“How dark do you want to get,” YouTuber Lindsay Ellis asked the moderator of one of the first panels at VidCon, the flashy, annual digital video conference in Anaheim, California. VidCon may have once been known as a breathless celebration of all things digital video and all the fame and money that comes with it for creators, but in 2019, it was kicking off with a discussion led by the executive director for Uplift, an organization that provides resources for YouTube creators dealing with sexual violence, about how online video communities have changed over the years.
“It was fun,” said Ellis. “Now it’s like, OK, how do we protect ourselves from our audience?”
VidCon celebrated its 10-year anniversary this week. Yet the palpable sadness hovering over Thursday’s panels revealed how heavily the internet’s problems now weigh on top video creators. Featured influencers spoke frankly about their struggles with mental health and the pressures of content creation at many points throughout the day. Panels devolved into group therapy sessions, as YouTubers commiserated over shared experiences with harassment and exploitation.
Jim Louderback, the CEO of VidCon, told BuzzFeed News that the conference doesn’t shy away from issues that matter for creators and attendees: harassment, mental health, and exploitation. “We’ll talk about it because it’s on people’s minds,” he said. He thinks that tough conversations that happen at VidCon can help create positive change on these platforms. “We spark change through these discussions,” he said.
As creators shared their frustration at YouTube’s lack of institutional support, marketers and brand managers seemed excited about what a YouTube-less future might look like. The platform has evolved into something far different from what it was when John Green and his brother Hank started VidCon 10 years ago.
YouTube’s role in the next chapter of online video is still taking shape, but a glimpse at VidCon’s standing room–only TikTok panel seemed portentous.
For the uninitiated, it’s useful to think of VidCon as several different conferences happening simultaneously. For the thousands of mostly prepubescent fans and their beleaguered parent chaperones, it’s something akin to Comic-Con. There are booths to buy merch, lines to take selfies with their favorite YouTubers, food stalls, and concerts. For creators, it feels like a film festival, a place to network and set up future partnerships. For industry leaders and entrepreneurs, it’s a tech summit, where CEOs and strategists shuffle on and off various stages, trotting out data points and user metrics to dazzle each other.
These clashing realities intersect in strange and surreal ways. At a party hosted Wednesday night by digital entertainment company Tubefilter in northwest Anaheim, teenage attendees lined up to ride go-karts and internet-famous children picked at a table nearby lined with bowls of candy while midtier influencers mingled with executives at an open bar. At one point, the party converged around an Instagram-famous Pomeranian wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses. The dog’s owner was trying to yell out the dog’s Instagram handle over the sound of guests singing Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” on a karaoke machine on the other side of the room.
YouTube wasn’t an official partner of VidCon until 2013, and it wasn’t until 2014 that YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki spoke at the conference. In 2018, however, VidCon was purchased by Viacom. This year, YouTube is a sponsor. Cofounder Hank Green is still closely involved with it, but it is a part of Viacom Digital Studios. This identity crisis — is it a YouTube convention, is it a digital video conference, is it a Viacom showcase — was extremely noticeable this year, particularly in the conference’s choice of featured guests. YouTube declined to comment.
As featured VidCon guests throughout the day Thursday attempted to wrestle with a decade of YouTube, it seemed it was even harder to be optimistic about the platform’s future. It recently has come under fire for its inability to moderate anti-vax misinformation, harmful content, online harassment, white nationalism, conspiracy theories, and discrimination. It has been accused of promoting child exploitation. Its recommendation algorithm has been accused of spreading political radicalization.
YouTube, which launched in 2005, has split into different worlds. There’s YouTube that Google wants to exist, where YouTubers like Dan Howell, Rhett and Link, Hannah Hart, and David Dobrik can safely and responsibly mingle with brands and fans. And then there’s the YouTube that isn’t present at VidCon — the YouTube where creators like Jake Paul announce dubious marriages to other creators like Tana Mongeau, the YouTube where Jake’s brother Logan tases dead rats and attends flat Earth conventions, the YouTube where Shane Dawson accuses Chuck E. Cheese’s of reselling used pizza slices.
