An Old Person’s Remote Recap of VidCon 2015

VidCon royalty Lilly Singh, Tyler Oakley, and Matt Espinosa Photo: Getty Images

Because I am a human adult with an internet connection, I watch YouTube all the time, mostly to relive Sutton Foster’s amazing tap number from Anything Goes and watch old episodes of Gummi Bears. These visits happen often enough to contribute a not-insignificant bump to the view counts on those videos, but not so frequently that my YouTube routine falls outside the bounds of typical human behavior. I am not what you would call a power user.

That designation is reserved for the types of legitimate stars that most people old enough to have a college degree wouldn’t recognize; the types of unexpected internet celebrities that New York featured last spring; the types of YouTube creators who make confessional vlogs and video-game parodies and makeup tutorials and karaoke mash-ups, and who have consequently become more famous than Nicole Kidman’s forehead and early '90s “Vogue”-era Madonna combined.

Those power users are the people who headlined at this past weekend’s VidCon, the annual gathering of career YouTubers and the community that loves them. In the five years since its creation, VidCon has grown to a considerable size — more than 18,000 fans, many half my age, filed into the Anaheim Convention Center to attend panels and meet-and-greets featuring the internet’s biggest personalities.

I did not attend VidCon; it would have taken me three months to adequately steel myself for such an experience, and my summer itinerary wasn’t able to accommodate that. But this is an event that draws nearly 20,000 people to Anaheim and features a bunch of teenagers who will almost certainly one day comprise a large portion of our Senate. It would be folly not to know anything about it. With that in mind, here are five things I learned, from the remove of my Brooklyn apartment, about VidCon 2015.

This is a really big business.
The conference was started in 2010 by notable internet personages Hank and John Green, a.k.a the “Vlog Brothers.” The first conference held only 1,400 attendees but quickly ballooned to the size of a state university, and now features more than 145 speakers and 300 of YouTube’s biggest stars directly interacting with their fans. Yes, that means you, too, can get a selfie with Tyler Oakley. (Well, you can’t anymore because VidCon ended on Saturday, but if you paid attention to this stuff and flew to Anaheim last weekend and stood in an hours-long line and paid some money, well, you, too, could have gotten a selfie with Tyler Oakley — if you even know who that is, and you should, because he has interviewed Michelle Obama and you have not.)

The kids in attendance were not only starstruck fans but also budding entrepreneurs, attending talks where they could figure out how to get more followers, popularize their personal brands (ugh, personal brands), and find multi-platform success like some of the biggest stars on YouTube. And the speakers and moderators weren’t just YouTube creators who live a better life than me by making vlogs in their bedrooms. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki gave a keynote address discussing the future of the medium, including discussion of mobile devices and virtual reality. Katie Couric, who now works at Yahoo, interviewed BuzzFeed Video guru Ze Frank and YouTube superstar Joey Graceffa. You’ve heard of Katie Couric. Susan, maybe not, but you’ve heard of being a CEO of an enormous company.

Brands are also getting in on the action, with the fees for a convention-floor booth ranging from $2,500 to $70,000. Jimmy Kimmel Live had a GIF-making area, Instagram had an emoji ball-pit, Cover Girl was auditioning potential spokesmodels, and Kia, knowing where the money really is, sponsored a parents’ lounge in which mature adults could hang out looking at cars and waiting for their teens to finish screaming themselves hoarse. Canon, Taco Bell, Nickelodeon, and NBCUniversal were all pimping themselves out to the future capitalists of America.

But co-founder John Green, who moonlights as the impossibly successful author of young-adult blockbusters like The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, used the VidCon opening keynote to take a subtle dig at the antiquated methods of consumer-facing companies such as the ones populating his conference. “Advertising needs to change dramatically,” he said. “An internet that answers to users is better than an internet that answers to brands.” That’s how to get a three-day party started.

All the YouTube stars want to be movie stars.
I thought that Smosh was something that Snooki and the Situation did on Jersey Shore, but I was mistaken. They are actually a famous YouTube duo who have 20 million subscribers. I, obviously, am not one of them. They premiered their big-screen debut — creatively titled Smosh: The Movie — at VidCon. The New York Times says, “It might not pass muster at the multiplex, but it’s clever and surprisingly easy to sit through, even if you’re not a teenage fan of Smosh opuses like ‘My Magical Tapeworm’ and ‘Paranormal Easy-Bake Oven.’” That’s a pretty decent review.

