The first time I wondered whether VidCon had been engineered specifically to make me, age 27, feel exceptionally old was when the teens started screaming for Tyler Oakley. Oakley was the host of YouTube OnStage, the kickoff concert at the annual conference for online video creators and their highly engaged fans in Anaheim, California. As his face flashed across a trio of giant screens in the 7,500-person arena, a mass of teenagers—mostly girls—began shrieking. The response for Jason Derulo, the alleged main act of the evening, was comparably muted.
“This is my eighth VidCon,” Oakley said when he took the stage, eliciting laughter and applause after nearly every sentence. “It just keeps getting bigger and better every single year.”
There’s no arguing the bigger part. This year VidCon had around 30,341 attendees over a five-day odyssey that sprawled across the entire 1.6 million-square-foot Anaheim Convention Center. In 2010, when the event was first launched by longtime YouTube star Hank Green and his brother, author John Green (via a conversation with a sock puppet), only 1,400 people showed up. Oakley himself was just a fan back then. “The first year I came, I waited in line, I met Rebecca Black, and I about died,” he said to teens who were in elementary school when “Friday” dropped.
Now, Oakley is a YouTube megastar with more than 7 million subscribers who watch him vlog weekly about LGBT issues. I knew, as hundreds of teenagers watched Oakley crack jokes through their iPhone cameras, that he was a big online star. But I didn’t know he had written a book that cracked the New York Times best-seller list, or sat in the front row during New York Fashion Week, or met with President Obama. He was, by any reasonable measure, A Big Deal, speaking from the stage to the next generation of VidCon attendees who could look up and see a model to follow toward stardom.
This is the YouTube arc at its most romantic. A young person with creativity and charisma begins shooting videos in his bedroom just for the heck of it and slowly builds up an audience, and, before you know it, he’s on Ellen. YouTube’s first promise, when it launched in 2005, was to democratize fame (remember when Time magazine told us we were all Person of the Year? A YouTube mock-up appeared on the cover). Its second promise, after it had been acquired by Google and started serving ads under a profit-sharing model in 2007, was to give users a way to parlay that fame into riches. For the video site to thrive in the future, as well as the internet’s broader creative economy, it’s critical that people continue believing that both these things are possible for anyone and everyone.
This is exactly why VidCon’s opening ceremonies tried to shovel as much adoration onto the audience as possible; these are, after all, the next generation of YouTube stars. (VidCon is still run by Hank Green, but YouTube is the title sponsor.) “You are truly what makes YouTube special,” Oakley said to rapturous applause. Just before he came on, the OnStage concert began with a bizarre earworm called, “You Put the You in YouTube,” which featured a variety of the platform’s stars, at least one giant chipmunk, and choreographed tyrannosaurus rexes (all of this was sponsored by Pop-Tarts).
Underneath the jubilation, though, there’s an unmistakable anxiety about the future of YouTube, and online creativity more generally. The video site has grown at a torrid pace since its launch and shows no signs of stopping; earlier this year YouTube revealed that users now watch a billion hours of video per day, while 400 hours of video are uploaded to the platform each minute. But a recent crackdown on videos that might offend advertisers has reminded creators how little control they have over their monetization on the platform. The powerful algorithms that make YouTube so addictive may also create a feedback loop that benefits established creators (or media giants that can create viral-ready content at scale, like BuzzFeed), while boxing out newer ones. And attempts to decamp from the world’s biggest video site for another platform can end in abrupt ruin, like Vine.
The digital media revolution is no longer hype—we’re living it. But an online world where powerful gatekeepers decide who can and can’t make a living isn’t so different from the old one, even if those gatekeepers are now tech companies and millennial-focused media brands. VidCon itself—which is housed on three separate floors for fans, creators, and business executives—illustrates that the platform that told us “Broadcast Yourself” has also built a hierarchy of power and influence as it’s become more valuable. As YouTube itself approaches its teenage years, the strange, exciting world of independent online media risks being left behind.
“A lot of creators, big and small, are trying to figure out either how to sustain their companies or to make their hobby something that actually contributes to their income,” VidCon cofounder Hank Green told The Ringer. “It’s much harder than it used to be, but many more people are succeeding. That’s a weird dichotomy.”
