Like almost every other YouTube creator, my yearly calendar ends and begins at VidCon. Taking place in California every summer since 2009, John and Hank Green’s signature online video convention has become an annual marker for who’s big on YouTube right now, what the Next Big Thing might be – and on a personal level, what stage one’s career is in.
This was my sixth VidCon in a row, and after an annoyingly long hiatus from YouTube, was the first one at which I wasn’t required to speak at any panels or needed a dedicated meet-up event. As such, I saw this year as a good opportunity for networking, self-reflection on where I fit in the YouTube world, and above all, learning on where to go next. So from a mixture of panels, meetings, parties, and one amazing interview, here’s everything I learned at VidCon 2016 about what it means to be a YouTuber these days.
1) Surround yourself with people who genuinely support you.
In an impassioned speech at VidCon 2016’s Creator Keynote (which you can watch within Day 3 of the event’s livestream), storyteller and sketch genius Olan Rogers shared what keeps him going on YouTube, and subsequently what has made him great: the love and support of a team of friends.
“It is so easy to have negative people affect you, while being a creator,” admits Olan. “I’ve seen so many YouTube friendships disintegrate because the wrong people are involved with your creating.”
“Surround yourself with people that are positive, uplift you, and want you to succeed; I guarantee you that you can do freakin’ anything.”
I talked to many people this weekend about the level of competition amongst YouTubers, as well as the ideas of “strategic collaboration” and those who cling to rising creators to grow their own audience. Most admitted they were sick of the blatant social climbing and career-driven friendships within the community; especially those that resulted in disingenuous people becoming successful.
As YouTube reaches new heights, and would-be internet stars compete for the attention of their audiences, a common train of thought amongst genuine creators this weekend seemed to be that healthy relationships and great content are much more rewarding goals than a million of someone else’s subscribers.
2) YouTube might not be the platform for you, and that’s okay.
At the same Creator Keynote where Olan expressed his secret to success on YouTube, extreme sports videographer Devin Graham burst onstage with a plethora of advice; including an interesting tidbit about “one of [his] favourite social media people”, video SFX wizard FinalCutKing.
Zach King had apparently started uploading his video-based trickery to YouTube, where it wasn’t having great reach. But after swapping out YouTube for Vine and Instagram as his primary hubs for content, King now boasts over 1.3 billion Vine loops, and 14 million Instagram followers.
Devin’s advice might be a controversial statement to make at a convention that primarily celebrates YouTube and YouTubers, but this is the reality of the future of online video. Vine, Instagram, even Facebook; there are several more competitors to YouTube than there have been in previous years, and each has its own unique audience and identifiers that might prove themselves a more successful platform for you. If you find you haven’t had much success with YouTube, it’s not an admission of defeat to try and expand your audience with a different platform.
3) Creators NEED to unionise.
Shady multi-channel networks. Brand deals that offer less than a standard freelance rate. YouTubers that are willing to work “for exposure”, thus making it harder for the ones that need to earn. These are just a few the ways in which creators struggle to grow or support themselves, as “YouTuber” becomes less of a sensational title and more of just a career path (implications of that to be discussed later).
Fortunately, VidCon head honcho and all-round entrepreneur Hank Green knows this more than anybody – and has the means to do something about it.
Hank’s new project, the Internet Creators Guild, was announced a week before VidCon; but in his final speech at the event, Hank officially launched the project – revealing that creators could finally sign up to join a unionised collective and support network of people who earn a living making things online.
Again, as the YouTube sphere grows beyond anyone’s comprehension, it’s important now more than ever for creators to agree on how our business is conducted. This initiative, as long as enough creators are willing to either get in line or join a similar outfit, will hopefully revolutionise the way that YouTube creators are treated; not just in their industry, but also in the media, in the respect and security they are afforded, and in the legitimisation of online video as its own artform.
4) Stay humble, and stay genuine.
During VidCon, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing one of the most exciting creators on the internet right now – Vine darling and YouTube newcomer Thomas Sanders, attending the event for the first time. The day before our interview, I thanked him for all the love he’s been giving We The Unicorns recently. His response was to hug me, and admit that our articles made him feel incredibly included within the YouTube community.
Even off-camera, Thomas retains his infectious positivity; and thanks to this genuine trait, our conversations over the next couple of days continued to be nothing but pleasant. When the interview goes live later this week, you’ll read about Thomas’ excitement to finally meet some of the YouTube creators that inspired him at VidCon, and the unbelievable reception over his upcoming tour ‘Ultimate Storytime’ – but overall, his humble nature and his earnestness were far more refreshing than some of the griping I had admittedly shared with other creators this weekend.
Complaints from fellow YouTubers about not being paid enough for a brand deal, or whether or not they deserved an invite to all of VidCon’s parties had taken over more of my event than I had realised – and in a 30-minute conversation with one of social media’s fastest-rising stars, I was quickly reminded that entitlement is one of the most debilitating qualities that sadly pervades the YouTube community.
Thomas and others like him are proof that positivity as a part of your online brand will get you far; but genuine positivity and humbleness will keep you there.
5) Not everyone will ever know you – and you won’t ever know everyone.
Being a guest of VidCon usually means having a couple of extra privileges; including access to a few areas that are off-limits to other attendees. But as I hung out with friends in backstage areas and creator lounges this year, I started to notice that the familiar faces are becoming more and more outweighed by strangers – many of whom I would later learn have audiences of 3-5 million subscribers and above.
As I keep reiterating in this article: YouTube is big now. Like, impossibly big. There are literally hundreds of thousands of young people all vying for YouTube stardom. As much as we’d love to believe our little corner of #TeamInternet is niche, the truth is it’s still a pretty big corner.
It ties back into the “stay humble” lesson, but if your goal in becoming a successful YouTuber is to be known and loved by everyone, prepare for disappointment. But at the same time, chances are you won’t always know everyone around you either. So it’s okay! Apparently the ‘Star Wars’ cast didn’t recognise Jennifer Lawrence one time and she made a fool of herself. So it’s not just us.
6) “YouTuber” is a bad job title.
One of the most intriguing panels I attended at the event was “Is There Anything New To Watch?”; moderated by Jack Howard, and featuring Bertie Gilbert, Savannah Brown, Will Darbyshire and Hannah Witton. The panel was founded on the basis of a recent discussion sparked by Jack, on the idea that the “mainstream model” of YouTube content has become oversaturated to the point where it’s hard to find anything new or different.
During the panel, someone brought up that they were fairly uncomfortable with the catch-all term of “YouTuber” to define the work they put out. Which is fair, as everyone on this panel creates completely different types of content – from short films, to slam poetry, to sex education. These are strands of video types that are not well-represented under the umbrella term of “YouTuber”, and most prefer to define themselves otherwise.
People that look up to “YouTubers” or have dreams of becoming a “professional YouTuber” are often of the belief that this title is a self-sustaining path to stardom; that it doesn’t matter what you are uploading, as long as you’re a YouTuber, you have the right to succeed. But it is easy to forget that YouTube is a platform, rather than a profession – and without a clear style of content that is true to oneself, it is incredibly hard to break the mold and succeed on the site.
There was a lot more to learn at this year’s VidCon – and so much of it I missed by attending other things, running around on the We The Unicorns Snapchat (@unicornssnap), and catching up with friends. But as a creator in need of a serious reboot, the chance to watch from the sidelines on how other creators are managing their own worlds taught me the most obvious lesson of them all: to do well on YouTube, Instagram, Vine, or any other platform of your choosing, you just have to do you.