A convention for YouTube stars plans for a post-pandemic future

The coronavirus pandemic gave Hank Green something he seldom has time for: a moment to think.

Green wears many hats, including video blogger, podcaster and entrepreneur, all of which coalesce every year at VidCon, an event he co-created as an industry conference for the emerging creative class on YouTube. There is no school for YouTube stars, and VidCon is the closest thing to a classroom many of these young influencers ever see.

The pandemic has reinforced the cultural cachet of online influencers, who have continued to upload videos and sell merchandise while many actors and musicians stay home. Yet it has also forced Green and his partners at ViacomCBS Inc., which now owns VidCon, to adapt to a moment where large gatherings are potentially lethal.

Rather than cancel this year’s convention, they reimagined it as a rolling series of events — live podcasts, video chats and virtual meet-ups — that stretched from mid-June through September. The events brought in viewers from 80 to 100 countries, according to Jim Louderback, the head of VidCon.

The company didn’t charge for tickets like it normally does, but the success of those events has encouraged Green and Louderback to rethink what’s possible for next year and beyond. “I think all events will be hybrid going forward,” Louderback said. “Audiences themselves are developing behaviors around digital delivered experiences that can be continued in face to face.”

Among the many successes was recreating the idea of a fan meet and greet on the internet. Every year, thousands of fans wait in line for hours just to spend a minute or two with their favorite influencer. VidCon replicated that using technology that allowed it to select 80 or 90 fans and give them all time slots. Each fan got a minute with their creator of choice, as well as a photo of the two chatting.

Green participated in both live podcasts and panels. “They were really productive,” he said. “The things I did were either very fun or very informative.”

Green and his brother John, a best-selling author, created VidCon in 2010 to help professionalize an industry they had come to love. Every industry ends up having a conference, and Green couldn’t bear to think about what some corporation with no real connection to YouTube would dream up. So they organized a meet-up at a hotel in Century City, a neighborhood of Los Angeles populated largely by office towers, golf courses and luxury apartments.

Over the past 10 years, VidCon has established itself as an annual mecca for the ever-growing world of social-media influencers — the ascendant celebrity of the smartphone age. About 75,000 people descended upon Anaheim, California, last year for the main event, which has broadened to include TikTok stars, Instagram models and Snapchatters.

VidCon aims to host four or five conferences next year in different countries, health willing. The popularity of the events this year has convinced the organizers that they can integrate more virtual components in the future.

On Tuesday, Green will unveil a new logo for VidCon that ushers in a new era for the event. The old logo spoke to the first iteration of VidCon, an event primarily focused on YouTube, the first ubiquitous home for content creation on the internet. Now a new generation raised on YouTube can choose between YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat — or all of the above.

“The creator economy and passion economy has exploded, and VidCon is now more necessary than ever,” Green said. “There couldn’t have been a better time for a brand refresh.”

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