and consolidated by content aggregators and studios. It was touching to see there are still folks trying to do what they can to keep YouTube open to the public and not let the dreams of community and connection slip away to only the pre-christened stars.
Grace Helbig also did part of a keynote address and talked about making the terribly difficult decision to leave the network she was with because she realized she didn’t own any of her videos or content. That’s another big factor of the appeal of the platform: You are the creator, you are the owner. Helbig took a brave and risky step to create a new channel on her own (with the help of a better contract under a company called Fullscreen) and she crossed her fingers that some of the 2.2 million subscribers she had before would follow her. She was not disappointed. Within three weeks she had already amassed 1.3 million back, and presently stands at 1.8 million and climbing. Her wit, charm, honesty, and love for her fans is tantamount to her continued success and as I am a fan myself, I believe she deserves every second of it.
I would seem painfully ignorant if I didn’t mention Hank and John Green, known to some as the VlogBrothers, but on the industry side of things known as the creators at VidCon. Together and on their own these two talents still create some of the best entertaining and educational videos on YouTube. They have made it a banner declaration that YouTube can and should be used for positive change, education, charity and overall good things. Having voices like these near the top of the digital wave is one of the best things YouTube and the future of online video has going for it.
YouTube is cemented now as a foundational part of the new frontier in media, storytelling, and social communication. And if the piercing screams of the girls during VidCon is any indicator, this convention is not long from having to search for a bigger home.