The second time I wondered whether VidCon had been engineered specifically to make me, age 27, feel exceptionally old was just outside the first-floor entrance of the Anaheim Convention Center, when I met the parents of aspiring YouTube stars Cameron Reynolds and Summer Bakker. Both kids are 13 and mostly watch YouTube in lieu of regular television (they’re not alone; according to a Piper Jaffray survey about the mysterious habits of teens, more young people watch YouTube daily than cable TV).
“She’ll go in her room and say, ‘I gotta edit, Mom,’” Sandra Bakker said about her daughter as we sat between rows of food trucks. For kids like Cameron and Summer, VidCon is a chance to meet their favorite celebrities and get a whiff of what internet stardom might be like. The two kids had passes on VidCon’s community track, granting them access to the first floor of the sprawling conference. They could attend panels by YouTube stars, ranging from the literary world of “BookTube” (video stars who review and discuss books) to the challenges facing transgender YouTubers. They could wait an hour or two in lines that snaked through the entire bottom floor of the convention center for autograph signings with their favorite personalities (“limit of up to 1 selfie and 1 item signed,” warns a placard in the autograph line). Or they could peruse the chaotic expo floor, where YouTube stars hawked merchandise, Nickelodeon offered to slime kids in virtual reality, and the streaming app live.ly held an impromptu fidget spinner trick competition. At the end of the weekend, they’d get the chance to attend the Twix Prom, where hundreds of sweaty teens would decide if they were “Team Left TWIX® or Team Right TWIX®.”
Despite all the staged spectacle, the highlights on the fan floor were often spontaneous moments. A few times a day, a well-coiffed teenage boy, often accompanied by a handler or two, would emerge from some first-floor doorway or descend from an escalator, and kids would lose their minds, gaggling around the apparent megastar and craning to document evidence of the chance encounter with their phones. (He would, in return, record their undying adulation with his own phone.) “When kids saw the Beatles for the first time, they went crazy, just like my daughter’s going crazy over these YouTubers,” Glenn Bakker says. “I keep telling her, ‘They’re still people.’”
The entire weekend is a corporate-sponsored sugar rush for kids and an otherworldly gantlet for their parents, who are provided a break room with free massages and a cash bar by the VidCon staff. At lunch one day I met Ella Shum, whose 16-year-old daughter, Sonya Walker, had waited two hours to sit in the front row for a panel featuring Markiplier, a popular creator in YouTube’s gaming community. Shum was skeptical of this second generation of YouTube stars. “To me, they’re all over-coiffed, they’re all over-made-up, they’re all overly casual but try so hard to be that. It’s not natural,” she says. “We met a YouTube star who started in 2007 through a friend, and we talked to him a long time. It’s almost like a legendary Pokémon—wow! 2007! He’s 30-something!”
Shum’s daughter doesn’t want to be a YouTube star anymore (she grew out of that phase, Shum says), but a lot people at VidCon do. And many of them are aware that they face a tougher road than the people who are currently megafamous did. In one of those neverending meetup lines, this one for news commentator Philip DeFranco, I met Raven Withers, a 21-year-old from Dana Point, California, who watches five hours of YouTube per day. Withers was proud to say she was one of Markiplier’s first 10,000 subscribers (he now has 18 million) and rattled off strange phrases that meant nothing to me like Ear Biscuits and Good Mythical Morning (a podcast and YouTube show by internet comedy duo Rhett and Link).
She notes that she has plans to launch her own gaming channel, but gestures toward the other fans that surrounded us. “There’s probably one, two, three, maybe 10 people in this line that probably have a channel,” she says. “Honestly, it would have been a lot easier five years ago. Back in the day, there weren’t that many channels. There weren’t that many people that thought about doing this. Look at the king of YouTube, PewDiePie. He started the entire [gaming] thing, with 50 million subscribers and growing today. That’s a large industry you have to fight through. Let alone being a woman—that’s harder.”
