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As YouTube Celebrity Enters the Mainstream, VidCon Grows Up

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VidCon, the conference for YouTubers organized by John and Hank Green, has grown dramatically, from 1,400 attendees for the inaugural event in 2010 to more than 21,000 this year. Judging from media coverage, this was the year the rest of the entertainment world finally began taking it seriously.

From the standpoint of Streaming Media, it feels a little odd that we’re no longer the new kids on the block. While OTT is still an upstart compared to traditional broadcast and cable, the kind of video that’s celebrated at VidCon— made by YouTubers and mostly watched on YouTube—is something else entirely.

“It’s the future,” media pundit Jeff Jarvis told Katie Couric in a terrific wrap-up she did on Yahoo. “There will always be a Game of Thrones, it’ll be harder to make, but the point is that there’s a future here that has nothing to do with television.”

Showbiz bible Variety even got on board this year, devoting a cover story in its July 22 issue to 12 “Famechangers”—from gaming goofball PewDie Pie at No. 1 down to gearheads Mighty Car Mods at No. 12—” who “redefine conventional notions of celebrity.”

They’ve also redefined conventional notions of how video works. There’s no fourth wall in most YouTube videos. John Green told Couric that every time he does an interview for television (and he’s done plenty, seeing as how he’s the author of the books behind blockbuster movies The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns), he wants to look at the camera and speak directly to the audience.

YouTube has also redefined the aspirations of the generation growing up watching it, and not necessarily for the better. “When you ask kids what they want to be, they say ‘I want to be famous,’” Brian Robbins of Awesomness.tv said in his interview with Couric. “When you ask them ‘For what?’ they’re like, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ “

And though YouTube’s biggest stars are raking it in—PewDie Pie grossed $7.4 million in 2014—it’s still not exactly a career path you’d want to advise your kids to pursue. But VidCon isn’t solely for starry-eyed teenagers. Though more than 14,000 attendees signed up for the “Community Track,” which gave them access to presentations and performances by their favorite YouTubers on the first floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, another 3,000 people attended the convention’s “Industry Track,” where a frequent topic was how YouTubers fit within the larger entertainment ecosystem.

You had Couric interviewing Ze Frank—whom she called the “O.G. of online video,” and who has gone from lone vlogger to president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures—talking about how old media, new media, and even newer media can work together. You had sessions that got deep into how to optimize videos on YouTube and other sites. And you had a whole lot of discussion about the business side of the screaming teens that you could occasionally hear two floors down.

PewDie Pie and Joey Graceffa are the exceptions, rather than the rule, even if they’re being posted to the same site where my 9-year-old daughter uploads her bracelet-making videos. And though the pie might be getting bigger, it’s actually getting harder for people to get a piece of it, according to AllDigital cofounder and chief strategist Tim Napoleon.

“The very top of the pyramid is making some money but the vast majority of the publishers are seeing fewer dollars,” he said in an interview after VidCon. “This is putting pressure on the content creators to find other ways to monetize with product placement and endorsement deals. Google doesn’t like this bypass to their ad model, and is clamping down on blatant violators. It is a difficult balance of not starving the ecosystem that makes YouTube so popular with fans while still generating growth and revenue in alignment with sky-high expectations from Wall Street.”

Amazingly, VidCon is a place where that kind of sober analysis can coexist with the sheer joy fans get from their YouTube favorites. As long as that keeps up, VidCon will grow up without feeling old.

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “VidCon Grows Up.”

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