Sunday, June 29, 2014

On VidCon: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In 2011, I attended my first ever conference. A small YouTube fan/creator event held in the basement of a hotel in Century City - a little known gathering called VidCon. It was already a year old, and it was obvious that the event was already growing too big for its britches. Fans chased down creators like they were animal control pursuing rabid animals. I felt out of the loop because at the time I was only vaguely familiar with YouTube celebrity culture. But despite the craziness, there was still an aura of grassroots camaraderie, and that's what kept me coming back.

Now, in 2014, VidCon is more a convention than ever. With upwards of 17,000 attendees (a number I heard thrown around at VidCon and have seen in subsequent reports), what used to feel like a community event has ballooned into something much harder to define.

It seems that for those among us who have been at VidCon in one or more of the four years past, this fifth version of the Con we know and love has been a bit jarring, and I'd like to address that - along with a few ideas I have moving forward.

1. Keeping Fandom in Check

At my first VidCon, I'd only subscribed to a few channels. Since I knew so few creators at the event, I had an agenda: to meet whomever I could out of the six or so folks whom I watched regularly. In 2011, bumping into a popular YouTuber at VidCon was not unheard of. Nowadays, the same creator I met casually walking around the floor is showing up in Coca Cola commercials. YouTube stardom has grown farther than we could've imagined three or four years ago. That's thanks to us (the subscribers), but also a concern for us as we move forward.

The very essence of YouTube's greatness is as a community. Creators put up content that is engaging and personal, viewers absorb that content and connect with the creators - feeling like friends by proxy through this magical thing we call the Internet. But because the scale of YouTube has grown so exponentially, there's no feasible way to maintain the small, personal aspect of that community. Meet-ups are excellent for a quick fix, but only for those who are willing to go through the trials of standing in line for six hours. Most of us don't function well without access to the outside world for a quarter of the day, which causes a disconnect.

But to my mind, there is a solution: "Let it go." To take a now trite phrase from a beloved Disney animated film, it's time we all put things in perspective. The viewers without the patience for hours of queuing don't have to lament over the lost opportunity of meeting the more popular YouTubers, because that's not what VidCon is about anyway. More than a fan convention, this is a community event. A chance to meet creators (new, old, famous, not famous), to discover things about the craft of video production and to interact with like-minded individuals. If we find ourselves alienated by the fandoms, we needn't come face-to-face with them. VidCon is now a dichotomy - split between people who care about brushing elbows with stars and people who could care less about stardom - and we can choose which side we'd rather be on, and choose to be content with our decision.

2. Size Matters

My first VidCon had around 2,500 attendees. Compared to this year, that number is absolutely tiny. At the time it still felt huge, and even in retrospect it's an impressive number. However, it makes 17,000 seem absolutely unfathomable. That is, until you're standing outside a convention center waiting to enter a building, standing in a line of thousands of other people just as frustrated as you. Then the number feels all too real.

VidCon has grown every year and will, no doubt, continue to grow. What I hope will be addressed after this year is something that was discussed in hushed tones all around the event this year: the lack of enough options for attendees. With only two or three big panels or Q&As happening at a given time during the conference, attendees found themselves crammed into too-small rooms with too-many people (or, even worse, being shut out). This, in addition to incredibly long meet-up lines, led to a lot of disappointment for people who'd paid a great deal of money to be at this event. Rooms filled to capacity, sometimes with people who didn't even care to be in a particular panel, but who were squatting in a given room so that they could capture a good seat for the next panel on the docket. The system was unfair and unbalanced, forcing people to decide between going to all the events they'd like to or choosing to forego some in lieu of others.

If VidCon is to continue to grow in size, there will have to be more opportunities for engagement to sustain that growth. Without enough space to go around, the event seems overcrowded and stifling. And while every Con aspires to be something akin to Comic-Con in terms of buzz and popularity, is there anyone who actually enjoys the idea of being trapped in rooms with too many people, or weaving through crowds of unmoving human bodies just to get on an escalator? I think not.

3. Re-Introduce Community Building

One of my favorite panels at VidCon this year was about communities on YouTube. Some of the top creators on the platform talked about the groups of people who watch their videos, how they've channeled their influence into something they perceive as being greater than themselves.

In the first few years of VidCon, that's what the convention was all about: creators and fans convening, and essentially blurring the divide between fan and idol.

While it may be impossible at this point to integrate more famed YouTubers into the broader community, attendees of events like VidCon should make a conscious effort to step outside their roles as fans and into the space in between creator and audience. Community is the bringing together of perceived leaders and followers, into a safe space where they feel connected and engaged. Hierarchies don't need to exist in a community. YouTube has always been best when the hierarchies are removed in exchange for friendship.

I've made some of my closest friends at VidCon, and I truly believe that this is one of the most perfect places to meet like-minded people with whom community is a given. So why not pursue that? Is it more important to spend one minute talking to a "famous" YouTuber you may never see again? Or form a relationship with someone who could become your best friend for a lifetime?

4. The Golden Rule

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This year, I stayed away from any and all drama that took place at VidCon, but being privy to the goings-on around the conference via social media, I was astonished at the catty and insensitive choices being made by people I wanted to respect.

As I see it, the YouTube community is made up of primarily awesome people. We are society's nerds and outcasts, the weirdos who don't necessarily fit into the mainstream, so we band together to find kinship with the likeminded. So, by this definition, shouldn't we unsubscribe ourselves to the petty expectations of an inherently selfish society?

Creators tweeted about being stalked to their hotel rooms, attendees were pushed out of signing lines by other attendees, security officers were being treated rudely every time they denied anyone anything.

If we all just had an ounce more respect for each other, then we wouldn't do anything to our fellow man that we wouldn't want done to us. Sure, there will always be the lowest common denominator of people who will make dumb choices like these, but as smart people (and you have to at least be somewhat technologically savvy to get involved in the YouTube community) we have an obligation to be more than that.

VidCon is first and foremost an event for the people. YouTube creators, unlike the special guests of most other conferences in the world, are not celebrities first. They are ordinary people first. And as subscribers (and people), we owe it to ourselves to respect not only them, but us. We are more than just fans, we are part of something huge. We are the backbone of a community that is growing and becoming more and more powerful as the years go on and our numbers grow.

VidCon has begun to draw big names and big sponsorships because of our enthusiasm. With the right frame of mind, we could all channel that strength into something good.

For nerdfighters, a more recognizable message might be that our responsibility at VidCon is to "decrease world suck." We represent something bigger than an individual conference/convention/what have you. We are a community. And we owe it to the greater community to represent YouTube fans in the proper light: as a respectful, kind, thoughtful and engaged group of cooperative individuals.

For me, that is what VidCon is. And at future VidCons, I hope that message becomes more evident.

For those who are interested, my YouTube channel - which I haven't updated in quite a while, but have plans to continue creating for - is thesongsofspring. Thank you for reading.

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