By Peter Csathy
The new video world is all about authenticity, approachability and connection. That’s why eight of the 10 “stars” that matter most to teens are grass-roots, home-grown YouTube/digital video personalities, and not manufactured traditional Hollywood celebs. (Note: I use “YouTube” in this post as a short-hand for all digital-first platforms, including Vine, Facebook, Snapchat, Vessel, etc.)
But what happens when those YouTube stars grow up, make money and become the more “traditional” celebrities that represent the precise antithesis of how it all was supposed to be in the first place?
That’s what this past week’s VidCon 2015 represented — and embodied — because the YouTube celebrity’s struggle is VidCon’s own struggle.
Last year, VidCon — a previously important, yet still quaint, gathering of YouTube stars, Viners and the fans who adore them — broke through into the more mainstream business world at meaningful scale. I attended it and was blown away by it. I especially enjoyed the purity and energy of it, as thousands of fans (mostly teen girls) screamed and mobbed their favorite digital celebs (mostly teen boys) in a form of never-ending Beatlemania. One year ago, in a widely-read post, I remarked that as much as I felt I knew the new digital world order prior to attending VidCon 2014, I didn’t really understand it until I was truly immersed in what drove the whole YouTube economy in the first place — the creators, the fans, the authenticity, the approachability and the connection between them. No YouTuber was off limits to their fans at last year’s VidCon — the connection was made, frequently physically. You needed to be there and to experience it to truly “get” it. I labeled it a “must attend” event at the time.
This year was different. You could feel it. I did. I remarked on it. I was disappointed by it, even a bit nostalgic about it.
To a certain extent, VidCon 2015 represented innocence lost. The fans’ screams were fewer. Quieter. Muted. The frenetic running to see their favorite creator was reigned in. Slowed. Controlled. And those previously eager, open and hyper-connecting YouTube personalities were visibly less accessible, and many seemingly wanted it to be that way. As I drove away one night, I noticed black Escalade after Escalade hidden in the back alleys of the Anaheim Convention Center, whisking many of those fast-becoming more “traditional” YouTube celebrities away from their fans. Distancing them. Separating them. Breaking with accelerating speed the fundamental tenet of YouTube authenticity — accessibility and connection.
By all conventional measures (i.e., pure numbers, overall organization), VidCon 2015 was a smashing success. VidCon organizers have built a world-class, “must attend” event, and the media, brand and tech worlds of business finally took notice en masse and attended in droves as I urged them to.
But that very business success — just like the increasing business and financial success of YouTube celebrities — is a double-edged sword. The young, innocent, no-holds-barred and still-upstart YouTube world of last year has grown up fast this past year into a more mature, more cautious world that is beginning to feel more “traditional,” and somehow a bit less “authentic” as a result.
I understand this, of course. It’s inevitable. The natural order of things. Digital-first is now simply first — i.e., “traditional” — for millennials. That’s why it’s increasingly (and properly) first for the media world that wants to reach them. It’s increasingly (and properly) first for business, period. And it’s now increasingly (and understandably) the first business, the vocation, for a myriad new home-grown, bottoms-up creators (YouTube trumpeted the fact that 50% more of them made 6 figures this year than last). As I also learned, VidCon had no choice but to install new security procedures and fan controls as a result of all of these forces. It needed to protect those YouTube celebrities and the fans themselves from last year’s frequently unbridled, hyper-enthusiastic, driven forces, including near-stampedes — all motivated by the purest and most innocent of intentions — that understandably frightened many and potentially endangered some.
But here’s my challenge to you, VidCon. Let’s not control too much next year. Let’s open up more tickets for fans. Let’s allow or maybe even encourage more screaming. Let’s bring back more access, with fewer velvet ropes (I admit, I was guilty of sponsoring one such event myself) and fewer limousines, and perhaps more “regular,” non-traditional new world electric cars that could represent a new ethos for millennials. And, YouTube stars, let’s not control too much of that original spontaneous and pure motivation and passion that fueled your creativity and your fans’ love for it in the first place. Let’s not buy into the same trappings that disconnected traditional Hollywood celebs from your fans and made you “stars” in the first place. (I mean, do you really need limousines?) Remember, you are defining the new rules of celebrity and artist/fan engagement. You have a chance to break the mold.
To be clear, money and business that flow from creativity and passion are not the enemy here. Money enables the artists to devote themselves to the very act of creation, and business provides the means and screens to create and be seen. I’m in that business, and I believe in it absolutely.
But let’s not let the pendulum swing too far. Together, let’s not lose sight of what moved us and the overall YouTube movement (and what it represents) in the first place — authenticity, approachability and connection.
I certainly don’t have the answers. Maybe there are none. But, together, let’s at least reflect upon this while we’re still relatively early in this digital transformation and before the forces behind it themselves become, well, simply conventional.
Peter Csathy is CEO of business accelerator and development firm Manatt Digital Media, where he also serves as a venture capitalist. He regularly posts industry analysis on his Digital Media Update blog and contributes to VideoInk and other leading digital media and technology publications.