The Joys Of Vidcon

The de facto conference for all things YouTube had its third annual conference this year, and now that I work for a company that is YouTube based, I finally had a legitimate excuse to go. Now, I’ve been to a few conferences in my day, but this one was just a little bit different. It had a lot of the booths and corporate sponsors, but the overall vibe I got was something that wasn’t quite as flashy and big budget as some of the more established conferences. But make no mistake, this conference has grown by leaps and bounds, and there were big sponsors and it was at a pretty awesome venue (Anaheim Convention Center). This is no back woods random conference being put on by some guy driving a conversion van with “Free Candy” hand painted on the back. This is a full blown conference, but it’s just a little bit different. 

One of the first things I was surprised to see at Vidcon was the age of the attendees. There were far more young people there than I imagined (think early to mid-teens and sometimes younger). Hollywood probably often looks at YouTube and sees some scrappy looking group of producers that need everything about their work to grow up (including in some cases those creators themselves) but to this audience at Vidcon, these creators were, to their fans, as grown up as they needed to be. The part of me whose paycheck is the result of creators making money on YouTube feels really giddy that these young kids are soon going to grow a little older, and they’re going to start having a little money to spend on things, and they’re going to have grown up in the habit of getting their entertainment fix on YouTube. That’s because when this happens, it means that this is the point when serious money is getting invested in sponsoring YouTube videos, because these young people need to be reached. 

There’s a less cynical, less greedy part of me, though, that is just genuinely excited to see an emerging new medium for entertainment blossoming. When I was in college, I really started getting a lot of my entertainment fix watching YouTube, not TV, and I envisioned a future when people were tuning in (whenever they wanted, because broadcast is passè) to see Shane Dawson instead of Jersey Shore. Stuff that was truly original was going to succeed, and the crap that is getting passed off as traditional media entertainment was going by the wayside. 

For awhile, I thought it was a false start. Hulu came along and I started to really get into watching the mainstream TV content on demand. I started to feel a little bit like I’d grown out of the channels I had known and loved before, and it was starting to look like Hollywood was taking this Internet thing seriously now that Hulu and Netflix were becoming household names, and both became available on mobile devices. I personally gradually stopped religiously checking my subscriptions every night to watch what was going on on YouTube (I subscribed to people who had regular schedules, posting new videos on varying days of the week, and my week was well covered), and I kind of forgot about it. 

But boy, YouTube lived on. 

Fast forward a little while, and we’re starting to see a different time. The world is starting to see that Hulu is a hen house that is a joint partnership between several different organizations of wolves and gradually, customers are starting to see a push for Hulu to please oh please not replace your cable subscription, but be something you use in addition to it. As such, Hulu started getting more and more commercials piled onto online content. The content library started to shrink. Many shows that used to be on Hulu the day after airing now must wait eight days, presumably to test users’ willpower not to torrent it first. Netflix, a darling of movie and TV loving customers everywhere, experienced huge growth in demand for its streaming offerings, which started to kill them when negotiating to re-up their contracts with the content providers. Starz famously dropped their catalog of stuff from Netflix last year, and facing higher costs (and usage) than ever before, Netflix switched their pricing to make streaming a standalone service instead of being this little added bonus for DVD by mail customers. They did a shit job of trying to spin what is very obviously a price increase (they actually tried saying it was cheaper now, but that’s only the case if you drop one of their services, which I promptly did since I rarely was getting DVDs anymore anyway). Long story short, the establishment started to realize that a mass exodus from traditional cable and satellite subscribers to internet-only subscribers was going to really disrupt their business model (a polite way of saying it’s going to cut seriously into their profit margins) and so the powers that be pulled back.

This pulling back is going to go down in history as Hollywood squandering an important opportunity to stay relevant as the internet became the way all the things we enjoy get distributed. I believe that the best change comes from within, and in this case, it’s not going to come from within Hollywood, but from within the internet. Seeing the excited faces at Vidcon showed me that. Seeing Jenna Marbles (who, by the way, makes a very good living on YouTube, and is among a growing number of people who do) spend hours happily greeting a gigantic line of fans who wanted to see her (among many other things) really reminded me of this. We are from the internet, and since your entertainment industry didn’t want to play with us, we’re going to make our own entertainment industry, with blackjack and hookers! We’re going to have our own celebrities. A new set of businesses are going to grow around our entertainment industry. Some of your old school players will try to get in, and some will succeed (Discovery was probably smart to buy Revision3), but many won’t do well, because old habits die hard. You spent six months cutting a deal? Well I spent six development days making massive improvements to a product. It’s going to take you till 2014 for that film to appear in theaters? Sorry, I didn’t hear you at first, I was busy already uploading a video I completed production of within a single day. This is what it means to be agile. It’s not just a buzzword, it’s intrinsic to the way the internet works because things are very frictionless. And this agility is baked into this generation’s culture. It’s not some new phenomenon that you hear some clueless news anchor talking about like some sort of Oprah special on rainbow parties (don’t look that up) to these people. It’s just the way the world works to us, and Vidcon was a refreshing validation of what I knew in my heart to be true.

Even if a channel of Jenna Marbles caliber becomes the upper bound of how successful a YouTube channel can get in terms of popularity, it still leaves massive growth opportunities (plus I think that channels as popular as hers will be the tip of the iceberg). There are still billions more humans who have yet to use YouTube, and that’s a huge growth opportunity. Of the hundreds of millions of YouTube users we have now, many still spend a lot of their time watching video in other places (like TV). That’s a growth opportunity. There are tons of niche interest groups that could be commercially feasible when distributed on YouTube but aren’t big enough to have, say, their own cable TV channels. Huge growth opportunity. And the size of the videos is going to start growing too. We’ll see shows on YouTube that are closer to full length, but without the constraints of a strict time schedule, these shows will be more natural and Seth MacFarlane won’t feel obligated to present to us Mr. Conway Twitty or an epic fight with a chicken just to kill four minutes.  That video length growth is itself a huge growth opportunity. 

I’m really loving what YouTube is right now, and I’m loving what it’s slated to become.

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