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Is VidCon a Must-Attend Conference for Video Professionals?

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How important is VidCon, the annual convention about YouTube culture and creators? This year marked VidCon's seventh event, with around 25,000 people in attendance. While it seems like a fan event, it's been getting a lot of attention from the industry. This was the first year I attended.

The question of VidCon's importance was playing in my mind the entire time I was there. The night before it began, I ran into a fellow tech journalist who had been attending for years. He always left feeling a little dismayed, he said, sensing that it was just a big fan fest. Cat video and brony conventions get the same number of attendees as VidCon, he pointed out.

There are three types of people who go to Vid-Con: fans, creators, and industry professionals. Fans get the most attention. From my observation, many are middle schoolers with dyed hair, and they scream for their favorite video creators. For them, this really is a fan fest. But VidCon also offers instructional sessions for minor video creators looking to become major video creators, as well as business panels for executives.

This year's convention had its share of news. YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki used her keynote to announce that live video creation is coming to YouTube's apps. Also, its comment system will be revamped. During the opening keynote, VidCon co-founder John Green lamented that there are now too many "haters" on YouTube as well as too much big money, adding that the platform needed a contraction. (He did know that VidCon was bigger than ever and full of brand involvement, right?)

While I enjoyed my time there, I never settled the question of whether VidCon is important. To help argue the pros and cons, I recruited Rich Greenfield, media and technology analyst with BTIG Research, to join me in a discussion. We conducted the following dialogue over email. He took the pro side, while I addressed the cons. For the sake of the discussion, I played the role of devil's advocate.

Dreier: After experiencing my first VidCon, I'm not convinced it matters. I saw purple-haired tweens on the first floor (fan track), wannabe influencers on the second (creator track), and suits making real money on the third (industry track). I saw a lot of brands trying for social media activations and engagements. But I didn't see anything that excited me about the future of online video. Did you? What did I miss?

Greenfield: The future of online video is far more personal than television. You may love Modern Family, but you have no way of really interacting with the cast. VidCon shows how creators of online video not only love getting to know their fans, but need them to build a following and drive visibility in a sea of content.

Dreier: I get that online video offers two-way communication that TV doesn't, and I respect that. I go to comic book shows for the same reason—to meet my favorite creators. But are you saying that VidCon is merely a fan fest, with young girls screaming for their favorites and getting a selfie if they're lucky? Is that all it's about? Because that doesn't seem all that important to me.

Greenfield: Why are Marvel movies so successful? Because of the franchise built around the talent—Comic Con epitomizes that. Same for VidCon—it represents the power and community of online video—a whole generation is growing up like this. My daughter wishes these people happy birthday online; [that] doesn't happen in the traditional TV world. That relationship is what gives me confidence in the growing power of online video—it's a war for consumer engagement (time) and online video's share is growing rapidly.

Dreier: I saw a lot of large brand promotions at VidCon, and it made me think of early days at SXSW. But I don't mean that as a good thing. Whatever positive organic community exists at VidCon is about to be overwhelmed by big brand money staging social media activations. For all John Green's talk about keeping things small, I don't see him stopping it.

Greenfield: For a generation that doesn't watch as much TV, and when they do watch TV they certainly aren't engaged with the ads, brands are trying to find ways to reach consumers. Online video and in turn VidCon is one such way. Who doesn't want to make money? This is capitalism at its finest. Anyone can be famous and brands want to attach themselves to fandom.

Dreier: I'm hearing conversations that VidCon's best days are behind it, that security concerns have forever altered the in-person creator-fan experience, and that the core excitement from the early days is gone. This was my first VidCon, so I don't know what it was like before. Has something essential been lost?

Greenfield: I was only at last year and this year. I can't speak for the signings, but the crowd felt pretty comparable to [the] year before.

Dreier: Video industry professionals now need to decide if VidCon is one of the essential conferences they must attend every year, along with CES, SXSW, Cannes, and Streaming Media East and West (naturally). If they're going simply to have a convenient place to meet with other industry pros, then sure. But if they're going to learn something new, then I think the emperor has no clothes.

Greenfield: I consider it an essential conference, but obviously you're entitled to your own opinion.

I'll leave the final judgment to the reader, but it's telling that Streaming Media is planning to cover VidCon again next year. The show might not have the seriousness of NAB or IBC, and it might have a whole lot more screaming preteens, but it's hard to argue that it's not important. It's a place to see online video culture in person (something that can be eye-opening) and to meet colleagues and exchange ideas. That alone might be worth the time. My thanks to Rich Greenfield for a spirited debate.

[This column appears in the September issue of Streaming Media magazine as "The Industry: Is VidCon a Must-Attend?"]

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