The YouTubers people care about can’t be invited because they’re all out of control. And the safer creators they did invite are all traumatized. Daniel Keem, the massive influencer vlogger behind the 5 million-subscriber-strong YouTube gossip channel DramaAlert, spent the week around VidCon derisively tweeting about how irrelevant the conference is now.
“When VidCon sends its YouTubers, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending YouTubers that have lots of dead channels. They’re bringing in fidget spinners. They’re bringing in Hoverboards. They’re randoms,” Keem tweeted.
“These vidcon pics all over twitter have the same people that were cool in 2013 & 100% irrelevant now,” he went on to tweet. “Its the same people every year! VIDCON DOES NOT REP THE ACTUAL STARS OF THE PLATFORM!”
VidCon’s relationship with YouTube’s bigger, more unruly stars is complicated to say the least. In 2017, Logan Paul hid $3,000 around VidCon and turned the convention center into an almost-riot as fans scrambled to find the cash.
Last year, Tana Mongeau wasn’t invited as a featured creator and, feeling snubbed, decided to throw her own convention at a nearby hotel. It was an incredible failure. “TanaCon was the scariest and the worst experience of my life,” one fan told BuzzFeed News at the time.
The big YouTubers who did attend VidCon this year seemed more interested in probing the darkness of YouTube fame than celebrating a decade of it. Elle Mills, a YouTuber who had to take a break from the platform last year due to burnout after crossing 1 million subscribers, was especially candid about the pressures of online fame.
“Growing up I never had mental health problems, but last year on tour I had my first panic attack,” Mills said. “I couldn’t make another video without addressing it. I couldn’t just fake a smile.”
Onstage next to her was Dan Howell, a veteran YouTuber, who also took a yearlong hiatus before he recently returned with a video where he came out as gay. Howell spoke about how trapped he felt as a YouTube creator, churning out videos and unable to properly deal with his mental health.
“When you’re constantly being a YouTuber, you’re expected to keep doing things,” Howell said. “It’s like I couldn’t grow or change behind the scenes.”
What’s shining the brightest light on how tired both YouTube and YouTubers feel this year is VidCon’s hottest new thing: TikTok.
The short-form video platform, owned by Beijing-based artificial intelligence company ByteDance, has completely cannibalized VidCon this year. The app is responsible for both the rapper Lil Nas X’s record-shattering “Old Town Road,” as well as a record-shattering $5.7 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13.
TikTok has also been accused of facilitating sexual predation and exploitation. BuzzFeed News recently reported on a group of young users who created an ad hoc system of screenshot leaks and callout videos in an effort to out abusers and predators on the platform on their own terms.
Meaningful scandals and fines aside, TikTok was omnipresent at VidCon. The outside pavilion of the convention center quickly devolved into a TikTok playground, as tweens and teens recorded short videos with each other. There was a TikTok twin meetup. One kid with 6 million followers duct-taped a pair of sheet cakes to his feet to make a “walk a mile in these Louboutins” meme. At one point, a huge pack of 13-year-old girls chased a boy wearing a face mask through the crowd. The girls told BuzzFeed News that it was Chase Hudson, a 17-year-old TikToker with 2.8 million followers.
When asked if TikTok was cooler than YouTube, though, the girls chasing Hudson said they didn’t see it as anything similar to YouTube.
“It’s ironic. It’s ironic and iconic,” one girl told BuzzFeed News. “It’s like a meme right now.”
Another group of 16-year-olds later in the day were complaining about how many TikTokers were at VidCon. “I guess that’s our future,” one girl said.
When asked the same question about which video platform is cooler, a 16-year-old told BuzzFeed News, “It’s cringey. What can you do with it?”
Ironic and cringey or not, there does seem to be a changing of the guard happening, and nowhere was this generational shift more evident than at the parties Thursday night. YouTube threw a huge, well-organized bash, complete with multiple open bars and hot dog, chicken finger, and taco stations. Guests walked to the dance floor through a tunnel displaying the platform’s greatest hits, like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and the Cut’s “100 Years of Beauty.”
