Just as YouTube isn’t just about Gangnam Style and viral videos of animals eating burritos, the online-video conclave VidCon, which kicks off a little little later today in Anaheim, Calif., isn’t just a giant celebration of all things YouTube. In fact, VidCon is really two conventions in one.
The first is for YouTube’s incredibly passionate fanbase, whose most involved members go full-on Belieber for the site’s musicians, comedians, videogame explainers, beauty gurus and more. These are the people who have fully embraced YouTube’s ethos of democratized media, one that allows every fan with a closet shrine for their favorite YouTuber to think, “they’re just like me!”
The second is for the creatives, advertisers and YouTube executives who are looking to cut deals.
As you can imagine, the two groups manage, at best, an uneasy co-existence. I’ll be at VidCon over the next few days, reporting on how commerce, art and fandom intersect in the burgeoning world of online video.
How To Make Video And Advertise People
VidCon 2014 is going to be all about—surprise!—advertising, featuring panels with names like “Just Ask: Letting Your Audience Pay,” “Branded Content in 2014” and “Going Mainstream.”
Making money from YouTube video is not a new concept. YouTube’s partner program, which started fairly early in the video site’s history, was a way for popular creators to turn views into dollars.
Over time, YouTube grew more serious about cultivating its online celebrities, organizing specific categories for beauty, food, and music to be captained by the site’s most lucrative stars. Popular YouTube creators are now managed by their own media companies and multi-channel networks (MCNs), allowing for more effective partnerships with brands and advertisers.
Small wonder that Susan Wojcicki, Google employee number 16 and the search giant’s former VP of advertising and commerce, took YouTube’s helm in February. We’re likely already seeing Wojcicki’s touch in the form of huge media campaigns aimed at rocketing various YouTube stars to mainstream fame.
Creators’ videos can be seen in the media selection on Virgin America flights, partnering with cosmetic industry giants, and even designing their own clothing lines. I’ve recently written about the creator-focused YouTube billboard outside of my office—just another avenue in conquering the world through off-site advertising.
It’s a straightforward, ambitious and completely understandable strategy. In essence, it’s not all that different from the way movie studios marketed their stars in the early years of Hollywood.
But it leaves out an important part of what makes YouTube special: its fanatic, highly engaged community.
What VidCon Is Like For Fans
Hank Green, one half of the ridiculously popular channel “vlogbrothers” and a co-founder of VidCon, published a video that instructs convention-goers how to deal with meeting popular YouTube creators.
Green describes, in the nicest way possible, how difficult it is for YouTube creators to navigate the grounds of VidCon without being engulfed by throngs of adoring fans. The video is essentially a polite plea for fans not to stalk or harass the YouTubers they idolize.
Green states that there will be an entire hall just for creators to hold autograph sessions, and that the VidCon staff will try hard to prevent fans from waiting eight hours (eight hours?!) in line to meet their favorite personality.
To the uninitiated, it may seem like an awful lot of pomp for an “online celebrity.” But to those in the know, it’s just another day as a YouTube star.
With all of that security, throngs of fans, and the giant elephant in the room of the true disparity between YouTube personality and fan, you’d think this was one of Hollywood’s starlet-littered red carpets. But for YouTube fans, it’s even better than that—it’s the two-day convention where they can see all of their favorite online personalities all in one place.
That sort of energy and enthusiasm isn’t the sort of thing you find around most other video-distribution platforms. And the big question for YouTube is whether a company that cut its teeth as a “new media” platform for the everyman can survive selling out and going mainstream.
What YouTube Meant To Me
It’s a personal question for me, as several years back I also had many a secret closet shrine for my favorite YouTube creators. There was a time when keeping up with my favorite YouTube creators, musicians, and vloggers was my life—it was my film, my television, my Hollywood.
It was a time when responding to another video in a “reply video” was a big deal that could amass thousands of views. A time when an unknown creator’s video could land on the front page and essentially skyrocket a new career. It was when vloggers like mememolly and thewinekone could set up a grainy webcam and talk through a slightly edited, 10-minute clip and still land on the front page of YouTube’s most subscribed of all time.
That time was 2006. And of course it couldn’t last.
Slowly but surely, the gap between creator and viewer widened thanks to commerce, agencies, LA and advertising campaigns. After a few years entrenched in the online video community, I hung up my YouTube hat. Everything felt too far removed from the grassroots platform that I’d once known and loved.
The Stakes For YouTube
YouTube these days risks being caught betwixt and between the twin forces of fandom and commerce. On the one hand, its growing commercialization risks alienating its most engaged viewers. On the other, many of its creators seem to think YouTube is run by cheapskates.
Buzz that Yahoo is planning to create a YouTube competitor also suggests that the search engine site is in the works to poach individual creators and networks, offering better advertising and more money. While there are good reasons to doubt Yahoo could pull that off, it could succeed in peeling off some of YouTube’s up-and-coming stars with better terms. Should that happen, YouTube will have to crank up its commercial efforts even harder, potentially distancing its fanbase even further.
This isn’t a new dilemma—it’s one that every growing entertainment act or media business faces as it trades a retail audience for the mass market. But it’s also not a hurdle that every business succeeds in clearing gracefully.