VidCon — Still a “Must Attend” Event (But, Is It Still “Authentic”?)

[VidCon — the premier “gathering place” for the new digital economy and ecosystem — takes place this week in Anaheim, California. I’ll be there Thursday and Friday the 22nd and 23rd — including moderating a panel titled “New Business Models for Online Video” on the 23rd at 2 pm.
If you don’t know VidCon, you should. In fact, you must. It’s all about everything that IS digital video — YouTube, all new “off YouTube” video platforms (like Facebook, Snapchat), the artists-formerly-known-as “MCNs,” OTTs, all of the brands, ad-tech companies, data analytics companies, VCs, and others that support them — and most of all, the Creators who make it all possible. This one is NOT to be missed.
BUT — although VidCon remains one of the very few “Must Attend” industry events, it also faces its own “Authenticity Dilemma” given how massive it has become in such a short period of time. Here’s why — this is an article I wrote last year after attending my third VidCon. It will be interesting to see how VidCon addresses these new realities. My prediction? Security will be even tighter — for understandable reasons. And, increased security, among other things, inevitably changes the overall vibe.]

Just finished my third VidCon — an event I have always labeled as being a “must attend” for anyone in thedigital media” business (a term I use very broadly).

And yes, VidCon continues to rank amongst the most important industry events. For those of you who have never attended, it still is a “must” (for reasons I laid out in great detail in my review of my first VidCon two years ago). But, for others like me who have attended previously (especially those who have attended multiple times), it has become more like CES. An event worthy of consideration for sure (because many digital media leaders and influencers will be there and it is easy to schedule back-to-back meetings). VidCon, however, is no longer an absolute necessity for your agenda. And I wasn’t alone in that assessment. Several industry insiders whom I respect felt the same and actually left early.

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The primary reason? The original VidCon “magic” was gone. VidCon version 1.0 (which still existed two years ago) was all about serendipity and immersion into the brave new world of digital-first video content (what many then called the “YouTube Economy”). For that reason, as I wrote back then, the primary reason to attend was visceral. By attending, you simply “felt” (and, therefore, implicitly understood in a “Blink” kind of way) the massive transformation of media that was happening at that very moment-in-time (and the forces — including the Creators — behind that transformation). How could you not? Hoards of rabid, screaming tween/teen fans chased down and cornered their favorite YouTube-esque Creators/celebs in rapid succession.

It was like The Beatles visiting America — over and over and over again in one block of time. For these young fans, there were few rules — and there was full access. The energy that followed was palpable. That energy was “authentic” — perhaps naively so — which was both refreshing and true to the grass-roots that started this movement in the first place. As an observer, I (and others like me who already had been in the business a long time) were simply blown away by it all. “Wow!” And, my initial review two years ago — that you can revisit here — reflects that.

Two years later, those moments are now largely gone. That free access and unbridled (sometimes manic) enthusiasm was replaced by barricades and limited access (Todd Longwell of VideoInk felt the same way and created this video that captures the very different mood). Gone were the packs. Gone were the screams. Here was lockdown. Here were the well-orchestrated traditional “meet and greets.” The sharp demarcation of Creator and fan — which had already began in a big way last year (which I observed in a post after my Vidcon #2) — was complete. Creators had now evolved into being traditional celebs — with all the trappings that go with that. That means that those of you who attended for the first time this year (and last year, for that matter) experienced a fundamentally different — and fundamentally more conventional — “experience” from that of the earlier days.

And that means that VidCon is significantly less impactful in myriad ways. The most serendipitous events now are the more typical chance encounters with others you already know in the industry. Important to be sure — but not critical (unless you attend one of the many after-parties where conversations get looser as the drinks get stronger). All major media outlets that cover the new world of media now rightly attend VidCon and widely report on any breaking news that you need-to-know anyhow. So, again the verdict is (1) “must attend” for those of you who have never attended (although you will never experience the magic of the earlier days) and (2) “worth considering and attending” for those of you who have already been there, done that.

To be fair, I only attended one day this year (Friday) because insane travel delays from Iceland (yes, yet another music festival about which I will later report in a separate post) prevented me from attending day 1. But, again as I point out above, I was not alone in my reactions to VidCon 2016. I heard the same thing over and over again.

Bottom line — VidCon has become “conventional.” In fact, it is now best described for us in the business world as being a “convention.” Not as much of an “event” or “experience.” Not surprising, of course, given the fact that all media is now digital and the term “digital media” itself has now become somewhat out-dated. Anachronistic. Kind of the natural order of things that reflect how much the “business” has changed — has transformed — in the past two years alone. The “YouTube Economy’s” original grass-roots authenticity (and innocence that goes with it) — from which VidCon originally sprung — has been replaced by massive industry dollars and the quest for gold in a now multi-platform world.

All understandable. But, still kind of sad in a nostalgic kind of way.

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