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YouTube's Stars, Fans, and Passions Meet at VidCon
VidCon, the annual gathering of YouTube video-makers and video-watchers, is growing every year. But perhaps it includes a little too much passive devotion.

I attended my first VidCon this year in Los Angeles. It's not exactly in the Streaming Media wheelhouse, but it seemed like it was time to check out what the buzz was all about. After all, as Tay Zonday of "Chocolate Rain" fame said during the third annual gathering of YouTubers, it's pretty clear that within another year or two, VidCon may very well be as big as Comic-Con.

What makes VidCon so fascinating -- beyond the fact that someone like Real Life Charlie, unknown outside the world of YouTube fanatics, can sign more than 1,500 autographs in 16 hours -- is that everything about it exists inside an inescapable, fundamental paradox.

VlogBrothers Hank and John Green founded VidCon as a haven for video creators who work outside the constraints of traditional media, casting those creators as revolutionaries and rebels who were nothing if not independent. But none of them could do what they do without a single, centralised distribution point: YouTube. YouTube is the primary sponsor of the event, and the company's keynote was the biggest and best-attended speech of the conference. It was chock full of announcements about new features and programmes, all of which were met by thunderous applause from the mostly young audience.

In fact, O'Reilly Media, Inc. founder Tim O'Reilly posted during the YouTube keynote, "Lovely to see how much affection the #vidcon crowd has for YouTube management team. Sign of a great brand!" Maybe I'm cynical, maybe I'm old school, or maybe it's just because I was reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- a post-modern vision of a dystopian future in which, among other things, all entertainment comes from a single source, even though consumers have the illusion of complete control over what they watch and are so obsessed with being entertained that people are dying because of a video so entertaining that, once they start watching it, they're incapable of turning it off -- but the VidCon crowd exhibited a bit too much completely passive adoration for my tastes.

In Infinite Jest, even something as fundamental as time is branded. Years are no longer numbered but are rather subsidised, so events happen in, for instance, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad or the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland (sign of a great brand!). And entertainment is so ubiquitous that citizens have long ago stopped questioning or even thinking critically about it. "Saying this is bad," Wallace writes, "is like saying traffic is bad, or health-care surtaxes, or the hazards of annular fusion: nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without."

I'm not ascribing evil motives to Google/ YouTube (after all, Google can't be evil -- it's forbidden in the company motto!), nor am I suggesting that thousands of YouTubers are willing sheep or even simply naive. There's so much to be admired and appreciated in the VidCon crowd -- their appreciation for each other, their devotion to entertainment that breaks free of the constraints of the TV sitcom or blockbuster movie, and their enthusiasm and positive attitude. I even said to my wife, a public school teacher, "These are the kind of kids you wish you had in all your classes." But I can't help but wonder if they really understand that, as responsive as YouTube might be to their needs, neither YouTube nor any other multinational corporation will ever put their -- our -- interests first.

VidCon and the new generation of YouTubers have a lesson for the rest of the video industry, too, as it seeks out the most profitable monetisation and distribution models. Thousands of content creators are not just making money, but making a living, with online video, without worrying for a minute about the technological and business issues that are the bailiwick of this magazine and its readers. There's an alternate video economy developing, one that we fail to address at our peril. So what are you going to do about it?

This article appears as "Future Shock" in the Autumn, 2012, issue of Streaming Media European Edition.