VidCon, the annual conference for online video in California, began yesterday. When I remembered, I realized that I haven’t recreationally watched YouTube videos for at least a couple years.
Remember the first time that you went on YouTube? It’s a tough thing to forget. My first time was in 2005, when I was still in elementary school and my cousin showed me some stupid cartoon on this website whose potential was yet to be determined.
YouTube was always intended to serve as a free and open platform for idea sharing, which set it apart from purely consumer-centered networks such as America Online and MySpace. What was most unique about YouTube was its uncanny ability to make even the most mundane content stupidly famous, like that time when Internet duo Smosh was just a couple of college students who lip synched to the Pokemon theme song, put it up for friends and unintentionally racked up 25 million views on the most viewed video of 2006 (for comparison, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video is currently the most viewed video of all time with 2.4 billion views).
A new era of the Internet had begun, where nerds were allowed to nerd out together, those with niche hobbies around the world were able to get in touch and a new integrated “YouTuber” culture formed with its own etiquette and inside jokes.
Such success stories became the norm, even after the purchase of YouTube by Google in late 2006, and “vloggers,” or video bloggers, came to form a sort of community with their fans. Many moved to the Los Angeles area to collaborate with other content creators. During this period characterized by unrestricted creation, which ranged from around 2007 to a year or so after the first VidCon in 2010, creators were for the first time completely in control of what they put up and able to directly communicate with their fanbases in their comments sections and on newfangled democratic social media sites like Twitter, which launched in 2006. But more interestingly, the idea of “success” at the time was still making it to television, film or whatever industry would best utilize a vlogger’s broadcasted talent. How would YouTube influence our media in real life and social interactions?
YouTube vloggers had a unique power to organize informal community meetups, but Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel — more recognizably, the brother of John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars” and the other half of Vlogbrothers — endeavored to create a more formal meet-up for YouTubers to be together all at once. Thus, the first VidCon was created and it attracted less than 1,500 attendees to a Los Angeles Hyatt. Always reflective of quirky YouTube culture, it advertised a ball pit and an evening dance party.
I had the privilege of attending the first VidCon in 2010, which had two ticket tracks: community and industry, which was intended for content creators and Internet whizzes serious enough to make money off of online media. Both tracks had access to the entire conference, as all the industry stuff took place on a separate day. I came as a fan, but most of the attendees I encountered were content creators who were surprised to find that they had “fans” to begin with. The hotel lobby became a place for YouTubers of any subscriber count to collaborate and hang out without expectations, contracts or hidden agendas. I’m pretty sure my favorite YouTuber went into shock when he found out he had a 13-year-old fangirl, but we ended up becoming friends, and we still stay in touch today.
I stopped attending VidCon after 2012. My first VidCon had encouraged me to try making vlogs, but after a year, I put my account on private. Still, it was worth trying, and as a result, I established a connection to the creator community. The “famous” YouTuber I befriended was part of a group of mostly teenaged content creators around the country who met because they made videos and occasionally collaborated with one another. Some struck it big and some didn’t, but no amount of success affected their relationship. I was inspired by this diverse group of not-quite-college-aged kids that threw themselves into video making to practice their own artistic talents, voice their opinions and learn how to relate to those who responded to their content. These kids were entrepreneurs, and their spirit could not have been revealed as tangibly as it was without the common YouTube platform.
VidCon 2012, whose massive ticket sales moved the location to the Anaheim Convention Center, introduced the expo track, which gave an attendee access to an expanded expo hall area but prohibited attendance to panels. VidCon 2010 and 2011 both had a fair amount of vendors and informal YouTuber signings, but in 2012 third-party networks ruled the expo hall. Even the official VidCon website acknowledges that the once-blurred line between fans and creators is now hardened.
As much as I want to decry the so-called “mainstreaming” of online video with its increasingly brand-centered programming — one brand representative coined the word “Veatles” to compare vloggers’ fangirls to Beatlemania — the truth is that I haven’t been to VidCon in three years. I still have hope in VidCon 2015’s expected attendance of over 20,000 and the change from the “community” track to “creator” track, which gives additional benefits to creators but restricts their access to the expo hall in order to encourage collaboration with industry in a more innovation-oriented environment.
Was any of this shared experience really about the videos? It’s always been about community. As long as we’re all connected through the common platform of online media, we are able to transcend physical and cultural barriers to establish a community with its own culture no matter what common interest we happen to share. Countries such as Iran, Tunisia and Egypt have already used amateur online video to voice their unity in the midst of revolution, and countless of otherwise unheard stories have been shared using YouTube.
Online video encourages innovation because we have found that we’re not alone. No longer is YouTube merely a vessel to more accepted forms of success; rather, it is our success itself. The power is in the hands of the user, and by participating in deliberate creation, we are uniting.