Fans line up for a moment with a Vidcon demistar

What I Learned at Vidcon

It’s not about the content

Despite its name and close association with YouTube, I don’t think Vidcon is really about video. It’s about relationships and communities in a way that no other medium can claim. The seventh annual Vidcon brought 25,000 people to Anaheim last weekend not to consume content but to commune around it.

On the first floor of the convention center, more than 17,000 young (majority female) fans of YouTube icons and social-media stars gathered to wait in line for that special selfie with the person they see on their small screens who doesn’t just entertain them but, they believe, understands (or should I say validates) them. “40% of millennials say YouTube creators understand them better than their friends,” said a slide in YouTube’s Vidcon keynote. They also met and bonded with each other, brought together not merely in fandom but as ambient communities — if I may adapt Leisa Reichelt’s concept of the ambient intimacy the net fosters. When they meet each other waiting in line for a YouTube star, they already know what interests they share to a level of specificity and relevance that mass media cannot possibly serve; only the net can. Gamers, geeks, musicians, fashionistas, or just teens trying to cope with their particular agonies of adolescence find each other. I watched a few amazing sessions on mental health in which YouTube stars talked about revealing depression, ADHD, addiction, and so on, and the people formerly known as the audience also shared both their support and their experience. They listened to each other. These rooms were filled with empathy.

On the second floor were 5,000 creators. Many of them want to become the stars giving autographs, selfies, and hugs one floor below. Their chance of achieving that dream is infinitely better than it is an hour to the north in Hollywood. Here, too, a spirit of generosity and sharing prevailed. I saw creators give each other tips on how to navigate through fair use, trolls, and technology.

And on the third floor were 3,000 industry people — or, as I like to joke, the old, rich, white execs (majority male) who exploit the two floors below. I was one of them, brought this year to interview the impressive new CEO of MTV, Sean Atkins. My friend Jim Louderback curated an informative, useful program for us grey hairs, including remedial education in Snapchat, an interview with Fidji Simo, the genius behind Facebook Live, and a keynote from Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube. The program was inspiring. But the people attending also inspired me to go downstairs and spend as much time as I could among the fans and creators who are building the future of media, not those trying to adapt the future to the past.

The worldview of most of the execs on the third floor was still decidedly mass media: We make a product called content. It is our job to attract as big an audience — and we mean audience — to it as we can. We see people as metrics. We optimize for emotion (actual phrase). We try to fool Snapchat’s metrics by asking people to send us snaps we don’t actually care about. We try to fool Facebook’s algorithm into thinking we’re real people by including emojis and typos in our posts (wouldn’t it be easier just to be human?).

Am I being unfair? To an extent, sure. Some of these people are honestly trying to connect with the public in new and meaningful ways. But it’s so hard to stop thinking in the industrial terms of manufacturing content and creating audiences. It’s so hard to break the reflex of seeing the people out there as an anonymous mass represented by numbers instead of names (the former scales so much better than the latter, you see). But at Vidcon, it’s not hard to find the people out there; they’re an escalator ride away. Go downstairs and you’ll see that when they see someone they admire from YouTube — a demicelebrity — they form ad hoc lines to share that admiration and get hugs and smiles and gratitude in return (example in the photo above). They are outside listening to the musicians they made famous, not those who made it through the show biz gauntlet. Yes, you could argue that something like this happens at, say, Comicon. But here, the gap between creator and fan, maker and watcher is so much smaller.

I came to last year’s Vidcon an ignorant novice. The morning I left for the airport — invited by Louderback to interview The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur — my daughter, Julia, then a college freshman, asked me why I was going to L.A. “Have you heard of Vidcon?” I asked. “Well, yeahhhhh,” Julia exclaimed, with an expression that shouted: “Of course, I have, and why the hell aren’t you taking me, bad daddy? Vidcon is wasted on you.”

At first, it was. I didn’t realize what I’d walked into. The Hilton was filled not with the usual crowd of besotted, besuited conventioneers but with a solid flock of excited teenage girls. As I listened to them last year — and after I returned home and my forgiving daughter was kind enough to show me the YouTubers she likes and explain her relationship with them — I took away a lesson that has informed so many conversations and so much of my thinking about media since: I learned at Vidcon that what we call content is not an end-product. It is a social token. It is something that people make, remake, or pass around to say something about themselves or their relationships with their friends. It might speak for them or it might illustrate their opposition to an idea. It serves their conversations. It is not a destination.

We in old-fart media don’t make content for this purpose. We make shows or articles and try to draw audiences to them, for that’s what our business model still demands: reach, frequency, audience, metrics, data. If we made media to be passed around, to serve others’ conversations, we’d be making memes, GIFs, Snaps, tweets, Vines and so on filled with facts and arguments and journalism that people can use, not consume.

Vidcon was so worth the trip for me. But I still had to dig myself out of my bad-daddy hole and so I begged friend Louderback to have me back and, kind man that he is, he did. This year, I got to bring my daughter and she got to meet some of her favorites (and one we share: the wonderful John Green). She was my chaperone, my translator, my fixer. I was still a foreign correspondent here, but I still learned. I learned again that these rooms were way ahead of me in understanding and implementing the relationship model for media that I preach.

I watched a discussion of fair use (or as Larry Lessig defines it: “the right to hire a lawyer”). I expected the room to be angry with Hollywood and YouTube for taking down their videos when they are said to encroach on copyright. But no, unlike my angry colleagues in big media who rail against the technology titans, these people were reasonable, smart, and sympathetic to the needs and circumstances of both copyright holders and the platforms. Yes, they are frustrated when they get a bogus copyright complaint and suffer because of it and they wish they could get someone from YouTube on email to deal with it immediately, but they understood the enormity of YouTube’s task. They shared advice about how to avoid copyright hassles.

I was going to stand up and suggest that they form a consortium or a guild so they could share information and gather their influence to fight for copyright reform and also to give the platforms cover: a countervailing pressure to that of the big, old media companies. I’m glad I didn’t because they were way ahead of me. At the creators’ keynote — in which everyone on stage didn’t lecture or perform but instead wanted to share something with the packed room of fellow creators — Vidcon founder Hank Green (John’s brother and partner in everything from vlogs to educational videos to this conference) announced the creation of the Internet Creators Guild to do what I’d just imagined and more. I quickly joined and paid my dues.

There’s a pity to this year’s Vidcon. Coming only a few weeks after the double tragedies or Orlando — the shooting of young singer and YouTube star Christina Grimmie and the mass murder at the Pulse — Vidcon’s organizers prudently increased security with 450 guards, metal detectors before the autograph lines, and fences around the outside stages. As a father and as an attendee, I was grateful. But the heightened security meant that fans could n o longer gather around when a star left the stage; their interactions had to be more controlled. The stars rightly needed protection, or I’d imagine some wouldn’t come.

This is why we can’t have nice things. I hate to think that enabling bad acts is the inevitable price of openness. I hate to think that Vidcon couldn’t continue to make the so-called virtual real. The folks at Vidcon — at least those on the first and second floors — know well that the virtual is real. They will always have the communities they have built for and with each other and the content that does that. But I hope that Vidcon can still bring them together so they can meet each other and so old media farts like me can learn from them. I believe they will. They are optimists, like me. Vidcon is cause for optimism about the future of media and youth.

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