Access is one of the fundamental reasons so many young people today idolize YouTube stars over traditional Hollywood celebrities.
You can track the daily lives of digital luminaries like Tyler Oakley, Justine Ezarik and Connor Franta simply by checking out their latest videos, tweets or snaps. They'll reply to your comments or answer your questions in a video. You can get an autograph or a hug just by showing up at the meet-and-greets, book signings or live shows they promote on social media.
That closeness has fueled the rise of online video fame – but it’s also a source of great vulnerability in light of the recent killing of Christina Grimmie, 22, a finalist on NBC’s “The Voice” who first gained notoriety as a teenage YouTuber.
Grimmie was shot and killed while signing autographs after a performance in Orlando, Fla., on June 10. The gunman, 27-year-old Kevin James Loibl, fatally shot himself after being tackled by Grimmie’s brother.
Grimmie’s death has rippled across the so-called video creator community, which has responded by posting teary videos over the young star’s untimely death while doing something so ingrained in the nascent industry: meeting fans.
“They were celebrating life in a place where we should feel safe,” Oakley said in a clip he posted last week about Grimmie and the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that same weekend (the latter has also been traumatic for the YouTube community given that so many of its biggest stars are gay and talk frequently about overcoming discrimination).
That sense of loss and unease is already taking a toll on the annual online video industry gathering known as VidCon, which starts Thursday. Grimmie had performed at VidCon several times.
Thirty-thousand fans, creators and industry officials are expected to attend the sold-out event in the Los Angeles area, about 10,000 more than last year. That’s raised the stakes for organizers who scrambled after the twin tragedies in Orlando to beef up security.
Among the changes: more police officers, nearly double the security guards, metal detectors and random bag checks.
Moreover, the event that is best known for getting hordes of screaming fans closer than ever to their favorite stars, will limit access to creators.
“Previously, after panels many fans have come up to give creators gifts or letters or to ask questions and talk,” organizers wrote in a Tumblr post outlining the new security measures. “This will no longer be a thing. Creators won’t be able to linger after panels and the audience will not be allowed to approach the panelists. This sucks; obviously, we don’t want to build a wall between creators and their communities, but it is unfortunately necessary.”
“As in all years we want VidCon to be fun, but you can’t have fun without being safe.”
As much as VidCon has stepped up security, creators and their management have decided there’s still room for more.
Petar Mandich, a talent manager for video personalities such as Ezarik, Joey Graceffa and Evelina, has hired private guards to mind his stable of stars.
“It’s just an extra layer,” Mandich said. “We’ve had fans cross the line a bit. Obviously we don’t want to alienate the fans and make them feel like there’s a barrier. At the same time, we’re doing this for everyone’s safety.”
Grimmie’s death has exposed a paradox of YouTube fame, said Hank Green, the co-founder of VidCon who is also launching a guild for creators.
“Creators really do have a more significant connection with their communities than in other media,” Green said. “That closeness can be an asset in that fans are more likely to understand the humanity of a creator, or it can be a liability if a fan begins to have delusions of a more significant relationship than exists.”
While the attack on Grimmie appears unprecedented, creators also find themselves at risk online interacting with fans. Threats, abuse and general creepiness aren’t uncommon.
“We have had fans tweet us asking if a certain address was our address (it was). We’ve had fans find our building from a picture we posted on Instagram and wait outside. It definitely makes you think twice about something as simple as posting to Instagram or Snapchat,” said travel vlogging team Damon Dominique and Joanna Franco, known simply as Damon and Jo, in a response to emailed questions. “We’ve learned to wait to post certain photos or tag them, because the ‘instant’ factor of social media is sometimes dangerous.”
The pair, who have nearly 400,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel, said fans sometimes feel so close to them that they get angry when they believe they’re not being treated fairly. A slight can be as simple as posting a video in Portuguese for the duo’s large Brazilian following and not in English.
“Viewers can get very attached to you and your channel, and because they are literally part of the success of your channel, some feel entitled,” said Dominique and Franco, who are regularly mailed gifts from fans.
To combat trolls, the two have set up filters to remove abusive words in the comments below their videos.
“At the same time, we let people speak their minds, and what’s interesting is that, in the comments, fans will jump to defend you before you even get to it yourself,” they said. “In that way, you almost feel safer to have an army of supporters.”
Cultivating those supporters can make or break a creator’s career. Sonja R., a closely followed video gamer who goes by the online handle OMGitsfirefoxx, talks to fans online and makes an effort to remember many of their names. Now she has more than 700,000 followers each on YouTube and Twitch. She calls them her Foxx Family.
Two years ago, when she was still living in Canada, she was hacked. Her address, bank accounts and PayPal accounts were posted online. Then last year, while living with fellow YouTubers, she caught a young fan rummaging through her garbage and trying to look inside their home. They chased her away.
“Now I don’t vlog within a 10-mile radius of where I live,” said the 25-year-old, who requested not to be quoted by last name because she feared it would make it easier for stalkers to find her.
Sonja plans to hold a meet-and-greet at VidCon, where she’s also a featured panelist. This year, however, she'll be bringing along a security guard. He’s an Uber driver and former Los Angeles police officer she met a week before the shootings in Orlando.
“He gave me his business card and I thought, ‘When am I going to need private security? I just play video games,’ ” she said. “I’m glad I kept his card. I’m going to make a call.”