Look Out, Comic-Con! VidCon is Gaining Fast

YouTuber conference gives a glimpse of the future of media


This is a guest column from Brent Weinstein (@brentweinstein), head of digital media at UTA.

In 1970, 300 fans gathered in the basement of a San Diego hotel to discuss and trade their favorite comic book titles, giving birth to Comic-Con. The event would swell into an annual mass gathering of 130,000 film, television, videogame and digital content creators and fans. I think there is still a special little area reserved for comic book aficionados—where the battle-armored “Game of Thrones” cos-players can’t hurt them.

But this past weekend in Anaheim, I attended an event that could grow to eclipse Comic-Con in terms of its impact on popular culture and that increasingly important intersection between creator and consumer. For three days beginning Aug. 1, the Anaheim Convention Center was home to the fourth Annual VidCon Conference (which counts UTA as a consultant), the annual gathering of the companies and individuals who create the most popular programming on the internet, the brands who support them, and the super fans who fly in from all over the world in order to meet their favorite stars.

Spending three days in the throngs of YouTube stars and their legions of fans made me realize one thing: this is only the beginning.

I’ve been to (and enjoyed) every Comic Con in the past decade.  But the average attendee—certainly the average camp-out-for-Hall-H, costumed superfan—seems to be in their mid-20s to mid-30s. They are typically consumers weaned on the popular culture of their childhood, which almost entirely consisted of film, television and publishing franchises, many of which continue to be “rebooted” today. Star Wars fans. Trekkies. Batmen and Jokers and more “Walking Deads” than you could imagine.  Parents gluing  “hobbit hair” on the feet of their confused toddlers.

But guess who isn’t in San Diego each July?  Zoe McNealy.

Zoe is a typical teenager who happened to fly (with her sister and parents) from their home in Australia just to attend VidCon and meet her favorite YouTube stars, like John Green.  She is part of YouTube’s core demo – what they refer to as Generation C, which is a mix of teens, millennials and Gen X – which spends 66% more time watching online video than TV. Forty five percent of them believe that YouTube is an “alternative” to television.  They idolize YouTube stars the way my generation idolized musicians, actors and athletes.

Zoe, along with thousands of similarly crazed fans, descended on the convention center on Wednesday and Thursday of Vidcon week, just for a chance to get a glimpse (or, faint, a photo) of their favorite digital stars before the show even opened. By Friday and Saturday— the “community” days where fans could walk the Exhibit Hall and attend panels—the iJustine’s and Shane Dawson’s couldn’t walk 10 feet without getting mobbed.

But unlike Comic-Con, where the biggest stars are flanked by security or stuck behind the safety of a dais, the stars of the digital world have learned and live by one critical lesson for success in “new” media: engage the fans. Make them feel a part of your world, so you can remain a part of theirs. And those that do it well have millions (9 million across three channels, in the case of Dawson) of YouTube subscribers to show for it. Huge audiences that they can program or market to with the push of a button.

This is an exciting and fascinating time in the short history of the online video business.  Companies like Machinima and Maker Studios are reaching super scale. Technology companies like Zefr and Fullscreen are helping unlock revenue opportunities for artists and companies. Cross-platform powerhouses like AwesomenessTV are being scooped up by larger media companies for the sincere connection they have with a huge legion of fans.

But it’s also a time when lots of really important questions are being asked. How can YouTube become as much about generating profits for its partners as it is about generating audience? Is YouTube “the” platform, or just one platform that content creators should leverage in order to build brands and businesses? How can more traditional media companies and content creators learn from the newbies, and how can the digital stars use their influence and audiences to unlock opportunities in traditional media, licensing and endorsements? And why the hell does the YouTube view counter still stop at 301? All those issues and more were debated fiercely during VidCon’s three days of panels and keynotes, and by its 12,000 attendees.

But while those issues are critical to the industry, none of them matters to Zoe McNealy.  Her free time is spent on YouTube and her passions reserved for her favorite online stars.

There will be more Zoe’s in Anaheim next summer, and more after that.  The winds of change in the online business blow strong, and the landscape could shift dramatically with a moment’s notice. But Zoe is a part of a movement: a fast-growing community of over 1 billion people who use YouTube at least once per month—and who have a more real and demonstrable connection to their entertainment idols than any generation has ever felt.

I’ll go to Comic-Con again next year and probably have a helluva time immersed in the fanaticism that drives the current media landscape. And then I’ll go to VidCon and get a glimpse of the future.