By contrast, TikTok’s extremely sought-after and secretive party was thrown at a bowling alley in a shopping center around the corner. Hundreds of teens jockeyed for a spot in line amid a fog of phone cameras and Juul smoke. It appeared to be already over capacity by the time it was officially supposed to be begin. Antsy kids in line watched TikToks the guests inside were posting. The same Instagram-famous Pomeranian from Wednesday night was there, this time in white sunglasses and a little sweater.
And it’s not just the parties. TikTok’s panels Thursday were almost all standing room only. In a morning presentation about how to use TikTok to promote your brand, Andrea Okeke, a TikToker with 3 million followers who goes by DreaKnowsBest, chatted with Candice Beck, Chipotle’s senior manager of social and digital, about how much fun it was promoting Chipotle on her channel.
“Your audience will know if you’re promoting something you don’t use,” Okeke said. “I’m not going to promote something I don’t believe in.”
Beck gushed over how much success Chipotle has had recently on TikTok. The restaurant chain only has 18,000 followers at the moment, but it successfully activated a popular TikTok trend called the #ChipotleLidFlipChallenge.
VidCon’s CEO, Louderback, said that when it comes to which platforms get priority each year, he thinks of the conference as Switzerland. “YouTube is not going to fade away,” he said. “But I like that we have more choice on different platforms.”
TikTok’s general manager, Vanessa Pappas, took to one of the main stages later in the day to promote TikTok as both authentic and diverse — the unspoken conclusion is that these are two things YouTube is currently not.
“It just has a different aesthetic to anything else that’s out there,” Pappas said. “Every video is given a chance to succeed.”
Pappas stressed TikTok’s immersive “For You” page algorithm and how easy it is for users to participate in the app’s constantly updating trends and challenges.
“For the top creators for TikTok, the content that really performs well is being digitally native and real,” she said.
For all the hype, TikTok remains its own conundrum. It is optimized for engagement; it learns what you like and delivers an endless stream of similar videos, often to very young audiences. TikTok’s last event of the day was a conversation with six of the app’s biggest stars — who looked like something closer to characters from The Fifth Element than your typical clean-cut vlogger — on one of VidCon’s largest stages. The crowd was outrageously young. The only people in the audience who looked like they were older than 14 were the parent chaperones.
“Just do what you love,” Lauren Godwin, a 19-year-old TikToker with 14 million fans told the audience. “Just find your niche on there.”
Another TikToker onstage, 23-year-old Chris Kerr Rio, makes videos with his 24-year-old girlfriend Sharla May under the name Our Fire, an account that has 4.9 million followers. Rio told a story about how before he became popular on the app, he had been kicked out of his house and living in May’s treehouse.
“I'm just so thankful I’m not sleeping in a treehouse anymore,” he said.
As TikTok’s legion of users energetically swarmed the convention outside, YouTube’s chief product officer, Neal Mohan, delivered a keynote announcing new monetization features for creators, like membership levels, new partners for YouTube’s merchandise program, and super stickers inside of super chat — features that won’t address the distress YouTubers spent the day agonizing over.
At that early-morning panel on how online video communities have changed over the years, Tay Zonday, an early YouTuber famous for the “Chocolate Rain” song, railed against what he called YouTube’s disingenuous laissez-faire attitude. “All of these platforms try and avoid any sense of personal accountability,” Zonday said.
Fellow panelist Lindsay Ellis agreed, “This drives me crazy like, ‘oh no we don’t need human moderators, we need better automation.’”
“‘I didn’t know I started a hate platform,’” another panelist, veteran YouTuber Jarvis Johnson said. “That’s no longer an excuse.”
As the creators bewailed the damage on YouTube, teen TikTokers ran around outside, uploading more videos, innocently goofing around on an app they don’t have to worry about. For now.
Lauren Godwin’s and Neal Mohan’s names were misspelled in an earlier version of this post.