An army of teens sporting Justin Bieber haircuts, donning animal hoods and wielding Flip cameras invaded the Hyatt Century Plaza in Century City Thursday through Saturday for the second annual Vidcon, which is making a push to become the Comic-Con for the online video world.
The crowd was mainly high and middle schoolers, some dragging their parents, all there to meet, take photos with, listen to or just get a glimpse of YouTube celebrities that people even five years older have probably never heard of, some who make six figures through revenue-sharing deals and get more regular viewers than Mad Men.
The central meeting place was a huge ballroom of hundreds of screaming fans cheering on a series of speakers, including cross-dressing sketch comedian Shane Dawson, whose main YouTube channel has 2.7 million subscribers; Dane Boedingheimer, creator of the Annoying Orange series in which he uses animated mouths to make the fruit in his kitchen talk, for his 2 million subscribers; and Dan Brown, who made life decisions based on viewer feedback in a project called Dan 3.0.
Breakout rooms had sessions for industry advice such as “Your Brand Strategy on Google+.” A mini exhibition hall included booths for YouTube-related products, like one for official merchandise for Ryan Higa, who has more than 4 million subscribers. A YouTube room allowed fans to make their own videos while lip-syncing to autotuned songs and wearing wizard hats or swinging rubber chickens. The democratic nature of the movement meant that most of the attendees were YouTubers themselves, with their YouTube names written on their badges.
In the main hall, one major event for online video scholars was the reunion of the cast from lonelygirl15, the revealed-to-be-fictional online series that helped jump-start both traditional web series and video blog-style YouTube channels.
“When we started, I didn't even know what YouTube was,” says Jessica Rose, who starred as the title character. “There was hardly anyone out there doing videos. Now 6,000 comments is…[only] pretty good.”
The comedic duo Smosh, geezers of online video who started back in 2003, took the stage with their producing partner Barry Blumberg, who said he decided to work with the team after seeing the video in which they lip-synced the lyrics to the Pokemon theme. “It was one of the stupidest things I've ever seen, but it had 20-some million views,” Blumberg said. He later helped guide the creation of their media empire, anchored by a website that gets 350,000 to 400,000 hits a day.
Smosh downplayed that video and implied they were totally over that kind of comedy. But then lo and behold, fifteen minutes later, out walked two newer stars, Mitchell Davis and Kyle Sibert of Live Lava Live, to much bigger applause, to premiere their new video called The Party Music 3. In the video, they lip-sync to a song like “Y.M.C.A.” for about five seconds while doing a (sexually suggestive) dance on or around a red couch, and then five seconds later switch to another song and another (probably more sexually suggestive) dance on or around the same red couch, and continued like so for about three minutes. The crowd screamed with glee, and, oddly, it was far more entertaining than your average music video.
Another panel on the most successful women of YouTube discussed how to break in given that (yes, even on YouTube) the industry is somewhat male-dominated, and how to fend off “creepers.” The panel included The Fowler sisters, part of a wave of YouTube stars who focus on giving makeup tips; iJustine, tech guru and all-around lifecaster; Brittani Louise Taylor, a comedian who looks eerily reminiscent of the soon-to-be NBC sitcom star Whitney Cummings; and Olga Kay, a comedic actress who in her videos goes by “Moosh Mommy.”
Part of the panel focused on fame, which has its own particular rules in the YouTube world. Yes, you can embrace your fame and even make explicit pleas for subscribers, but much of your appeal comes from your accessibility. YouTube stars answer fan emails, read fan comments, respond to fans in their videos and give autographs at Vidcon with smiles on their faces. As Taylor told the crowd, “I'm not famous. I'm your friend.” iJustine added, “People are like, 'Do you want a TV show?'” to which her attitude is ho-hum. “I love YouTube.”
Many YouTubers draw their appeal in part from a certain kind of sexual energy. The guys often break into faux-homoerotic dance moves for comedic effect. The women seem to (consciously or not) turn on just the right amount of sex appeal so that they don't alienate women but still appeal to geeky guys. Kay said that her favorite comment she got on her site was “Roses are red, violets are blue, I suck at poems, show me your tits.” When asked if she was single, iJustine responded “Steve Jobs has my heart.”
Daniel Grimes, a high school senior, had flown in for the event from Ypsilanti, Michigan. His favorites included the singer Alex Day, and Toby Turner, a comedian known in part for his “literal trailers.” “He'll take a video game trailer and sing over it, describing everything that's happening in a painfully obvious but very funny way,” Grimes explains.
Later, Turner took the stage, speaking in a comic lilt reminiscent of Will Ferrell. In his literal trailer for “Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood,” he played on the keyboard, singing lines like “mysterious hooded man joined by other hooded people.”
It's like something you'd do with your brothers or best friends when you were 13, or perhaps 17 and in an extra-juvenile mood. Now these after-school inside jokes are filmed and released to the world, and the best of the bunch rise to the top.