Rylie and vlogger ZeFrank at VidCon
Rylie is 18 years old. She has paid $1100 to spend the last three days queuing in a Californian convention centre with 18,000 other people in the June heat. It was well worth the money and the time though, because she's met many of her idols.
She’s met ZeFrank, MikeFalzone, Ben Cook, and Shaycarl and his family. These people (who you probably won't have heard of, unless you're under 16 or a grown adult who subscribes to multiple YouTube vlogger accounts – which I am) are celebrities – at least in this room – and are people who many believe it's worth queuing up to 8 hours at a time to meet and, of course, take a selfie with.
What you might have heard of is VidCon, the event Rylie is attending. This annual online video convention in Anaheim sees YouTubers gathering, hosting panels and shows, selling merchandise, and meeting with their fans. Worldwide, there are many other YouTuber events: Playlist Live on the East Coast, Buffer Festival in Canada, ITAtube in Italy, VideoDays in Germany, and Summer in the City in the UK.
YouTubers meeting with their fans is, of course, nothing new. But the scale, price, and drama of such events has all taken a turn in recent years. Humble gatherings between people with a common interest have evolved into expensive, excessive events, with swarms of security forcing screaming fangirls and fanboys into orderly lines so they can meet and spend 30 precious seconds with their floppy-fringed favorites. As the cult of YouTube celebrity grows, fan interactions have been rapidly monetized.
London’s Summer in the City (SiTC) is a prime example. It began as a simple park gathering where a few hundred internet people could meet, talk, and point cameras at each other. This year it was held in Alexandra Palace, cost £25 ($40) a ticket and had 8,500 attendees.
“In 2012, things started to change with the event,” explains a 2014 SiTC volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous because nothing is scarier than a YouTube fanbase scorned. “It was no longer safe for it to be held in a public park in the middle of London, so the event organizers hired out the Brewery. This signified the beginning of the YouTube fangirl age. A few of my friends were crushed in corridors, pushed aside so people could run past in order to meet their favorite web stars. It was manic.”
Volunteering in 2014 meant working 32 hours in three days and packing 8,000 goodie bags. But these weren't the worst parts of the event for the volunteers—rather, it was the disturbing antics of fans desperate for meet-up tickets, which were handed out at the venue and not included in the original ticket.
“Throughout the day I constantly had people coming up to me asking about tickets for certain meet-ups, and I had to inform them tickets were gone," the volunteer says. "For a good majority of attendees, a simple explanation was all they needed. This wasn’t the case for everyone.
“Over the weekend, I was sworn at, had an item or two thrown at me, and was also offered a lot of sexual favors on the off chance I could get them into a meet-and-greet—which was really worrying as many who did so were around 15. Tickets for these meet-and-greets were allegedly being sold around the venue, some apparently going for as much as $100.”
So what should the going rate be for meeting a YouTube pseudocelebrity? Though tickets to SiTC might seem high, the fee actually seems pretty reasonable considering the price of hiring out the venue and the much-needed security. VidCon costs between $100 and $450, but the event is more than a simple meet-and-greet; in exchange for your money, you’ll get to experience panels, presentations, and concerts. The price of some events, however, is harder to justify.
This October will see the UK's first Amity Fest. The event tours Birmingham, Liverpool, and Brighton, and features a cast of nine popular vloggers, such as beauty gurus Zoe Sugg, Tanya Burr, and Niomi Smart, and their respective YouTuber boyfs Alfie Deyes, Jim Chapman, and Marcus Butler. The event is, for all intents and purposes, a mystery—the website offering little more than a chance to hand over your money and a warning that if you’re under 14, mom or dad will have to come, too.
In return for £25 ($36) you'll get to watch your favorite 'Tubers doing something live for two hours, though it's unclear what that something is. “We’ll be on stage for two hours, giving you a special 'Hello!'" is all the website reveals. Mind you, the event is at least an attempt to change the current culture of meet-and-greets, where fans wait for hours for incredibly short interactions, and is, instead, offering guests some kind of show for their money.
But there's a slightly more deluxe option, which is a little more difficult to defend. VIP tickets can be purchased for a mere £75 ($120), and the lucky owners will get to spend one whole hour (bolded on the website, no doubt to express the gravity of this generous offering) with all nine YouTubers. And the 74 other VIP ticket holders.
Selfie-taking fans at VidFest. Photo courtesy of Ashley
Let's do the math: Each of the YouTubers has 60 minutes to meet 75 people, which means 48 seconds with each. It doesn’t seem much for the $120, which is probably these young fans’ birthday and Christmas presents combined. But don’t worry, the website promises they’ll also get a “special goodie bag.”
“It does seem like a colossal amount of money to me,” says Rosianna Halse Rojas, a writer and video blogger. “I understand that, for these YouTubers, it’s their full-time job, so they’re thinking about how to maintain their income. But it’s a question of what you’re paying for. If you’re paying for the event as a whole, like with SiTC and VidCon, then it’s different. But if you pay for a meet-and-greet, then that’s more directly transaction with a YouTuber and immediately creates a different dynamic. You’re buying an experience with an individual rather than buying an experience with a community, and that’s a big difference.”
So the meet-ups seem kind of like a rip, but so are lots of things. And are we placing too much blame on the YouTubers themselves? It’s easy to forget that for every eight hours a fan waits, that’s eight hours the vlogger spends smiling, posing for photos, and accepting questionable fan art. Others go the extra mile, like popular American vlogger Tyler Oakley, who ordered pizza for the fans waiting in line to meet him at VidCon. For YouTubers, meet-and-greets must be exhausting. And stories abound that the fans are not exactly well-behaved. (The content creators' own behavior, particularly in light of some pretty distressing sexual assault claims, is another whole topic.)
What's more, for every YouTuber who relishes being swarmed by frantic fans, there are ten more who find the experience uncomfortable. Popular Irish YouTube musician BriBry posted online about his "stomach turning" when he watched vloggers act like superstars at SiTC. Even-more-popular beauty guru Sprinkleofglitter made a video earlier this year discussing the unease she feels about her fans idolizing her—or, in fact, any YouTuber.
“Some of you really overwhelm me," she says before recounting her experience of Playlist Live: "Viewers scared me. People would scream and I didn’t know what to do." She also tells her fans that waiting to meet her isn’t worth it. “All you’ll get is a hug... and a picture, and maybe a short chat, but... then the security people will move you along,” she says.
In many cases, all that most fans crave is an autograph and a photo. “It is a proof thing,” explains Rosianna. “I feel mean saying it, but sometimes people just want a selfie, they don’t want a conversation. Some of my friends have been responding to people who bump into them like, 'Hi, great to meet you, tell me about what you like,’ and that kind of stuff.”
So is it really a simple tale of increasingly greedy web stars exploiting tweens to make a quick buck? Or are the fans themselves just using the YouTubers as ammo for a cursory piece of online validation?
As these gatherings become more widespread, the danger is that dissatisfaction on either side will only deepen. Both have to respect each other. That's not to say the tears from 13-year-olds will stop any time soon, though. Meeting—or, indeed, not meeting—your idols can do that to you.
Follow Amelia Tait on Twitter