As I entered the Anaheim Convention Center last Thursday, the first noise I heard was the bellowing of hundreds of teenage voices. I was here to learn the latest about YouTube at VidCon, the video site’s largest annual event, but I was surrounded by thousands of fans who had a different goal: to catch just one glimpse of a YouTube personality.
I was late to the party. Lines of fans had already gathered early that morning, waiting to get inside. They interrupted their quiet, anxious buzzes of chatter with piercing shrieks whenever a YouTube creator casually strolled by and waved at them.
“Creator” is a catch-all term that includes everyone from webcam videobloggers to keyboard-cat uploaders to the increasingly professional stars whose channels have attracted millions of subscribers. At VidCon, the latter meaning prevails: Insiders and fans alike use “creator” to call out the particular class of celebrity whose work and fame have become an intimate and singular part of the YouTube experience.
In this case, the creators who set off a particularly loud uproar right as I walked in were Jack and Finn Harries. As soon as the twin brothers from the UK set foot in the convention center, it was like they set off a sonic boom.
There was the silence right before chaos. First one teen turned around and gasped, then hundreds of others whipped their heads in that direction. Then, the rising wave of screams—primal, animalistic, unbridled emotion.
If you think of YouTube as a place for music videos and funny animal hijinks, VidCon will forever change your views. The annual convention, first held in 2010, is the beating heart of YouTube—a niche community so passionate and alive, but so committed to the nuances of visual storytelling that it struggles to explain itself through bare text.
To plunge into the chaos and charm of VidCon, to embrace YouTube’s community in the crowded, sweaty flesh, to surround yourself with 18,000 community members in one gargantuan yet impossibly packed convention center, may be the only way to understand it. Like YouTube itself, the experience at its best is visual and visceral.
If you’ve seen historic footage of the Beatles’ 1965 tour in America, it’s like that—but add smartphones, selfies, and social media. I watch as fans of YouTube personality catrific, known for comedic vlogs about her life, snap selfies in unending rotations with the star.
Here’s the fundamental difference between Beatlesmania and VidConmania: Like YouTube itself, fame on the site is two-way and participatory. Unlike the gated-off crowds of A Hard Day’s Night, fans are playing paparazzi with the YouTube celebrities, and putting themselves in the picture. They’re not just trailing behind their favorite creators, desperate for a glimpse. They’re running in front of them, face to their own cameras, framing themselves in the center of a selfie. The YouTube stars are just there to photobomb.
Five years in, this behavior has led to absurdities, like cardboard cutouts of YouTube stars, which seem to defeat the whole point of VidCon’s meet-in-the-flesh appeal. These cutouts of creators—hardly less virtual than the interactions fans and creators have on YouTube itself—stand in front of booths like the one for AwesomenessTV, an operator of multiple YouTube channels.
While setting up an interview with YouTube creator Joe Penna, his management warned me that “VidCon is huge and chaotic so we need to make sure this [interview] is either in one of the green rooms or someone’s hotel room or Joe will get mobbed.”
Penna’s channel, mysteryguitarman, showcases amazing editing and musical skills, and has amassed close to 3 million subscribers since his start on YouTube in 2006.
“Doing videos that involve my audience is important to me,” Penna told me. “Here at VidCon I’m printing out 700 frames of my next video and letting them draw all over it. It’s important to keep your fans involved.
“It’s building a club, basically. It’s cool to be a part of the mysteryguitarman fan club.”
The trick of the new YouTube celebrity is keeping your fans feeling like they’re in the club as their sheer numbers grow ever more overwhelming.
As I prepped for an interview with Brittani Louise Taylor, a comedian and DIY expert, her reps told me they couldn’t get ahold of her. Then we got word that Taylor had been swarmed by fans and was now trapped in her hotel room.
Escorted by a 7-foot-tall bodyguard, I rode up a hotel elevator in search of Taylor. (He wasn’t worried about me, but he wanted to make sure she could get out of her room after the interview.) Despite the fracas in the convention center, she was as sparkly in person as she is in her videos, and said she still adored her fans, even when they gathered in overwhelming throngs.
