VidCon at 10: How a "Thrown-Together" Event Gave Rise to the Influencer Era

VidCon Day 1 Recap Photo 5 - Publicity - H 2019
Tom Vickers/MOVI Inc

From 1,400 people in a Century City ballroom to over 75,000 attendees in Anaheim, VidCon has become a regular stop on the calendar for media executives and talent.

Hank Green remembers standing inside the basement ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in 2010 when a fan ran up and presented him with a stuffed anglerfish, a reference to a video he’d posted to YouTube channel he shares with his brother, John, that now has 3 million followers. She had knitted the memento herself.

“I don’t know what it was about that experience but I had to go hide and cry,” Green says. “It really changed my perception of what I was doing.”

That moment with the fan is one of Green’s most vivid memories from the first VidCon. At the time, the people who would go on to define a new generation of digital-first stars were largely still just vloggers in their bedrooms. Sure, they were attracting thousands of viewers but the opportunity to make real money from YouTube videos and build lasting careers on the Internet was still a few years away.

Today, VidCon is a regular stop on the digital media event calendar — a place for executives to tout new products aimed at creators, for aspiring influencers to get tips on how to grow their audiences and for fans to meet in real life with their favorite vloggers. The annual event draws an estimated 75,000 people to Anaheim and has expanded internationally with fests in London, Melbourne, Mexico City and Singapore. And as of February 2018, it is now owned by Viacom.

In 2010, however, VidCon was a much smaller affair. Green organized that first event as a way to encourage creators to connect with one another and their fans. All told, around 1,400 people showed up, among them creators like Rhett & Link, Phil DeFranco and iJustine and fans who would later become creators including Tyler Oakley.

“It was pretty thrown together,” Green says, recalling that the price he was quoted to live-stream the event was so high that instead he tasked someone to walk around the event with an open MacBook to broadcast it to fans. “I don’t know why we don’t do it that way now,” he laughs.

For many creators, VidCon was the first time that they saw how YouTube likes and subscribers had translated into an actual audience. Though fans were encouraged to attend, it still surprised the event organizers when, suddenly, early YouTuber Charlie McDonnell was swarmed by a couple dozen fans.

“Coming to the first Vidcon was a reminder that our viewers were real people and not some algorithm bots liking and commenting on our videos,” explains vlogger Olga Kay, who now serves as the founder and CEO of sock company Moosh Walks.

The burgeoning industry also was still fighting to be taken seriously in a town where being a star meant dominating the box office or luring primetime viewers. “At that time, executives were still wondering if YouTubers actually had conversion power to convert fans into consumers and most agents were against signing what they called “vloggers,” notes Kendall Rhodes, who worked in digital for Relativity during that first VidCon but now produces and manages talent like Meghan Rienks and Yousef Erakat as the co-founder of Paraluman Media. “I remember the Smosh guys asking me if Relativity wanted to make their movie and I thought — those kids are so cute and so funny, I bet they will go far. It made me think that Hollywood better start taking notice of some of the YouTubers as actual talent too and not just marketing partners.”

Now, nearly every major YouTuber who attends VidCon comes with a manager, agent and publicist in tow. The biggest stars can earn tens of millions a year from sponsorships, merchandise, events and other businesses. And some have made the jump into more traditional Hollywood gigs. Lilly Singh will begin hosting new NBC late night A Little Late this fall and Joe Pena and Bo Burnham are directing films.

At VidCon, the rising prominence of online entertainment also has had an impact. Brands like Nickelodeon, Hasbro and Nike had interactive booths at the 2019 event, which began July 10 in Anaheim. In the past, studios have hosted film screenings and traditional talent have attended to tout their approach to social media.

Jim Louderback, who attended the first event as the CEO of then-video startup Revision3 and now serves as the general manager of VidCon, attributes some of the growth to the fest’s move from Century City to Anaheim in 2012 as well its partnership with UTA for sponsorship deals. Those changes, he says, turned VidCon “into an event that would appeal not just to fans, but also to media companies and other big companies.”

With the growth has come some change. Security is tighter, for instance, meaning that those spontaneous meet-ups between creators and their fans no longer occur. Now, fans enter a lottery to gain entry into meet-and-greets with talent.

But the initial spirit of VidCon, as a place for creators, fans and industry executives to come together, has remained. Those who attended that first show remember the time as the beginning of the rise of the online influencer. “It felt to me like it was ushering in a new era in youth media,” says early online video creator Ze Frank. Dan Weinstein, president of Studio71, adds, “It felt like we were the ones in the know. I don’t know that we knew what it would turn out to be, but it definitely felt like something cool was happening.”