The third time I wondered whether VidCon had been engineered specifically to make me, age 27, feel exceptionally old was on the second floor, when everybody lost their shit over Vine. I attended more than a dozen panels over three days at VidCon, and none were as crowded as “Mourning Vine,” which gathered some of the defunct social network’s biggest stars to reflect on its demise. The panel was part of the “creator track,” where the people who are trying to fashion their YouTube channels into legitimate businesses can get tips and insight from their peers.
I never watched enough Vine to know too many of the stars’ names, but the attendees of the panel were very, very excited to see David Dobrik, Thomas Sanders, the Gabbie Show and others. Though the panel name implied a somber tone, it was a fairly festive event. As each star took the stage, teen fans screamed and peppered them with hard-hitting questions like, “Are you coming out with more merch?” and “Do the Stewie voice! [from Family Guy].” A celebration made sense for these stars; they were the ones who had ably carried their audiences to platforms like YouTube and built the brief, shining light of Vine into their growing mythologies.
Everyone hasn’t been so lucky. One audience member asked what Vine stars the panelists miss seeing, and Gabriel Gundacker was mentioned. Later I called him up. Gundacker, a Florida native, recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing and acting opportunities. He’s found it difficult to transfer the unusual structure of Vine—“about the length of a one-liner,” in his words—to other platforms. “It was hard to get people to follow you or to appease those followers with Instagram or Twitter because the material is inherently different,” he says. “A lot of people message me and they say they’re sad I’m gone. That’s always so strange to me because I’m not gone. I haven’t passed. I just don’t make the Vines anymore.”
There were other reasons for creators to be anxious amid the success stories. Many YouTubers have seen their revenue decrease this year because of the way the video site serves ads. In March, following reports about advertisements appearing before racist or explicit videos, YouTube created more strict guidelines for what kinds of videos can be monetized on the platform. But these changes ended up casting too wide a net, capturing news commentary and LGBT videos that could hardly be deemed offensive. At the same time, major brands such as AT&T and Johnson & Johnson pulled their ads from YouTube to avoid controversy, driving down ad volume. Collectively, these events have come to be known as the “adpocalypse,” and they’ve created existential dread among creators whose livelihoods are pegged to unknowable corporate interests and mysterious algorithms. “I do have different income streams, but if YouTube were to suddenly just not monetize any videos, then yeah, that definitely worries me,” says Aysha Abdul, a 22-year-old beauty vlogger.
Criticism of YouTube outside VidCon’s walls was more pointed. RJ Aguiar, who’s been a full-time YouTuber since 2014, saw his ad revenue drop 90 percent in the spring as some videos were demonetized without warning and others simply attracted fewer ads. Now wary of using YouTube as a stable source of income, he’s trying to find a traditional professional job at a tech company. “It’s never been easy making a living on YouTube, but the recent climate is crippling midlevel creators,” he says. “It’s basically robbing us of our ability to make a living off the platform.”
YouTube, which has weathered criticism from creators for months over its ad policies, announced this week that it’s releasing new tools to help creators appeal decisions to show a limited number of ads on videos when they fall in a gray area of the platform’s standards. The company has also regularly emphasized that the adpocalypse affected a fraction of its total creators in specific genres. “Creators have asked for a more detailed understanding of how well their individual videos are monetizing,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “While we’ve always provided notification when a video is fully demonetized, today’s icon changes will help creators identify and appeal videos that are earning less money because they’ve been deemed by our systems as not being suitable for all advertisers.”
While YouTube’s new feature should improve the plight of some creators, there’s still an increasing feeling that the online creative economy is a world of haves and have-nots. At the first VidCon in 2010, fans and creators mingled casually as everyone celebrated the ascendance of online video. At this year’s event, creators were cloistered at a Hyatt hotel more than a mile from the convention center and its gaggle of fans. The hotel was swarmed by security personnel to keep overeager onlookers at bay, while vans with tinted windows shuttled video stars from the facility back to the conference. Inside, creators discussed which of the conference’s many corporate after-parties they would attend as armed police officers strolled through the opulent atrium that serves as the hotel lobby. “As the event has grown, the logistics have gotten more complicated, security’s grown, the size of the audiences have grown, and that’s certainly a different feel than it was many years ago, where there was a lot more of an even playing field,” says Laura Chernikoff, the former guest manager for VidCon. “It’s always been an event about community, and community is a hard thing to keep a feel of at 28,000 people [in 2016].”
