The 7th annual VidCon was my fifth time attending. As the world’s largest conference for online video creators and fans, VidCon 2016 drew 25,000 attendees, including featured creators. Many of those attendees were frantic teens and pre-teens who routinely broke the “no running” rule in order to see as many of their favorite creators as possible.
In the past, I’ve often felt out of place at VidCon. Compared to many of the other conventions I have attended such as San Diego Comic Con, WonderCon, D23 Expo, and AwesomeCon, the crowd was primarily composed of teenagers. It’s understandable, of course, as that demographic makes up much of the audience for online video creators. But standing in a sea of junior high and high school students while they weep and flail was disconcerting. (You could also lose a limb if you got between them and their fave.) While the convention itself always seemed organized, the fan experience felt borderline chaotic at times.
And then there was this year. Everything seemed calmer, more controlled, more focused. It made 2016 the most fun at VidCon I’ve ever had and easily my most enjoyable experience at this convention.
For one, there were better activities in the exhibit hall. As the convention has grown in the past seven years, it has attracted bigger brands and sponsors. In 2016, Sweet Tarts had an interactive booth where you could create and enjoy your own flavored candy. Netflix provided a fun “chill” lounge complete with comfortable sitting areas, TVs, charging stations, and photo opps. Warner Bros. let you practice casting spells at their Fantastic Beasts booth.
The convention’s content was more diverse too. The Creator Track offered insight, tips, and encouragement not only to those hoping to make it big in online video but to creators of all kinds of content. Interviews, Q&As, and panels were divided throughout the day and held in the convention center as well as the Marriott next door, reducing crowd sizes. Evening events weren’t limited to concerts. Grace Helbig and her friends did a hilarious live reading of her novella, Freak Week, which was co-written by fans.
Surprisingly, a large part of the positive experience VidCon 2016 also had to do with security. In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, FL and singer and YouTube alum Christina Grimmie’s death, VidCon took security to a new level. It was hard to go ten steps without being within arm’s reach of a guard. The event had a total of 450 security officers, nearly twice the number from 2015. Bags were subject to random checks (though I never saw one). Some areas even required you to walk through a metal detector.
The change was difficult for some attendees to adjust to, especially as they struggled to accept reduced access to creators. VidCon has always been open game for fans. Getting close to their favorite YouTube star or musician or online personality was as easy as waiting outside a room. In the past, even VidCon’s most popular creators sometimes wandered the event out in the open, meaning fans could bump into them with little effort.
Not in 2016. The tragedy and circumstances of Grimmie’s death hung heavy. Hank Green, co-founder of VidCon, immediately reconsidered security plans for VidCon.
A few days later VidCon released a statement detailing the increased security measures. Some fans were frustrated, feeling they had paid for a VidCon badge in order to meet the stars and creators they love. Others were sad the heightened security was necessary at all. But it was and is.
It’s true that most fans are harmless and VidCon has never reported a serious issue. There have still be incidents though. In years past, hordes of screaming teens appeared regularly to mob creators. More than once I’d seen creators pushed to the ground by overzealous fans. One year I even overheard a group of girls excitedly recounting how they’d waited outside the bathroom for a particular YouTube star. When he emerged, they ambushed him with requests for selfies and autographs.
Those are extreme examples, sure, but it’s also an indicator of how quickly things can get out of hand. This year, fans were far more contained, sometimes literally as entrances and exits were highly regulated. At times, it was frustrating. You want to go in Hall D? You have to walk all the way to Hall B and backtrack, even if you are already right outside Hall D. Some areas required wristbands for entry or re-entry. A door you exited the day before or earlier that same day may be inaccessible when you returned to it.
Being given the literal runaround was irritating but no one seemed to really be suffering. In fact, many attendees and creators seemed to be having just as good of a time, perhaps more. Any grousing online didn’t translate to a negative atmosphere on the ground. Teens still screamed. Fans of all ages still saw their beloved creators and personalities on stage, at panels and at performances. Yes, there were fewer chance encounters in the hall (or outside the bathroom), but it seemed a small price to pay for better safety and a better experience for all.
The energy was just as high but less frenetic. It felt less like at any moment an army of teenagers would flood a hallway, block an escalator, or throw themselves on stage. Even though I knew things were safe at past VidCons, this year felt safe. In fact, this was the best implementation of convention security I’ve ever seen. It didn’t feel like a police state. In my experience, security guards weren’t rude, aggressive, or trying to suck the fun out of the event. They were only genuinely interested in keeping everyone safe and therefore did not look the other way or stretch the rules. Everyone knew their jobs well and carried them out with efficiency and professionalism. I found the guards very well informed and felt comfortable asking them for guidance when I was unsure where to go or what to do. Every guard I spoke to had the correct answer to my question.
There is no doubt VidCon’s decision to increase security was the right one. Their method is an impressive example to hold up to similar and larger events of how to, in the simplest terms, have fun and be safe. As the summer convention season continues to pick up and the mothership of them all, San Diego Comic Con, looms just a few weeks away, organizers should look to VidCon for inspiration. They have set the standard.