This week, YouTube announced that they will begin rewarding creators who reach a million subscribers with a big gold-plated "play" button, much like the music industry's gold record. That bit of news, delivered at the opening day of the third annual VidCon in Anaheim, was one obvious indication that the seven-year-old video uploading platform has graduated from cultural phenomenon to monstrously influential media institution, like the old models it's crowding out.
While a small parade of YouTube developers rolled out upgrades to the service (including creator dashboards, a search for the site's "Next Comic" and huge new soundstages for videomakers to share in London, L.A. and Tokyo), the focus of this year's video enthusiasts' conference – with 8,000 attendees, up drastically from the first year's thousand or so – was, naturally, on the content providers. "Congratulations – you started a revolution!" said one presenter during the keynote address, after asking for a show of hands of audience members who have their own YouTube channels. "Now don't fuck it up."
At various performances and panel discussions, YouTube stars as diverse as hip-hop sensation DeStorm Power (who has more subscribers than Chris Brown and Usher combined), the amusing duo Rhett & Link and Dane Boe, creator of the Annoying Orange, saluted the power of the video community. Online video is "not something you look at but participate in," said John Green, the novelist and vlogger who co-founded VidCon with his brother, the science-geek songwriter Hank Green. When they took the arena mainstage on Friday morning to introduce the first round of performers, Hank carried a video camera to shoot the sea of cameras pointed back at him.
Attendees ran the YouTuber gamut, from packs of schoolboys with windswept hair and girls with fuzzy animal hats to people dressed like Waldo or the Green Lantern or in grown-up-sized footie pajamas. "Two years ago, we were kinda kids – what are we gonna be when we grow up?" recalled Jim Louderback, a new-media guru old enough to be most of the badge-holders' father.
Talk ranged from the frivolous – stunt comedian Mark Malkoff explaining how he lived on a plane for 135 consecutive flights and getting an audience of hundreds to shout "Hi Bill!" into Bill Murray's voicemail – to the political. Michael Weinberg, a lawyer for the congressional lobbying group Public Knowledge, asked for help petitioning lawmakers to stop siding with the old-media heavyweights.
"We're trying to get to the point where people in their living rooms think of YouTube as something they tune into instead of channels 4 and 5," said Shishir Mehrotra, one presenter from the YouTube battalion. They're nearly there: the site's revenue per viewership hour, they claim, is now higher than cable television's, an "awesome tipping point."
On Friday, 21-year-old Monique Danser from nearby Newport Beach waited in a long line to have Hank and John – the Vlogbrothers – sign her posters ("Keep Calm and DFTBA" – Don't Forget to Be Awesome). A senior lit major at Occidental College, she was with her 19-year-old sister Nicole, who is studying environmental science and biology. "We love the sibling relationship," Monique said of the Green brothers, the ubiquitous (if profusely humble) stars of the conference. "We definitely relate to their dynamic."
Danser, wearing a vintage dress that set her apart from the T-shirted mob, said she used to have a vlog "about nothing," and now she is about to launch a new video series in which she'll chronicle her attempt to tackle a list of the 100 great American novels of the last century or so. She singled out Ze Frank, the online pioneer credited with creating the template for the conversational vlog, as a personal favorite: "He makes these consistently awesome, profound videos," she said. "In three minutes, he'll have me thinking about something all day."
Ze Frank was a special guest of the Green brothers on the arena mainstage, where he proselytized about how best to "do you" on YouTube. When he asked someone in the audience for a cue and got the word "pineapple," he free-associated until he arrived at an observation about his halting relationship with his stepfather.
"Release the excitement," he advised his fellow video obsessives. If you feel strongly about something – whether that's your cat (yes, there were plenty of cat jokes), a trick shot on the basketball court or the way the word "pineapple" makes you think of your stepfather – let it out. The camera doesn't lie, as a generation born with one in their hands is well aware.