Kian Lawley, a YouTube phenom with nearly 3 million subscribers, also debuted his horror movie The Chosen. The Times didn’t pick this one up, but there is a virtual-reality component to the movie, and some VidCon attendees freaked the hell out when watching it. Maybe that’s a good sign? I don’t know. Everything I know about virtual reality comes from The Lawnmower Man.

Lilly “Superwoman” Singh, who has nothing to do with Supergirl coming this fall to CBS, used the stage at VidCon to release the trailer for her movie A Trip to Unicorn Island. It’s a documentary about her world tour and struggles with depression, but it seems more like an advertisement for her YouTube channel. Considering she already has 6 million followers, does she really need many more? Yes, of course she does. As they say on the 'Tube, be sure to click “Like” below and subscribe.

All the stars are planning their next moves.
It wasn’t just the Hollywood wannabes who were flogging new projects. Anyone with a huge following is trying to break out of YouTube and find relevance on other platforms. Grace Helbig — whom I know is famous because I see her in ads on the subway — and Hannah Hart released the trailer for their new series Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. It’s a remake of the '70s live-action show for kids, making it maybe the only thing at VidCon that I know more about than everyone in attendance.

Similarly, TruTV screened a trailer for Six Degrees of Everything, a show by the Fine Brothers (who make those Kids React videos that you have probably seen because your nephew posted one about Nintendo on Facebook). It is like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but about stuff that was not in Wild Things.

Jenn McAllister has a new show. Conor Franta (who is not a soft drink) has a new album. Michelle Phan has a digital comic. Jenna Marbles has a wax figure. Even internet punching-bag Rebecca Black, whom you remember from “Friday,” has a new album. It is also probably awful, but who knows. One thing that we do know is that all of these people are hustling and trying to make it happen.

Do not mess with the fans.
The most frightening thing I have seen in a long time is this GIF of a pack of girls chasing after Vine star Matt Espinosa. It’s like a swarm of bees and a pack of lemmings had their DNA spliced, and the resulting creatures were taught how to shriek and take iPhone videos. Espinosa even put on a disguise to visit the floor of VidCon, but his fans figured out who he was anyway and his bodyguards had to escort him to safety. That is some serious One Direction–level shit.

The attention can also have a dark side. When disgraced Vine star Carter Reynolds showed up at VidCon just months after the leak of a video online in which he supposedly forced his then underage-girlfriend to perform a sex act on him, the reception was not very warm. Fans shouted him down, screaming, “Fuck you, Carter.” He was later removed by security and told by Hank Greene that he was not welcome.

Reynolds wasn’t the only person fans turned on. There was a pack of street preachers outside of the convention center who had constant run-ins with attendees. The Christian proselytizers were handing out Get Out of Hell Free cards and telling passersby that their sins separate them from Jesus. The biggest sin seems to be that many at VidCon are openly gay. At one point, an attendee in a "No Homo(phobia)" T-shirt tried to block the protester with a rainbow-colored #LoveWins sign. It’s good when the pack can use their powers for good instead of evil.

VidCon is really gay.
I don’t mean that in the silly, derogatory schoolyard sense. I mean there are a lot of gay people there, and no one, except for the few jerks in the parking lot with the Jesus signs, seems to care. Tyler Oakley, the “prom king of VidCon,” is openly gay. So are Conor Franta (still not a soft drink) and Joey Graceffa. These guys are three of VidCon’s biggest draws.

Many of the creators talked about their experiences coming out on the platform in their one-on-one interviews. Lohanthony, one of my personal heroes, talked about the acceptance he felt from the community when he came out online. Beauty blogger Ingrid Nilson, one of the few lesbians in the bunch and a more recent addition to YouTube’s rainbow connection, talked about the overwhelming response her coming out video received. Kingsley (who is not named after Kim Richards’s dog) got right to the chase and named rapper Big Sean as his No. 1 crush. The only reaction he got from the audience was one of those “aww”s you hear on sitcoms when two characters finally kiss.

The kids these days are accepting of so many things, from LGBT people to emerging platforms like Periscope and Vessel (which, according to every story I read about VidCon, is the next big thing). It seems, from my distant vantage point, that what VidCon does best — once you've removed the consumerism and protesters and Carter Reynolds — is remind everyone of the positive impact that sites like YouTube can have. And not just with Sutton Foster videos.