"If The Whole World Were Listening, What Would You Say?"
The above was written on a massive chalkboard in the exhibition hall of VidCon 2014, the fifth annual celebration of online video in Anaheim, CA. Because it was at VidCon, it had to be interactive, and so below the question were countless answers, including "eat more ice cream," "be strong and rock on," and "give a damn."
But what struck me was the use of the word "if." Because for the people who attend Vidcon, the whole world might be listening, because YouTube has given them the power to speak.
It's usually not hard to tell the difference between someone who's at their first Vidcon and someone who's a veteran of the experience. If they're new and under the age of 24, they're literally bouncing their way down the halls. If they're new and over 24, they're probably there for professional reasons, and they look like they just had a bottle broken over their head.
Once the shock wears off, though, it can be one of the most important conferences of the year for those passionate about the evolution of digital content. And it's not just the news gathered and the interviews garnered; it's the fact that what started from such humble roots can now support a massive experience of this type.
Since its first year, VidCon has grown and grown; what once fit into a hotel ballroom now sells out well in advance and consumes more than half of the Anaheim Convention Center, with attendees numbering at over 10,000. Those numbers by themselves are a factor in what I have always found inspirational about VidCon -- an opinion in which I am not alone. It's genuinely life-affirming, if you're passionate about digital content, to find yourself surrounded by those who are also fans. "Celebration" is truly the best word for it.
However, attending VidCon requires making peace with some unavoidable facts. One: It is not, by design, a conference specifically for the industry -- which is part of the adjustment that bottle-stunned adults find themselves having to make. Two: The people that the attendees are squealing about are very very rarely names a non-online video afficionado might recognize.
YouTube creators have a way of being very niche in their appeal. Because it's not about the individual videos -- it's about the individuals, and the communities that have evolved around them. It was extremely common to see packs form around some famous YouTubers, and then see others go relatively unmobbed.
The mobbing is a semi-regular occurance, and is part of why Vidcon can be easy to dismiss. The vast majority of its attendees are young, and attend to explode over their love of YouTubers.
This makes it easy to get cynical about Vidcon, especially as year after year, more brands find their way into the exhibit halls. Tragically, this year there was no giant inflatable shark to promote Discovery's Shark Week, the way there was last year. There were, however, booths for Penguin Books, Friskies, "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" and some very tasty peanut butter.
But there's a part of VidCon that will always be about hope. It's an event that celebrates the power of creation, and how by making things, you're able to connect with others. There's an undercurrent of ambition beneath it all, but without the negativity that word might bring with it.
This year, the biggest celebrity at VidCon was probably one of its founders -- John Green, a long-time YouTuber, is also the novelist who penned the YA weeper "The Fault in Our Stars," which has gotten just a little bit of attention after being adapted into one of the year's most profitable films. "Fault in Our Stars," having just come out in theaters a few weeks ago, came up a fair amount, whether Green was around or not.
"Fault in Our Stars"'s success felt like a victory for the home team, but the casual way in which it kept getting mentioned was also a reminder of that sense of hope driving everyone creating in the digital space -- the hope that what they're putting out into the world actually matters to someone.
Everyone attending Vidcon shared that hope. Everyone at Vidcon hoped that someone was listening.