By Brad Marshland and Andrew Rothschild
They are the biggest celebrities you’ve never heard of — if you’re over that certain age (like, maybe 17) when youthful enthusiasm can lead to a Beatlemania-like fandemonium. And for the past six years, this new breed of stars has been gathering at VidCon, a convention for the unconventional world of vlogs and Vines.
Do you know Smosh? Well, that comedy duo has nearly 21 million subscribers on YouTube. Andrew Bachelor, aka KingBach, is so popular (13.1M followers) that he had to walk around VidCon in a full Spiderman costume to avoid being recognized.
Bachelor garnered such notoriety on Vine, the six-second looping video app. The advantage to Vine, says Bachelor, is that “I can just do whatever I want. Like, if I was on a television show, I wouldn’t be able to curse. I wouldn’t be able to say the things that I wanna say. Now I can voice my own opinion any way I want to.”
Variety’s recent cover features YouTube phenomenon PewDiePie (who has amassed 38 million fans by playing video games) and displays the headline #Famechangers. It’s an appropriate tag for the “Creators,” as VidCon calls them, who braved the screaming throngs of tweens and teens to sign autographs, take selfies and offer hugs by the hundreds.
The conference, launched in 2010 by Vlogbrothers John and Hank Green, began as a humble meeting of about 1,400 like-minded video fanatics. This year, an estimated 20,000 attended the event, held on multiple levels of a massive conference center in Anaheim, Calif. There were food trucks, rock concerts and plenty of tweens sporting dyed hair, with blue being the color of choice, all dotting the landscape in celebration of a kind of stardom that has nothing to do with the Tinseltown just 30 miles north, where one needs an agent, a production company and a massive distribution machine to make it big.
“What immediately attracted me to online video, even before we started making videos, was that — it wasn’t something that you watched,” John Green told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric. “It felt like something you were part of.”
John Green has a life beyond the frame of the YouTube player as a bestselling author. His books “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns,” and the films that followed, whipped up almost as much frenzy among his teenage audience as a Shane Dawson video. And that coveted group of young consumers he’s also been able to attract to VidCon is not lost on scores of companies that paid thousands of dollars to set up booths in the convention center. From Taco Bell to Kia, Sour Patch Kids to Vimeo, it seemed every brand had a T-Shirt, a wristband or a hashtag to fill your swag bag.
YouTube stardom is big business for the Creators as well, and some stand to make millions from ad revenue and endorsements along the way.
“We have over a billion users globally,” said YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. But even that number isn’t the whole story. What matters is how long viewers actually spend watching the content. “We see that the users are beginning to vote with their time and moving much more online. And so we have seen our watch time grow by 60 percent year on year.”
But online celebrity can fade as fast as a video pre-roll, a reality that some of the Creators seem to grasp.
“Things may change,” says the Creator of “My Drunk Kitchen,” Hannah Hart, “and this may run out. But the good thing is that this is a wonderful moment in my life.”
While it seems to the youngest generations that YouTube has been around as long as the boob tube, that’s because, for them, it has. The video-sharing site just recently reached its 10th anniversary. Still a baby in the offline world, in cyberspace that’s middle age. Is there another decade of screaming teens and webcam celebrities to come, or will some new breakout platform hit your browser long before then?
Even VidCon co-founders John and Hank Green don’t want to hazard a guess.
“I am so bad at predicting the future,” says John. “I once told my brother not to buy HD cameras because no one would ever watch YouTube in widescreen. So I have no idea. We are completely overwhelmed by trying to understand the present.”