After two years on hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, VidCon — the annual convention for fans, creators, and online platform industry types — returned to the Anaheim Convention Center last week. But it looked a little different than usual.
For starters, the ear-piercing shrieks of fans lining up to meet their favorite creators were just a little quieter. With 50,000 attendees as opposed to 2019’s 75,000, the convention was somewhat smaller than it previously had been. Further, unlike VidCons of years past, some attendees were wearing masks, albeit an infinitesimally small number among the hordes of preteens angling for photo ops with their favorite creators (days later, several attendees of VidCon, which required proof of vaccination or a recent Covid test for entry, began reporting on social media that they had tested positive for COVID after the event).
Perhaps most importantly, however, TikTok, the short-form video platform that dominated the app store starting in the beginning of the pandemic, had supplanted YouTube as the main sponsor of the event. Two of the biggest creators on TikTok, dancer Charli D’Amelio and Italian-Senegalese comedy creator Khaby Lame, were slated to appear at the event for the first time, with Lame outpacing D’Amelio that weekend as the most-followed TikToker on the platform. Indeed, previous attendees best known for building large followings on YouTube, such as Shane Dawson and David Dobrik and other members of his Vlog Squad were not in attendance at all.
“I feel like TikTok has done a lot more for this VidCon. In 2019 there were all boards for YouTubers and shows coming out that year. Then this year it’s all just a bunch of TikTok on the board,” says 13-year-old Nino from Las Vegas, who has run a gaming channel called @NinoGamingPlayz for six years, which now has 2,500 subscribers.
The move to TikTok as a main sponsor was “a bit of the changing of the guards, to be honest with you,” says Lauren Schnipper, vice president of corporate development at Jellysmack, a global creator company that hosted an industry lounge and multiple panels at VidCon. Yet while YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki used to make appearances at past VidCons to announce company updates and product launches, TikTok kept a somewhat lower profile: “Their strategy seemed to just be to highlight the creators that came out over the last two years,” she says. “It was a bit of a missed opportunity, to be honest.”
The emergence of TikTok, as well as its competitors’ scramble to develop similar short-form platforms such as Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, has resulted in what has come to be referred to by some tongue-in-cheek commenters as the “short-form content wars,” which were in full display at VidCon. YouTube Shorts, for instance, was one of the most highly visible brands at the convention, sponsoring an outdoor golf cart “drive-through” experience as well as a lavish 55-foot gumball machine dispensing Feastables candy bars promoting one of the platform’s most prominent creator and former Rolling Stone cover star, MrBeast, whose panel on cracking YouTube’s algorithm on Friday was packed with hundreds of fans.
Indeed, many of the young fans I spoke to, including Nino, had come to VidCon not to see their favorite TikTok star, but to see MrBeast, who was flanked by a cadre of security guards when he appeared on his panel on Friday. Another major draw at the con was a panel featuring members of Dream SMP, a Minecraft server run by Dream, whose members largely stream on Twitch and YouTube. According to NBC News, that panel attracted 135,000 viewers on livestream, as well as 2,000 people in the audience.
Some creators expressed consternation with the fact that VidCon appeared to be less creator-centric and more aimed at targeting an increasingly younger audience. Many of the most popular exhibitions, such as a human claw grab game featuring jumbo-sized versions of the popular plush animal brand Squishmallows (which on Saturday attracted a four-and-a-half hour line), as well as a live-action experience promoting Nickelodeon’s upcoming movie Monster High (Nickelodeon is also owned by Paramount, VidCon’s parent company), had a distinctly more juvenile feel. “It used to be mostly YouTubers and Twitchers,” says Desi, 22, who was accompanying her friend, YouTuber Isaiah. “Things are definitely more aesthetic for the social medias than they have been in the past. They have a lot more photo opps, places to do videos for the TikToks and the Shorts, for the shorter videos.” (“I think that’s kind of bunk,” says Schnipper, a VidCon advisory board member, when asked if VidCon was trying to pivot to a younger audience. “We focus on the biggest creators, and they were all there.”)
Despite the increased focus on TikTok, in speaking to creators at VidCon, many creators expressed frustration with how difficult it is to monetize content on TikTok, as they make very little money through the creators’ fund and find their engagement tanks when they post branded content, thanks to the platform’s fickle algorithm. “With TikTok it’s easier to grow and get an organic following. It works for you to find your followers and find your audience, but then it’s kind of like once you have it, it’s hard to keep them entertained because you have to constantly do what’s trending,” says Addison, aka @bigdaddyaddy, a travel nurse-turned-content creator who blew up during the pandemic and now has 626,000 followers.
Addison was attending the MrBeast panel to learn tips on gaining a bigger following on YouTube, as he struggles to make money on TikTok and finds the money brands do offer him for content doesn’t justify the amount of work he needs to put in. “TikTok’s still working out issues because I think they grew so fast,” he says. Even much younger content creators agreed: “I’ve done a few TikToks but I think YouTube is still my home,” says Nino, the 13-year-old creator.
With a looming economic recession on the horizon, the next year or so may be the ultimate test for which platform will emerge supreme, says Schnipper. “When a platform is incredibly popular they can make the mistake potentially of relying on that too much,” says Schnipper. “If they [TikTok] don’t get their act together with monetizing sooner or later, they’re not gonna win.”
This week on Rolling Stone‘s podcast Don’t Let This Flop, co-hosts Ej Dickson and Brittany Spanos discuss Dickson’s trip to VidCon, as well as the slow and painful downfall of Justin Timberlake, an OnlyFans creator couple that may be related, the rise of Australian himbo Robert Irwin, and whether or not the Minions are working-class heroes.