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Of content and controversy at VidCon 2015

abstract art of the vidcon logo

Content creation is king—but the biggest YouTube convention around knows change is key too.

At VidCon, no one will ever judge you for taking a selfie.

Content creation is king for the 20,000 digital video enthusiasts who descended on the Anaheim Convention Center looking to uncover the future of digital entertainment (or simply get a picture with their favorite star and capture a unique moment). With YouTube is now in its 10th year and VidCon having just marked its sixth, the convention feels like it has matured in line with the digital space itself, which is pushing itself into the mainstream as the stars of its platform begin to command the kind of attention normally reserved for Hollywood stars.

Platform diversity

On the industry side, platform diversity took center stage for the conference. While YouTube is still the primary focus of the majority of the event’s featured creators and of the sessions in general, speakers from a variety of platforms held court on the Industry and Creator stages and set up booths to attract the attention of con attendees. The event featured keynotes from representatives from Twitter, Vessel, and GoPro, and Victorious founder Bing Chen demoed that app for Industry insiders, while YouNow made a play on the Creator floor to attract interested content creators into engaging with the platform. Vine and Instagram set up flashy displays in the expo hall to attract attendees, and Meerkat sponsored a VIP lounge in the Hilton offering juices, makeovers, and a candy buffet to woo potential live broadcasters. Despite the variety of choices for where to make digital content, the focus wasn’t on which option was “better,” but rather on the idea of letting a multitude of options create a robust world of content for each individual creator.

“It’s not about which platform I am going to choose; it’s about [how] I have a diversity of options,” said VidCon co-founder Hank Green during the Creator track closing ceremonies. “I can pick one or two or three, and these are going to be the ways that I build my audience.”

Green cited the fact that YouTube remains the only content platform sharing revenue with the creators who populate it, humorously calling out places like Facebook where creators actually have to pay to reach their own audiences. However, he also noted that Facebook is now the second platform with a pilot program for sharing money with content creators, even if  that change is coming long after YouTube made the leap in 2009. For Green, the importance of platform diversity is that it makes an even playing field for independent creators to figure out how to use each platform in inventive ways, building their own audiences in the same way the veterans of YouTube did in the 2007-2010 era before its mainstream explosion.

“Platform diversity creates a diversity of creators, and that is a force against the consolidation that media has tended toward for the last 100 years,” said Green. “Because it’s sort of inevitable [that] the person with the most subscribers gets the most subscribers, so when you have a new platform where things start out level, that’s where independent creators can get discovered. I’m glad to be a part of it, and I’m glad to see it here at VidCon.”

#Brands

Brands and their influence over the creator community were still up for discussion as well, with John Green, Hank’s brother and fellow VidCon co-founder, speaking to the importance of brands worrying less about immediately quantifiable results and more about fostering communities authentically.

“The real opportunity for brands online is to help creators build and foster better communities, so that those communities can bring better and more interesting stuff into the world,” said the elder Green during his opening speech to the Industry track. “If brands interacted with those communities authentically and they didn’t impose their values or messaging on them, they would win over the passionate or engaged communities. Not for a quarter or a campaign, but for a lifetime.”

In some ways brands were out in full force at VidCon, with Kia Motors sponsoring not only a booth on the floor, but the main stage as well, which meant YouTubers gave talks while inexplicably seated next to a car all weekend. Air Optix Colors hosted a booth with free makeovers from Hollywood artist Scott Barnes to match multicolored contact lenses. But overall, the event still hasn’t succumbed to the overwhelming commercialism of places like San Diego Comic Con, and most of the promotional efforts directly supported either creators or the tools and platforms they use to gain attention.

On the convention floor

For those on the Community track, who made up the overwhelming majority of attendees, which platform or brand was there was less of a concern than which digital star they were looking to bump into over the three-day event. One of VidCon’s major improvements over last year was their management of signings, which had led to teens camping out all day in hopes of meeting stars, thus missing other events available to them at the conference. This year introduced a pre-event lottery system for signings, with attendees given wristbands corresponding with their arrival times for each event, leaving them open to enjoy the conference in the meantime. Of course, this didn’t completely deconstruct the tendency for some attendees to roam areas day and night in hopes of meeting a favorite creator, with many fans following a chosen favorite from event to event or plotting ways to casually come upon that creator in the hotel lobby or hallway. However, the new system allowed more freedom in people’s schedules to achieve a coveted photo and autograph without sacrificing their time with rest of the events.

In turn, there were fewer mobs and stampedes caused by fans spotting a creator and rushing after them in the main areas than in years previous, but those weren’t totally eradicated. While most creators aimed to avoid crowds and potentially dangerous situations, others courted it. In particular, Vine user Matthew Espinosa baited his fans into intentionally causing a scene on the floor when he appeared in alleged blackface as a character he called “Papa Squat,” surrounded by bodyguards and a large camera crew. Teens bolted in waves as they saw him, and the crowd around him moved haphazardly through the convention floor, with many fans tagging along without any idea of who was in the center of the mob.

“Going forward, we’re going to be more strict about creators who endanger their fans, whether that’s through manipulation online or by intentionally creating mob scenes at VidCon or other similar events,” Hank Green wrote on his Tumblr after the event. “We will communicate to them that they are not welcome and will arrest them if they attempt to create a mob. Two of our security officers were injured this year in a mob caused intentionally by a creator who did the exact same thing last year, and we simply cannot allow that in the future.”

