If you were to judge the first inaugural VidCon based solely on its attendees, it would be easy to dismiss it as a conference for the young. According to one survey conducted by organizer Hank Green, 85 percent of those attending the event held in Los Angeles last weekend were between the ages of 18-25. The line for under-21 registration was longer than the over-21 registration line at points, and there was a fair amount of under-18s, accompanied by parents, armed with cameras and the ambition to become as big as Nigahiga.
As a six-time San Diego Comic-Con survivor, I found the atmosphere decidedly familiar. The stage presentations were filled with inside jokes and “WHOOOOS!” while walking through the halls meant constantly stumbling across clumps of fans asking their idols for autographs and hugs. I heard third-hand that at one point, iJustine was surrounded by 30 teenage girls — all of whom were allegedly crying.
What I ended up taking away from VidCon, though, was how celebrity seems to be evolving. See, when I was a teenager, I was in love with David Duchovny. This love was based on magazine interviews and talk show appearances and of course his acting work in The X-Files; I found comfort and safety in my crush, but it was distinctly one-sided. Because no matter how much energy and devotion I put into loving David Duchovny, I knew the conversation would never go both ways.
I was thinking about this while watching YouTuber Shane Dawson kiss one of his teenage fans on the cheek during his Saturday afternoon Q&A. The girl had asked him to do so through giggles; the look on her face, projected onto the massive screens in the Hyatt Regency ballroom, was nothing short of awe.
Someone shouted from the crowd, “I love you, Shane!” “I love you too!,” Dawson shouted back, completely genuine. I don’t think David Duchovny would have reacted the same way. David Duchovny wouldn’t have even been in that room. But for this crowd and the millions who watch and engage with them, interaction is key to the business.
iJustine’s session on stage proved to be fascinating. I know some people who find iJustine’s brand of extremely positive perkiness to be grating, but even haters would have found something to admire in how she engaged with her rabid audience.
Many of the questions the audience asked revolved around, “What’s your favorite [fill in the blank]?,” for example, but whenever she answered she’d immediately follow up by flipping the question back on them. She really wanted to know what her fan’s favorite color or band might be, really wanted to get a quick dance lesson from a volunteer, really wanted to showcase another YouTuber’s vocal talents.
When asked during his on-stage Q&A what he thought about his YouTube celebrity, Charlieissocoollike, whose channel is the most subscribed of all time in the United Kingdom, said this: “I don’t like it when people call it being famous. When you start off making videos in your bedroom, you don’t feel very famous.”
A bit later, he took a pre-submitted question about what he would do after YouTube, “you know, in real life.” His response to that was to walk to an audience member and ask her to touch him. “Am I real?” he asked. She replied affirmatively. “This is real life, people,” he announced.
As Ze Frank said while educating the children on videoblogging (which let’s be clear, he pretty much invented), “Fundamentally we really want to feel and be felt. But connecting with people isn’t easy, both in virtual life and in physical life.”
Over the course of both days of VidCon, YouTube was pointed to as something that has aided in connection — such as the case of Paralympian Josh Sundquist, whose leg was amputated at the age of ten and admitted on stage that “YouTube is the only place I’ve ever been where I’m not disabled.”
Many of those on stage swore that they’d never stop posting videos, and as Philip DeFranco said in conversation with John Green, “There’s that thing in the back of every YouTuber’s mind where they think ‘If I stop making videos, I’ll disappear.'”
“Like Salinger,” Green said.
“Who?” the 24-year-old replied. (He was joking.)
As newfangled as the means by which YouTubers communicate, though, the actual genres of entertainment here are all relatively familiar. Shane Dawson’s sketch comedy is analogous to Jim Carrey’s heyday on In Living Color. The music of David Choi is quality folky fare that at times reminds me of Paul Simon. The ShayTards family — goofy dad ShayCarl, pretty and tolerant wife Katilette, and their four children — definitely reminds of popular family sitcoms like According to Jim or even The Simpsons.
The difference is that while Jim Carrey or Paul Simon or Jim Belushi created similar media to these YouTubers, those who follow Dawson, Choi and the ShayTards feel like they are connecting directly — they know that their comments are read, they get Twitter replies and opportunities to contribute ideas. They know they are watching videos created by real people, in real time. It’s a whole new type of fandom being created here, and a different level of loyalty being experienced, where there are people who are now famous for how good they are at communicating with their fans. That’s what’s driving these millions of views — that sense of connection.
“Real” celebrities who do embrace social media do enjoy some of the same benefit — witness Ashton Kutcher’s evolution from “the guy from That 70s Show” to social media mogul, all thanks to a Twitter account. When audiences know that they’re getting a taste of, as Charlieissocoollike says, “real life,” it makes them that much more engaged.
What it comes down to is this: All these under-21s use YouTube not just to watch their favorite stars, but to add their own voices to the conversation, and they are growing up to expect that level of engagement from those who entertain them. Which means, David Duchovny, you might want to learn how to use your Twitter account.
Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): The State of Social TV