VidCon Australia, where YouTube celebrities and fans bank on their luck | Social
“I was such a good salesperson, and now I just sell myself!”
The first full day of VidCon Australia has barely begun and already American YouTube star Gabbie Hanna has summed up what it means to build a career on the internet. She is reclining on a couch with her sneakered feet in the air, in a theatre at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, as hundreds of fans hang off her every word.
Hanna’s two channels have accumulated over seven million subscribers since she made the switch from Vine to YouTube four years ago. A fortnight before she landed in Australia, her singles Honestly and Honestly (Encore) were at #1 and #2 on the US iTunes chart. The only other artists to achieve this are Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and Shawn Mendes – the latter two also successfully crossed over from viral social media fame into mainstream music.
Hanna is one of many high-profile international YouTubers who’ve made the trip to Australia for the conference this year. Comedy performers such as Hannah Hart, Grace Helbig and Liza Koshy join locals including Tanya Hennessy, Study With Jess, Riley J Dennis, Eystreem, Alan Tsibulya, Heyitsmaya, AJ Clementine and How Ridiculous on the list of VidCon’s “featured creators”: YouTube stars whose videos have amassed them thousands of the kinds of fans who want to spend two days and three nights watching panels, cheering on performances and lining up for airbrushed tattoos, merch and fairyfloss inside a hall the size of an aeroplane hanger.
Since brothers Hank and John Green founded VidCon in Los Angeles in 2010, the event has become a global phenomenon, which expanded into the Netherlands and Australia last year. Together, the Greens have over three million subscribers on their Vlogbrothers channel, but they’re best-known for their work outside the platform: Hank as the primary face of VidCon and as a co-founder of the e-commerce company DFTBA Records, and John as the author of bestselling young adult novels including The Fault in Our Stars.
VidCon is where YouTubers and social media influencers are called “creators”, and where they will learn how to monetise their burgeoning YouTube presence. More often than not they’ll be spotted carrying armfuls of expensive gear, and half-heartedly capturing footage of the conference rooms and convention floor. (The conference side of VidCon doesn’t inspire much creativity.)
In the overly familiar vernacular of social media, their fans are labelled their “community”, and they pay upwards of $100 for a lanyard bearing that marker. Most are teenagers who travel in tiny clusters or accompanied by patient parents; many are visibly bursting at the possibility that their favourite internet personality might materialise in front of them at any moment.
Everyone else is grouped into “industry”; they spend their VidCon weekend in panels in the windowless rooms upstairs.
The first keynote I observe is from Daniel Stephenson, YouTube’s content partnerships manager for Australia and New Zealand. This early presentation is called “Building the Australian creator community”, but there are few to no tangible ideas that would help anyone in the audience actually do that. The focus, instead, is hyping up YouTube for advocates who need no convincing.
“This one’s been cookin’ for a while,” he says while describing “Stories”, a feature that looks like a facsimile of Instagram’s feature of the same name, which Instagram copied from Snapchat. The keynote ends with video of a dog “singing” along to George Michael’s Careless Whisper.
Skye Ginsberg, a 17-year-old self-described “baby YouTuber” is sitting near me during the morning keynotes, filling the pages of her notebook with tips and ideas to try out. She tells me she’s in year 11 and began making videos a few months ago; she came to VidCon to learn how to grow and improve her channel.
I ask her if it’s common for her classmates to be fans of YouTubers and connect around those fandoms. She tells me they – like she – keep their viewing habits pretty tightly concealed: “It’s not a spoken-about thing.” This is contributing to shyness around sharing her own content, but she’s hoping this weekend helps her summon the bravery to do so.
Repeatedly in the keynotes I hear phrases like “whether you have three or three million subscribers” used to emphasise the idea that YouTube is focused on the success of all creators equally. But many of the new features its employees are hyping up are only available to users with over 1,000 subscribers, and there are no practical tips here on building a community – Australian or otherwise.
There’s also no acknowledgement of the fact that baby YouTubers like Skye cannot possibly turn their concept into a career without an army of viewers buying into it. All that YouTube seems able to offer is more money for those with already massive followings: the ones who have offered up a chunk of themselves in videos that the right viewer happened to stumble upon, turning them from a nobody into a somebody; the ones who, while these dry keynotes take place, are downstairs performing for their rabid fans instead.
In the conference room, every second person is wearing a T-shirt or jacket bearing the logo of the tech startup that sent them here to network. The homemade silver body armour worn by the person in front of me partially blocks my view of the speakers. A guy in a full Captain America suit shuffles towards the back of the room and gets a fist-bump from someone who turns out to be Jon Youshaei, a US-based marketing manager at YouTube.
Youshaei’s keynote, “How to make money and build stronger communities on YouTube”, is predicated on the idea that kids today are dreaming of becoming social media creators, and that parents who discourage this dream are not unlike those who, “in the 1800s” didn’t want their children to become doctors. Sir William Osler, “the father of modern medicine”, he says, “was the Casey Neistat of the 1800s”.
At VidCon, Neistat – the US YouTube personality with more than 10m followers – is a north star: he represents the best-case-scenario of what YouTube can do for people who are obsessive about it. His videos fund his life, which he has been recording and sharing for a decade, and for all the ad dollars he earns YouTube skims a little off the top.
Despite Youshaei insisting to hopeful creators like Skye that a career on YouTube will soon be as viable as one in medicine, the chances of it happening are unlikely. People like Neisat didn’t get where they are because they took notes in a conference room; they got there largely because of something you can’t bank on: luck.