To learn what makes Digital Natives tick, why not hear it straight from the horse’s mouth?
This is why I spent the past few days at VidCom, the ultimate convention for online videos and the lives of digital influencers and their young fan base. VidCon is the brainchild of the vlogbrothers, themselves uber-successful YouTubers. John Green, one half of the brother duo is possibly more famous to the mainstream for his book and blockbuster The Fault in our Stars. VidCon has grown twentyfold since it was first held in 2010.
I typically attend a few conferences a year, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to bring my own daughter who for the occasion achieved this treat by promising to be my research assistant. Seeing the enthusiasm of with my 13-year-old and her friend was definitely worth the modest conference fee of $150. The average age was significantly lower than most conventions held in the U.S., but between the holographic accessories, rainbow-ombre hairstyles, fishnet-under-jeans-shorts and fidget spinners, I noticed a number of attendants my own age. Like me, they ranged from curious parents to trend researchers and marketers, and were typically found at the more “topic-oriented” panels while the younger audiences were drawn to the star-studded YouTube celebrities with the ultimate goal of obtaining starstudded selfies and autographs.
YouTubers are to Generation Z what The Beatles were to the Boomers
Kids waited in hours to see their favorite YouTubers, and the squeals from young fans are as exuberant today as they were in the ’60s.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the conference
1.Start-Up hipsterdom meets Disneyland
As a trend researcher, most of the conferences I attend are technology oriented. I’ve seen fast-speaking entrepreneurial hopefuls all competing for capital, eyeballs and success. Many of them have spent large amounts for event tickets with “pitching privileges” competing for the ever more elusive investor. For maybe 0.000001% of them, the investment might pay off.
I got the same sense at this conference, but for young entertainment hopefuls. Creator-badges were sold at a somewhat higher price, and YouTube-virality hopefuls could participate in panels which taught them how to create a successful video, grow an audience and chase the unicorn. No wonder why unicorns were such a common item among fidget-spinners and free chocolate.
2.Youtubers give voice to the unheard – and that’s the ticket to success
The one thing many successful Influencers have in common – besides being a few notches more charismatic and well-spoken that the average young person – is that they often start creating content because they don’t see anybody representing them in traditional media. LGBTQ people, non-whites or people who don’t fit traditional body ideals take to YouTube to correct biased or missing media narratives and to get a sense of community. In their efforts to heal themselves, they give voice to others, with the reward of 7-figure views and subscriptions and everything that comes with it.
You Tubes success is in many ways the way traditional media’s avoidance of topics too sensitive or political is backfiring. Because siding with the status quo is considered to be political by the YouTube generation. If you want to appeal to Zers, you have to break the mold. YouTubers do this all the time because they don’t have to abide with risk averse far reaching networks or shareholders. And their bold stances seem to be paying off.
3.Haters gonna hate. Focus on the positive, disarm the negative
Many of the panelists discussed the problems with hateful comments, cyber trolls and harassment. A common theme I heard was how important it is to let go of the negative. Some even try to take power out of it by mocking the haters. When Krystal Gordon (not a presenter at the conference) was fat-shamed for a bikini picture, she posted in social media even more skin-exposed pictures of herself. The point is to disarm the haters of their vitriolic ammo.
A distinction was made between haters and trolls. While hating was identified as an activity that aims to attack inwardly, trolling is an activity meant to attack outwardly and elicit public shame. An issue I often heard mentioned is that statutes and regulations for sharing can’t keep up with the technological development and the habits emerging from this. Many YouTubers took note that communities are starting to push back.
I often compare the digital frontier to the physical frontier of the wild west. We’re quickly grabbing land and spreading our cattle, but we can barely recognize the foreign dangers that lurk in this terrain. It is our children’s generation that will bring some guidelines and regulation to this new environment since they are the natives growing up in it.
4.Authenticity – the fine lines of branded content
All the influencers divulged that they accept sponsors. This is not seen as controversial and the fans accept this as a part of the way influencers are doing business. The line seemed to be drawn at the product’s overall relevance to their personal brand and message, and also whether the influencer personally like the products. This is where the buzzword “authenticity” comes in. Of course, to which degree influencers are able to convince themselves they like products that pay really well is another story.
Influencers’ philosophy seems to resonate with Generation Z. This consumer group is less likely to make distinctions between sponsored and editorial content, and is thus potentially easier to market to. On the other hand, Gen Z is possibly becoming the most skeptical and least brand conscious. For brands, to appeal to younger people you have to “be in their cloud”. They have to like you. At the very least they have to like those who claim like you.
21st Century community building and digital tribes
It’s hard to grow up in 21st century: high pressure to succeed, identity struggles, climate change, recession, rapid technological change, a compromised election systems, hate crimes – these are all issues that weigh heavily on young people today. Add the fact that this is possibly the most sheltered generation in history between curfew-imposing helicopter parents on the one side and on the other, schools and media networks that systematically avoid sensitive but edifying conversations, kids will learn about the real world from You Tube and other social media channels.
Social media is a hallmark of globalization. Globalization is often defined as the transition from spatial to functional integration. In the digital era this means that our transactional or interactional relationships are moving from physical to digital communities. It is not unusual for digital natives to have more online friends than IRL-friends. When times are tough and you don’t find your tribe in your hometown, tribes a built in cyberspace. In this emerging reality the communities portrayed at VidCon is a natural confluence of what is technologically possible and what feels culturally necessary to those coming of age in the 21st century.