“It’s interesting because I’ve never been that fanatic about anyone,” said vlogger Mamrie Hart. “But then I think if I was 11 and Jonathan Taylor Thomas was 20 yards in front of me, I can’t say I wouldn’t have screamed, especially if everyone else was. It’s mob mentality.”

Overall, the event was far more organized than years previous, with a strict structure of Community attendees having run over the first floor of the convention center, with stages, signing halls and an expo floor, and Industry and Creator tracks sharing the top two levels for more in-depth breakout sessions. Featured creators, those who previously drew mobs or crowds when they had to walk through common spaces to get from event to event, were moved to back passageways for everyone’s safety.

“This conference is one that I simultaneously look forward to and dread every single year,” explained Andrew Graham, a manager at Big Frame who represents top talent like Connor Franta and Ricky Dillon. “This is the epicenter of our industry, but also it is also known for getting mobbed.” Graham noted that the 2015 event was way more organized and mature, both in terms of the type of topics up for discussion and the ease of talent navigating the space. “If you are a talent here, you can see loading dock to loading dock all weekend.”

“Going forward, we’re going to be more strict about creators who endanger their fans.” —Hank Green

That may seem antithetical to the spirit of VidCon and the idea of a community of creators and fans sharing the same space, but it’s also a symptom of the success of the platforms, now that some of these digital talents have surpassed traditional Hollywood stars in the minds of millennials.

“When you get more into the Tyler Oakley or Connor Franta range [of fame], these conferences are about coming, spending a little bit of time with your fans, making your announcements, and going back to work,” said Graham. “It is about the community, but it’s a little more industry-focused.”

Introducing the Creator track

There’s also now a middle ground, for attendees who feel they are neither mere voyeurs in the space nor at the level (or with the disposable income) of an Industry badge. The Creator track bridged that gap for the first time in 2015, with sessions focused on building a channel, storytelling techniques, and how and when to engage with multichannel networks (MCNs), agents, and managers. While the track wasn’t perfect in its first iteration, it’s a welcome step forward for VidCon to find ways to foster new creators in a sea of established stars. At the closing event for the track, a rapid-fire session in the main ballroom that welcomed a variety of speakers on stage to say their piece about content and the conference, vlogger Hartbeat called out one of the most evident issues with the VidCon lineup: lack of diversity.

“YouTube gives you the power to look at the creator of VidCon in the eye and tell them something that you’re really passionate about, look them in the eye and tell them, ‘You need to bring more featured black creators to VidCon,’” said an emotional Hartbeat. “Everyone deserves the equal opportunity to be great.” She was visibly nervous to be calling out the convention that had invited her to speak, but she had no need to be: The crowd cheered her on, and Green praised her challenge as in the spirit of VidCon on both his Twitter and Tumblr. Diversity as a topic fared better than in years past, with panels like Women in YouTube and Race and Representation on YouTube both slated for the main stage instead of smaller rooms that quickly filled to capacity in years past.

Controversy and concern

While there was a seemingly endless supply of stars afoot, some were less welcome than others. Carter Reynolds, who recently came under fire after a sex tape leaked which featured him pressuring his then-girlfriend Maggie Lindemann to perform oral sex on him, attended the event despite not being an invited guest. When VidCon got word of his appearance, they banned him, and the Hilton Anaheim and Marriott both removed him from their hotels. But before the people in charge got involved, teens at the event were making their disapproval of Reynolds heard loud and clear.

“I’m waiting to drag Carter,” said 14-year-old attendee Simone J., who then began posing next to a garbage can, joking that she was getting a selfie with the Vine star. Several other attendees pulled the same joke on Twitter, as well as others who took pictures with the actual Reynolds, only to throw him the middle finger during their snap. Fans even chanted “fuck you, Carter” as he posed with fans.

In response to the wave of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations in the community over the past year, one unassuming booth on the convention floor aimed to address the issue head on. Uplift, a nonprofit “dedicated to combatting sexual abuse in online communities through education and advocacy,” passed out information, sold buttons to raise money, and served as a safe space for discussion.

VidCon even attracted religious protesters, which the convention staff repeatedly urged attendees to ignore via the official app. However, throughout each day attendees were often spotted debating or discussing with the protesters. The community thrives on speaking their minds, so they didn’t shy away from a chance to open a dialogue or engage in protest moments of their own, including kiss-ins in front of the signs about sin.

Beyond the cat video

In the end, it’s all about the content. Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s head of culture and trends, gave the crowd a rundown of the history of content on the site. Specifically, he called out a surprising a historical parallel between YouTube and the film industry: the cat video. One of the first things ever put to film by Thomas Edison in 1894 was two cats, boxing.

“This is not just the first cat video ever recorded, this is also the first pieces of film ever recorded,” explained Allocca at the closing event. “The film industry made 100 billion dollars last year, and one of the first moving pictures before Chaplin, before Orson Welles, was a cat video. YouTube’s earliest creators were kind of like the Thomas Edisons of their time, paving the way for everyone in this room to essentially reinvent media on a new type of platform with a new type of audience.”

Cat videos may be the stereotype, but YouTube’s most searched term is “minecraft,” and now beauty and education content outpace pets on the platform. As the world of digital video enters its 11th year and VidCon eyes its seventh, the reinvention clearly continues.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Rae Votta

Rae Votta

A former YouTube reporter for the Daily Dot, Rae Votta has more than a decade of experience in the digital and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared on AOL, Huffington Post, Out Magazine, Logo, VH1, Current TV, Billboard, and NYMag. She joined Netflix in 2016.