“It’s way crazier this year,” said Taylor. “Just getting out of the car outside of the hotel took 45 minutes.”
And yet Taylor wouldn’t go without the close-up interaction.
“I always go home feeling so loved because you get so many hugs throughout the day,” she said. “And they hug you. It’s like a ‘you’ve been my friend throughout all these years’ hug.”
The Perils Of YouTube Fame And Fandom
I heard similar stories of VidCon mania from other YouTube creators. I also heard echoes from the people who surround and support them—the executives, managers, and community members. They’re the ones who are making and remaking YouTube into a place for 21st-century celebrity.
No one could stop talking about YouTube personality and heartthrob Connor Franta, who is best known for his comedic, topical vlogs and for melting the heart of every teen in radius. With wide, terrified eyes, attendees told me stories about getting caught in a Franta-fangirl stampede, snagging and ripping their toenails after being caught in the crowd. (Never wear open-toe shoes to a convention.)
VidCon is about much more than fan meet-and-greets for the teen set. Attendees on the “industry track,” who include salespeople, marketers from big brands, and YouTube and Google employees, are steered toward panels extolling the selling power of YouTube stars.
They’re hardly necessary. One experience of being in the midst of a stampede of con-goers chasing a passing YouTube star, and you’re a believer.
Even Internet-video insiders are taken aback by this side of the business. “It is absolute fandemonium,” said Wadooah Wali, head of communications at Fullscreen, a multi-channel network (MCN) that signs YouTube creators to their management, with a blank face. It was her first VidCon experience, and mine too, and we both felt a sense of awe.
Con-goers will wait hours in line to meet their favorite YouTubers in person. Some stars, like the Epic Meal Time crew, a team best known for their extreme cooking show, will organize signings at set times and locations. (What does a YouTube star sign? Posters, hats, body parts—anything you want.)
Other YouTube stars will find a random corner in the convention space to hold an impromptu signing, somtimes tweeting out the location to their fans or just letting them gather.
The Anaheim Convention Center is across the street from Disneyland, and that’s somehow a fitting backdrop to the VidCon experience. The whole routine brings to mind Disney characters standing in a section of the theme park to sign autographs, smile brightly, and pose for photos.
I was witnessing a cultural phenomenon that has touched billions of people around the world, yet somehow stayed completely below the radar of other media.
YouTube’s challenge is to replicate this fandom offline, beyond the teens and tweens who roved the halls of VidCon. The site is already rolling out billboard and video advertising campaigns to expand their stars’ reach, and to make them more than just Internet famous.
When I wandered just a few steps outside and spoke to food vendors or hotel employees, I found no one had heard of stars like Meghan Tonjes or Tyler Oakley—the kind who drew crowds inside the convention center.
For VidCon attendees who grew up with YouTube, the distinction between “YouTube famous” and “famous famous” may be meaningless.
With them, YouTube has a different challenge: to hold their loyalties as competitors like Yahoo court the creators they adore with better financial terms and promises of more promotion.
If YouTube is to keep its lead, it will have to keep that magic connection between fans and creators alive. Even as YouTube channels grow to millions of subscribers and some turn into very successful businesses, fed by all the ads Google sells, there’s something peculiarly intimate about the link between YouTube viewers and the personalities who beam themselves onto the screens of their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
That may explain the intensity of YouTube’s fan culture on display at VidCon. But it doesn’t give many clues on how YouTube’s rivals might replicate it—or how YouTube itself will preserve it.
YouTube’s transformation from a collection of bedroom webcam videos into full-blown celebrity machine seems nearly complete. With thumbs-up and clicks on that big red Subscribe button, they turn niche performers into stars.
Next thing you know, stampedes of teens are obliterating a walkway in Anaheim just to try to touch them. Finally these fans have a chance to see their favorites. In that moment, they realize that these creators are really their creation.
Images by Stephanie Chan