The one time I didn’t wonder whether VidCon had been engineered specifically to make me, age 27, feel exceptionally old was on the third floor, when Verizon tried to convince me it was “revolutionizing connectivity.” As a galloping alt-rock song blasted through one of the convention center’s largest conference rooms, Verizon’s bizarre assortment of media properties (I’ve delved into them before) flashed across the screen, along with phrases such as “11,400 hours of originals” and “delivering powerful experiences … wherever you are.” The company was aiming to convince advertisers, sporting badges for VidCon’s industry track, to market their wares on its various websites and streaming services.
Ultimately, it’s the people on the third floor—ad and tech and ad-tech executives—who decide what kind of future the kids on the bottom two floors of VidCon will be able to aspire to. Online creators largely make money through programmatic advertising—the annoying preroll ads on YouTube—or brand deals that involve product placement in videos and possibly illegal schilling on Instagram. YouTube, for all its faults, remains the most well-known and viable platform for a creative person to quickly start making money. Instagram, despite its growing emphasis on video, still doesn’t share ad revenue with creators. Snapchat pays media companies but not regular users who build a following. Twitter started a revenue split in 2016 but still largely revolves around text. Facebook has been slowly expanding a revenue-sharing program with creators and is planning an aggressive push into premium video, but that premium investment will go to media conglomerates and sports leagues, not independent creators.
There are other corporate obstacles creators face. The identity-affirming content that used to be the bread and butter of plenty of creators is now mass-produced by video behemoths like BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, which has been accused of stealing the work of independent creators and recently dealt with a rash of public departures (explained, of course, via dramatic vlogs). “What BuzzFeed wants online video to look like is probably different than what independent creators want online video to look like,” says Chernikoff, who currently serves as the executive director of the Internet Creators Guild, an organization formed in 2016 to advocate for the online creative community. “It’s going to be interesting to see what wins out—how much this does get folded back into traditional media gatekeepers and opportunities vs. the creators, who I think are really leading the field in creating small businesses, growing careers, collaborating, still being a community, and all of the things that started out making this field so great.”
The cumulative result of these challenges is a market that is harsher for creators than it’s ever been while still offering more different avenues to success than ever before. “Someone at Tyler Oakley, Hannah Hart, PewDiePie’s level, they’ve built essentially a celebrity business. … That’s a very different level than the people who are trying to just keep doing this, just keep making content,” says Chernikoff. “When something like adpocalyspe happens, it hits that group harder because they’re not diversified as much.”
There are solutions emerging for midlevel creators. Patreon was launched as a humble experiment by YouTube personality Jack Conte in 2013 to see if users would pay a monthly fee to support their favorite internet creators, whether they were vloggers, writers, or musicians. The platform has paid creators $100 million through the end of 2016 and expects to pay them an additional $150 million this year.
“All the trends are moving toward consumer payments,” Conte says. “Netflix has 100 million subscribers. Spotify just announced 50 million subscribers. The New York Times is shifting most of their revenue toward consumer payments instead of advertising. … It’s just very clear that the web is building the infrastructure to get creators paid.”
The last time I wondered whether VidCon had been engineered specifically to make me, age 27, feel exceptionally old, I was standing just outside the Anaheim Convention Center as a hundred teenagers craned their heads up and chanted in unison. From a balcony on the top floor, some of YouTube’s biggest stars were looking down upon their fans. The teens on the ground, likely aspiring stars themselves, screamed the names of some of their idols: “David! David! David!” was an especially popular refrain. Occasionally a star would toss a random item—a T-shirt or a water bottle or even a scrap of paper—and the teens would scramble to collect it, even if they didn’t recognize who had discarded it. David Dobrik, the Vine star turned YouTube star the kids were so desperate to see, never came out. Despite often being separated by just a 5-inch screen, he and his fans were a universe apart.