ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” blared over the speakers when the Vlog Squad, a group of former Vine stars who do pranks and make funny videos on YouTube, came out on stage for a question and answer session. But you could barely hear the music over the deafening screams from a standing-room only crowd of mostly tweens, teens and twenty-somethings.
Screams were not uncommon at last week’s VidCon, an annual conference in Anaheim, California for famous and aspiring social media stars, their fans, and the brands that love them.
The event may give the clearest picture of how social media has changed the way young people consume video content, and the rise of internet stars who rival traditional celebrities in terms of popularity.
VidCon, founded by veteran YouTube creators Hank and John Green, started at a Hyatt hotel in Los Angeles in 2010. About 1,400 people showed up, most of whom were fans of early YouTube stars such as the Green brothers.
Now in its tenth year, the conference takes place at the Anaheim Convention Center, where it can accommodate a growing population of internet personalities, their legions of fans, and splashy booths from brands including MTV, Nickelodeon and Too Faced makeup. VidCon, which was acquired by Viacom (VIA) in 2018, has also expanded internationally with events in Australia and London. This year, 75,000 people attended.
Vintario Manning, 21, who attended the Vlog Squad Q&A session said he was most excited to see David Dobrik, the leader of the group. Manning is an aspiring YouTuber himself who came to VidCon to see his favorite creators, network with people and capture some content for his own social media accounts.
“I wanted to come and see where I can improve so that way I can be on stage next time,” he said. “The goal is to not keep paying [to come to VidCon]. The goal is for them to let you in for free.”
T.J. Moore, 20, another aspiring creator, said he gets more enthusiastic about seeing YouTube stars than traditional celebrities like Hollywood actors.
“It’s almost surreal in a way when you see them online versus seeing them in person,” he said. “In my eyes, it would be great to meet them and pick their brains.”
Inside the convention center, Instagram photo-ops were everywhere, including a yellow ball pit, a life-sized Barbie Dreamhouse and a jungle-themed exhibit in honor of the new movie “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.”
The Dodo, a digital media brand focused on cute animal videos, helped put on the first-ever pet section at VidCon, with how-to sessions and appearances by some of the Internet’s most famous animals, including Nala the Cat and Pickles the Pig.
“It’s not just about seeing the creator perform or getting a selfie, it’s about connecting with other members of the community that share the same passions you do and doing that in a safe space and one that’s super fun and educating and fascinating and inspiring,” said Jim Louderback, general manager of VidCon.
Though YouTube stars dominate the conference, other companies that profit off user-generated posts have a presence as well, including Facebook (FB), Instagram and Snapchat (SNAP). Short-form video app TikTok was in attendance for the first time, along with some of its top stars such as Lauren Godwin, who posts videos of herself lip-syncing popular songs while sometimes doing tricks like dropping an egg in a glass. Even companies such as Pinterest (PINS) and LinkedIn showed up to pitch themselves as a place where video creators can thrive.
This year, one of the conference’s major themes was different ways to make money on social media. Panels included topics such as creating content with your significant other (titled “Working with Bae”); how to go viral and build a brand; and how to protect yourself against deepfakes, which are doctored videos that use artificial intelligence to show people doing things they didn’t actually do.
Teens filmed themselves walking around the venue, sometimes doing dance routines or short skits to post on their social media accounts. A small group of boys no older than 18-years old started a brawl on the sidewalk outside the expo hall while their friends filmed. When the cameras stopped, everyone dissolved into laughter. The fight was just for the content.
Attendees bought merchandise designed by their favorite social media stars, ranging from sweatshirts to nail polish and hats — many featuring various catch phrases such as “k bye” or “clickbait.” And the fans attended meet-and-greets or Q&A sessions to see the stars in real life and ask burning questions like “Do you button your pants first and then zip, or vice versa?”
Lauren Riihimaki, a YouTuber known as LaurDIY who has over 9 million subscribers, said the fans at VidCon are “wild.”
“I was on the floor of the expo hall last year and I wasn’t even sure who this person was, and I don’t think half the people did either,” she said. “But watching one person start freaking out, and then everyone else is freaking out, and then it’s a mob. It’s so cool to see the enthusiasm behind creators.”
The fans’ excitement contributes to a sometimes surreal atmosphere at the conference.
“It’s pandemonium,” said Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, a platform that connects social media stars with brands for deals. “You have all the people there that [attendees] watch every day on YouTube and on different platforms. Gen Z is very, very loud. It’s a very ‘Beatlemania‘-type feeling.”
15-year old attendee Kenzee traveled to VidCon for the first time this year from Colorado Springs with her friend and her friend’s parents.
“We came to meet famous people,” Kenzee said. “VidCon has over exceeded my expectations. I think it’s been super, super fun.”
She said her favorite moment was when she saw 24-year old YouTube star Issa Tweimeh, better known as Twaimz, who is famous for making funny videos.
“I cried,” she said.