The unofficial three-day YouTube users conference, known as VidCon, is currently going through puberty (as were many attendees), and the awkwardness on display was on par with a single father explaining to his daughter how a training bra works. Like any teen at this pivotal stage in their life, the conference is also having an identity crisis, brought on by corporate forces eager to co-opt this bright new industry of online video entertainment.
The brainchild of Vlog Brothers Hank and John Green - the friendly, firm and wise uncles of YouTube - the conference describes itself as “both an industry conference and a great big party,” with an emphasis on the community.
What happens, then, when some members of community choose profit over solidarity? In direct contrast to the Greens and their promotion of an inclusive YouTube family, you have new media companies like Maker Studios, Revision3 and District Lines throwing “must-be-on-the-list” exclusive events and hanging the biggest banners in the Anaheim Convention Center expo hall. While these new media companies groom their talent and handle ad sales, their big-money ways have rubbed some self-described “YouTube underlings” the wrong way.
“OH: Everything at the @MakerStudios party was what is wrong with @YouTube,” tweeted a community member at 4:00 a.m., from the nearest IHOP, on the last night of the conference.
Maker Studios, founded by YouTube stars, has outgrown the community much as VidCon itself has outgrown its former venues. In its third year, VidCon has seen phenomenal growth: In 2010, the conference had roughly 1,500 attendees, but this year, volunteers packaged 7,000 swag bags for conference-goers.
Besides the growth in attendance, the number of celebrities, guests, events and panels left many disappointed. On average, attendees had a choice of 15 panels to pick from for each time slot, and that didn't include the events or performance acts happening on various stages.
“They could easily make this a four-day conference,” said 24-year old cartoonist Jamie Spicer Lewis, who flew in from England to attend the conference. Lewis expressed frustration at not being able to attend the panels he wanted to either because of time or space issues. Lewis' suggestion was a common one.
(Panels were for the most part incredibly informative and educational, including topics and workshops on how to edit video, work with brands, read all contract agreements, get more views with Google AdWords, deal with cyberbullying or start a new channel.)
Besides outgrowing its proverbial clothes, VidCon repeatedly expressed a sexual awkwardness found only among teens who just hit puberty. (It was more so a place for teen girls to ogle young men than it was for teen boys, too.)
Top male YouTubers like Shane Dawson - who, incidentally, had the largest security detail - were mobbed by screaming fangirls to the point that both volunteers and security were required to restore order. Charlie McDonnell, YouTube's tween heartthrob, had the longest signing and autograph line for two days, signing more than 800 autographs in one day. When comedy duo Smosh posed naked in their special booth, with just a cardboard sign covering their crotches, blushing teen girls giggled and tried to steady their hands as they excitedly shot photographs. Spandy Andy, who thrust his Speedo-clad pelvis in time to music right outside the convention center, collected laughs and video recordings. In contrast, when YouTube comedian and Maker Studios talent Kyle Mooney told provocative jokes about female genitalia, he was quickly booed off stage and received hundreds of hurled rotten tomatoes in the form of angry tweets.
“It was very uncomfortable to watch and listen to,” said omgchomp, who happened to be in the audience at the time, in a vlog. John Green later apologized to the crowd, saying “We will never let people on stage who do not love and respect you,” but the damage had already been done. In fact, the Mooney incident was the most talked about controversy of VidCon, prompting the #VidCon hashtag to trend on Twitter around the same time.
More Growing Pains
Preventing the tension Mooney caused with his age-inappropriate jokes will be harder to avoid as VidCon barrels into the future; older Internet users such as WheezyWaiter or Dr. Phyllis Collins, are discovering and mastering YouTube alongside their tween counterparts, and these older content creators might feel out of place in the kid-centric environment.
In fact, the older generation is already feeling somewhat overwhelmed by its younger counterparts. While waiting to be let into the keynote on the first day, dubbed “Industry Day” but attended by more than just PBS producers and ad executives, a well-dressed older business woman moaned to her companions that they were “surrounded by kids.”
It's safe to say VidCon, which is more or less the only conference reflecting and celebrating the Web video entertainment industry, still has some considerable growing up to do. "Two years ago, we were kinda kids – what are we gonna be when we grow up?" said Revision3 CEO Jim Louderback during his presentation. “We're not kids in this industry any more.”
So what will happen to VidCon in the future? Will it split into two conferences, one more like Nickelodeon, the other sophisticated and HBO-esque? John Green admitted to RWW that the conference has “yet to make a profit,” perhaps in part to the lack of big-money sponsors such as camera-makers Canon or Nikon. YouTube is already attracting mainstream celebrities including Kevin Smith, Felicia Day and Madonna, in the form of premium content channels and Google's $200 million investment into original Web content.
Judging by the mass media interest at the conference, it is only a matter of time before big-name brands and sponsors scramble to showcase their pertinent products, much to the chagrin of average YouTubers.
“People have been making 'The Death of YouTube' videos for years, so I am not worried about our community,” Green said. Or, as one of the YouTube star founders of Maker Studios Kassem G said, “those that survive are the ones that adapt.”