Since its 2010 debut, attendance at VidCon, the premier convention for online video creators and fans, has grown exponentially, from nearly 1,500 the first year to at least 35,000 this year. Despite the February acquisition of the convention by former YouTube adversary Viacom (which unsuccessfully attempted to sue YouTube for copyright infringement in 2010), this celebration of online communities and hub for industry folks, all centered around a youthful demographic, seemed to be chugging along full steam over the June 23-24 weekend.
Though the players associated with the various levels of the VidCon world span all ages, they are getting 'em while they're young — very young. The sea of smiling faces weaving throughout and between the various buildings at the Anaheim Convention Center, where it was held, was largely under 18 years of age (lots of kids with braces). Furthermore, it became apparent throughout the event that the VidCon demographic is not likely to change, even when these kids grow up, as the online video community mostly seems destined to remain a young person’s game. Filmmaker/YouTube producer Freddie Wong indicated during a panel that kids eventually age out and graduate from YouTube to television programming.
The festival divides its programming into three tracks. These essentially included panels that cater to industry people (communications, advertising and tech companies), content creators (mostly youthful internet celebrities) and the community of fans (younger teens and preteens). Beyond the panels, a cross-section of those in attendance could be seen by exploring the exhibition hall, where both cosplayers and non-uniformed fans mingled with their heroes and engaged with vendors and fantastical showcases.
This year’s exhibitors showcased a variety of products and content that was for the most part at least tenuously connected to the internet community. One of the interactive booths was that of YouTube channel GoldieBlox, which invited guests to build rudimentary combat robots and match them up against others, as a promo for the channel’s new series Robot Runway. At another, more overwhelming display, Nerf had a huge arena wherein guests played war using a variety of Nerf guns. While Nerf does have a spot on Hasbro’s YouTube channel, the showcase was really just a way to get participants (and passersby) to photograph or videograph the display and themselves interacting with it — advertising the company and the convention with strategic hashtags. Nothing new there.
Vendors at the less razzle-dazzle showcases included the straightforward display of JOBY’s GorillaPod, portable and distinctively designed, flexible tripods that were put on the map thanks to lifestyle YouTuber Casey Neistat, whose product placement has proven to successfully appeal to his nearly 10 million subscribers on multiple occasions.
Product placement is key in assisting YouTubers who want to monetize their programs, but for many it's incorporated in an organic way; it doesn't drive content so much as complement it. “I have so many different things that I do, like, I do videos where I test out weird products; those do really well," says Annie Bardonski, from the YouTube channel OhhMyAnnie [269K subscribers]. "I'll do vlogs; I will do music covers, occasionally ... just anything really. Lifestyle things, routine videos, self-help, motivational things.
"It's just about me, really, so whatever I'm feeling at the time, that's what I make videos on,” Bardonski continues, adding that she's more selective when it comes to actual product placement. “I do paid sponsorship, so when the right company that fits with my style comes along, then I do that.”
Bardonski posts one or two videos a week. For each of those, she receives around 100 comments, and she takes the time to respond to them. As for the reason YouTubers like her come to VidCon, she says, “For one, obviously, [to] get exposure and meet people, and that's cool. But I think one of the big things for influencers themselves is: Everyone's here, and it's really good for networking and connecting and meeting people and just forming new friendships [with people] doing the same thing.” Though there are other conventions for YouTubers (such as Playlist Live), SoCal's VidCon has been the go-to convention, according to Baronski, because Los Angeles is home to a majority of YouTubers. [VidCon expanded to Europe and Australia in 2017.]
“Honestly, there's so many brands and creators all coming into [this] one spot. Businesspeople, YouTubers, actors," says Ben Azelart, an L.A.-based 16-year-old internet celebrity whose Instagram comedy routines and modeling photos have earned him nearly 1 million followers. "I think [SoCal VidCon] is definitely one of the biggest. There's panels and there's challenges, and little games for the kids, and I think it's one of the most interactive, and like the mecca of the whole YouTube thing.”
Azelart says he recently started working more on his YouTube channel, where he posts vlogs and challenges, and that the channel currently has about 32K subscribers (modest in comparison with the big stars). As with many budding YouTubers, community exposure and support is crucial. Azelart attributes part of his success to the help of his friend Brent Rivera, a 20-year-old whose YouTube channel, MrBrent98, has just under 4 million subscribers. Azelart said, “[Rivera] definitely helped me out. He does comedy sketches as well. He taught me the whole logistics of it, how to do it, what to say, and how to make a good video. I learned a lot from him.”
While several hundred teens (and preteens aka "tweens") crowded a stage where they could interact with YouTube megastar Joey Graceffa (nearly 9 million subscribers), Gigi Leibowitz, the mother of one of those tweens, shared her views on the community. “Coming here actually helped me understand what my daughter liked, the whole YouTube and Facebook and all these vloggers," she explains. "I realize that it's very love and hugs and kisses. There are no haters that say negative comments at this convention, they're just full of love; kids walking around with ‘Free Hug’ signs. It's just what the little kids are about now, and it [includes] kids who have autism or ADHD, you know like that kind of thing. They love each other, and this is what it's about.”
Liebowitz acknowledged that there are negative and harmful people who rove the internet. “There are some people pretending to be kids that are adults and saying negative things. You just have to really monitor your kids," she warns. "I tell [my daughter] to block anybody who's ever said anything negative. Just block them; you don't need to hear them anymore. But I don't feel like any of those people are here.” She also says the demographic of the community, from her experience, primarily ranges from teens to young adults and viewers range from 5 to 18 years old.
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Given that the community centers predominantly on children, Christine Chapman, programs director for UPLIFT, was on-site to promote her company’s mission of informing people about the relatively infrequent but nonetheless real dangers inherent in the community. “Make sure you're practicing consent, you know; not just hugging people or taking photos without their permission," she says of UPLIFT's messages. "At the creator level, we work to help people understand, as they become more prominent on the platform, how their interactions with their fans need to change. Ultimately, when you reach a certain fan following, you have a certain power dynamic over your fans. How can you be sure that you are creating a positive community and not taking advantage of your fans? Also, how can we help out creators to insure that harassment and mobs and things like that are not affecting [them] negatively.”
On that note, during VidCon, elsewhere in Anaheim, at the Anaheim Marriott Suites hotel, YouTuber Tana Mongeau attempted to hold a competing convention called TanaCon (whose celebrity attendees included herself, Shane Dawson, actress Bella Thorne and the aforementioned Casey Neistat). The event was a bust due to a lack of organization. Long waits in the hot parking lot gave way to too many people wanting admittance. According to a statement from Mongeau, 20,000 people attempted to gain admittance, which seems to have exceeded accommodations for closer to 5,000 and forced the event to shut down due to safety concerns.
The fact that so many kiddies are becoming entrepreneurs through online video is a fascinating phenomenon. On the one hand, it resonates with the early adulting that has been evident on the part of high schoolers who are fed up with a government they feel is not looking out for them. In this case it's teenagers, who are making adult-level, six-figure annual salaries. While children wielding economic power and proactive philosophies is encouraging, the fact that they are also inexperienced in the ways of the world can be a damning thing, as in cases of online abuse and poorly planned massive events. While some people have compared the ill-fated TanaCon to the infamous Fyre Festival, it is not difficult to imagine that without “adult supervision,” a tragedy like a junior Altamont Free Festival might be forthcoming. However, these shadows have not yet eclipsed the movement, and if the kids and parents continue to foster this community with care, it can continue to bring happiness, prosperity and messages of acceptance to a world that is much in need of some.