7 Years of VidCon

A few hours into the first day of VidCon 2016, I had a conversation that helped set the tone for the rest of my experience in Anaheim.

I was chatting with Sarah Weichel, an independent manager working with creators such as Lilly Singh, Madilyn Bailey, Kingsley, and Jon Cozart. It was shortly after Jon’s Q&A that we ran into each other, and she told me how lovely the 1-hour packed room session was to watch. His viewers are all Disney buffs and theater kids, she said, similar to Jon himself.

“I believe communities feel represented by the YouTubers they watch and that’s why the connection is so strong,” Sarah pointed out.

To me, that’s what VidCon–and online video in general–is about... Finding a group that represents YOU, where you can walk in and know you’re okay as you are because the people around you share something in common. It’s a welcoming place, a safe space.

On a personal note, that’s also what VidCon has always meant to me. I volunteered at the first VidCon in 2010 when I was 18, and it has become an environment in which I’ve been able to grow, learn to be comfortable with myself, work hard in a new career, and contribute to a vibrant creative community. Like many introverts, I feel more comfortable in a group when there’s something to cut through the small talk, where I know I’m around kindred spirits. VidCon is a 3 day celebration of this feeling.

1,400 people were at VidCon 2010… 7 years later, the days of a hotel basement ballroom barely half full are long gone.

Much has been made of online video going “mainstream” — but in the planning of VidCon, we try not to lose sight of what makes it special.

Walking around, it’s the connections that matter most. Online friends meeting in person for the first time. Attendees meeting a creator with enthusiasm and excitement. Artists collaborating and finding inspiration. Companies and industry professionals discussing the business.

Making VidCon a safe space was more important than ever this year. World events brought fear to the forefront and an already-robust security plan was evaluated all over again. Much has been written about the extra divide between creators and attendees, but I think it all came together and the opportunity to connect was still there.

Having VidCon feel true and genuine has also become more difficult as we’ve grown. With money and manpower pouring into digital careers, the number of people clamoring to say “what matters” has multiplied. YouTubers are now celebrities, or talent, or influencers.

That sound you hear is me cheering wildly… I couldn’t agree more with Hank and others who push back against the term of “influencer”.

In the last few years working full time year round as Guest Manager, I’ve tried to stay focused on what should matter and what shouldn’t. Influence, reach, money, fame…shouldn’t be the main things that matter. That’s why, for the Featured Creators (the people who participate in official VidCon programming), we don’t just take the big channels, and we don’t just pay attention to the numbers.

One of the Featured Creators from this year came up to me during the event saying she had been bothered by someone who couldn’t understand why he, with his bigger subscriber count, wasn’t invited, and she was.

We can’t invite everyone, and the idea that the decision should be based on numbers alone is flawed. I strongly believe that having a channel with smaller reach shouldn’t disqualify anyone because engagement comes in many forms. Through my work with the VidCon team, I’ve spent years looking for a diversity of voices. While we can’t amplify every voice, we can do our best to feature a variety of perspectives. Who we invite changes every year, and to keep the conversations interesting, we can’t JUST look at the loudest voices or biggest communities.

What that creator didn’t seem to understand was that channel size isn’t the only factor — we saw her passion and engagement, the energy she put into the community and that the community put back into her.

It’s the Creator, the act of creating, the creation of communities that will anchor the development of this into a sustainable industry.

Over the years, I’ve found that when we invite a creator to VidCon, we’re inviting their community along with them. That’s why VidCon, to me, will always be the physical space that defines the people who love online video. It’s YouTube IRL, where Dan & Phil and a giant squid can do a Q&A on stage; where the state of the industry is discussed for fans, creators, and professionals alike; where new projects are announced. (This includes the newly-formed Internet Creators Guild I’ll be building with Hank, which aims to further many of these goals.)

We need to remember that many of us who love online video started as misfits in one way or another, and that’s why we all originally fit at VidCon and on YouTube. This community is capable of being more loving and open than any I’ve encountered, and we can’t forget how rare that is in this world.

Online video has been shaped by a generation brought together by social media who have found each other. Who see themselves in the creators who make livings online. Who have created the opportunities those artists use to grow. As a viewer, you have the simple power of choosing where to put your attention, so you can find the creator you align with and help make a space defined by your shared worldview and values.

The best kept secret all these years is that VidCon isn’t about online video, it’s about the community online video has brought together.