I’ve been meaning to write this post for several weeks, but it kept getting shelved. But now that my girls are going to camp tomorrow, and I won’t be able to fact-check with them for two months, my hand is forced.
So as I was doing my annual tour through the Booksellers Expo (BEA) extravaganza in May at the Javits Center, I was struck by one of the huge banners hanging from the ceiling above one of the entrances. It was from the new KeyWords Press imprint of Simon and Schuster and featured the faces of four young, good-looking people: Shane Dawson, Connor Franta, Joey Graceffa, and Justine Ezarik. These four authors were going to appear on the Sunday following BEA at BookCon, which is part of the ComiCon-like piece of BEA that is open to the public.
I immediately took a photo of the banner and sent it to my daughters.
You see, the four authors are among my daughters’ favorite YouTubers, video bloggers who have created huge followings by bypassing traditional avenues of discoverability and appealing directly to…whomever by looking at a camera, smiling sheepishly, and talking. Then posting the monologue on YouTube and seeing who will respond.
To my daughters, these people are friends and idols and role models (but with excellent hair). To me they seemed charming and slightly inarticulate.
Thirty seconds after sending the photo to them with “Want to go on Sunday?” attached, I got the following text from the 12 YO:
YAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh Shwag Daddy!
And the following email from the 11 YO:
So clearly we had to go see them on Sunday.
When I bought the BookCon tickets, I received an email that contained, among other things, a link to a set of instructions as to how to deal with attending the panel with Joey, Connor, Shane, and (as she’s known) iJustine. There were paragraphs about getting there an hour in advance, which room to go to to get your wristband, then which line to wait in; also where to buy books, which would be the only way you would be able to take a photo with the authors.
Hmm. It was very John Green/Stephanie Meyer in feel, and I couldn’t imagine it being THAT bad. I mean, Joey has almost 5 million subscribers, and Connor 4 and a half million. But would anyone go OUT to see them.
When Jessie, Ita, Ita's friend Avigail and I got to Javits, and made our way downstairs to the holding pen, we were 45 minutes early and around 400th in line. And it was fascinating. EVERYONE coming to see them was a teenage girl (except for the occasional boyfriend and sporadic grey-haired chaperones). They were all drinking hot pink Frappuccinos and looking…happy. On their cell phones. Posting photos of the line on Instagram that looked kind of like this:
We waited a long time. And every time someone Official came by to announce that everyone needed to stay patient, there were screams. Like, rock concert screams. The vibrations built.
And I need to say something: If it seems like I’m rolling my eyes at this, it’s because the bare description of the event was utterly the cliché of a parent taking a group of tweens to an event he’s not wanted at. But here’s the cool thing: It was at a BOOK convention, and it was SWEET. Everyone was totally well-behaved. There were nerds and cool kids side by side, and there was no drama beyond the vibrations.
Then they opened the door, and the thousand 11-17 year old girls went BATSHIT. I’d been to this room before for some events at BEA so I ran the girls to the far end and we found reasonable seats. A DJ was playing pretty loud music (for 10 in the morning) that everyone knew, and the place filled up within moments. The moderator came out, the lights went down, the YouTubers shuffled into the room…
And the place exploded like it was the Beatles (or maybe 1Direction). Girls were SOBBING, screaming, shouting incoherently, for a really long time. At that point I was bemused, because there was no way the next 45 minutes could live up to the anticipation.
And then I learned about the YouTube zeitgeist and why it’s cool.
You see, while so much of the internet is negative and dangerous and filled with predators and trolls, these folks (and a number of other vloggers) are People Positive. They are kind and understanding (and snarky but in a nice way) and empathetic. They were bullied and weird and nerdy and closeted, and when they turn on their cameras and just talk about their day, with their success and newfound life satisfaction, their audience gets a sense that they can succeed as well. Joey and Connor and Justine and Shane appreciate their success and LOVE their community. They give time and imprimatur to worthy causes. And while they’ve certainly figured out a way to make a living talking on the internet, their message of tolerance and collective support is simply undeniably positive.
At the end of the formal interview, the moderator allowed a few questions from the fans. I had been, again, skeptical of the kinds of questions we would get. But the girls said I’d be surprised. And again they were right and I was…old. The kids asking questions were well-informed and articulate, and were asking questions more philosophical and less “ConnorIWannaMarryYou.” And the YouTubers took them seriously (even if they were funny and pretty vague in their answers), and everyone left empowered.
When we left the room, we knew that the rest of the day would be anticlimactic. We wandered the booths, which were beginning to be disassembled anyway at the end of a long convention. But all the girls could talk about was how amazing it was to see these people in person. We didn’t get to have our photos taken with them—the line for books was as long as the line was to get into the auditorium, and life had to go on. But I left feeling like I learned something good about society, at the very time when so much of our lives is taken up with analyzing tragedy. There is a community out there, of tweens who read and feel and want to be happy and can’t always figure out how to make that happen. And they are led by a pretty impressive group of near-peers, who reach out through their cameras and help a bit to show them how to Make It Through.