You see the girls first. You always see the girls first. They clump in twos and threes, probably wearing high-waisted jean shorts and tank tops, clenching their iPhones tightly, and they’re whispering among themselves as to what to do next.
Because in the hotel lobby, about 15 feet away, stands a young man, dressed casually, hair perfectly coiffed. He’s talking with an older woman, who looks professional, ready to protect her client from any potential PR disaster, while two professional bodyguards in suits hover by his side.
The bodyguards don’t exactly project a welcoming aura, but the girls are, eventually, brave. They get up their gumption and come up to the young man, asking for pictures, giggling with nerves. And the young man obliges, posing like a pro, friendly and engaging because he’s a YouTube superstar, and engaging with your audience is the ballgame.
You watch this YouTube superstar interact with his fans.
You have absolutely no idea who he is.
To understand VidCon as an adult, take this experience and multiply it tenfold or more. VidCon is the annual celebration of online video largely built on the culture surrounding “YouTube creators,” or “social media influencers,” or whatever other term we’ll come up with next to describe the guys and gals who put videos on the Internet via some platform or another to the delight of millions.
I’ve attended every VidCon since the conference’s founding in 2010, and every year it’s been relatively the same story: a clear schism between those above the legal drinking age and those who could actually recognize every face being celebrated by the masses of fans who gather to see their favorites from the Internet. If you think the worlds of film and television move fast, that there’s always a new show or new filmmaker to discover. Man, you have no idea. Between YouTube, Instagram, Vine and more, a star is born every millisecond, and the only thing scarier than knowing that is remembering the also-rans, the aspiring few who wander around VidCon unrecognized, sadder for it.
Making it big online is the 2010s’ version of being an independent filmmaker in the 1990s. In theory, you’re calling your own shots, telling your own story… and thirsty for the money and recognition that comes from the mainstream. The primary difference is that while ’90s filmmakers were often making movies that were implicitly based on their real lives, today’s digital creators are more often than not just explicitly broadcasting their realities.
I didn’t sample a lot of VidCon this year, but I got my chance to walk the exhibitor’s hall of the Anaheim Convention Center and see the talent on display, the audiences swarming for more and the brands even more desperate to tap into that. It’s notable that both NBC — with an emphasis on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” a show that’s always had an online-friendly bent — and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” were present, especially since when it comes to late night these days, the digital audience is key. And these booths were geared towards inserting attendees into the action for GIF or video fun, y’know, the VidCon way.
If you think it was weird that the anonymous YouTuber I mentioned above had bodyguards, the actual weird thing about that story is the fact that he was even in a public space, vulnerable to fangirl attacks. There have been legitimate stampedes at VidCon when exciting people have shown up. I’ve witnessed them. One person starts screaming, everyone looks to see who they’re screaming at, and the mobbing ensues.
The thing that’s changed about VidCon is that the first few years of the conference had a sort of boundary-straddling feel to them. You didn’t need a certain number of subscribers on YouTube to talk to someone interesting. But in 2015, VidCon had to create new rules to keep things in order. From a blog post by founder Hank Green, addressing some of the problems they’d experienced this year compared to previous years:
Online video has become, in a lot of ways, very mainstream. Along with that, in 2014 we saw a lot more traditional fan/celebrity dynamics than were were expecting. So while we used to be able to escort people through public areas, in 2014, VidCon attendees would occasionally (and unsafely) rush toward anyone who looked like they might have a security escort. This year, we moved all creator transportation from hotel to convention center to behind the scenes shuttles. I’m kinda sad that we had to do this, as it reinforces the false distinction between community and creator, but it was necessary for the safety of everyone at the conference and thanks to a lot of people who are great at solving problems on the fly, it functioned really well.
“The false distinction between community and creator” is such an interesting turn of phrase because it speaks to the reason why you might not recognize the faces inspiring screams on the ground at VidCon. It’s still a scene where anyone might emerge at random as the next great online video star.
Whether that fame endures to the point where they get recognized at the next VidCon is a question as hard to predict as what might happen to this year’s Sundance darling, though the answer tends to be just as reliant on smart decision-making and genuine talent. Because careers are being built online, the faces I do recognize each year are only growing in number.
It’s one of the reasons why VidCon is exciting to attend: You might feel old when you hear the screams and don’t understand why. But that’s just proof of an ecosystem evolving fast, and a creative community thriving with young energy. It might not make you scream. But if you’re inspired by independent creators, it should at least make you smile.