In certain circles they are known simply as YouTubers -- the cyber celebs who know how to go viral. These aren't your one-post wonder videos of cute pets or of a little calm girl and her terrified father on a roller coaster at an amusement park that happens to hit every morning show. The real YouTubers are a unique group of people whose frequent and hugely-watched posts have loyal followings that rival major celebrities.
It is a different kind of star. These internet sensations are totally in control of their own destiny (provided they get the traffic). Like the Hollywood star system, many of the cyber celebrities are represented by agents but they don't have the attitude that can often come with fame. Maybe that's because they are followed online rather than by paparazzi and tabloids.
I discovered this after trekking to Anaheim, California with my 11-year old son to attend Video Conference, known as Vidcon. As we walked into the Anaheim Convention Center, a number of people began surrounding a 20-something year old guy. Having grown up in Los Angeles I knew it was some kind of star sighting... I just didn't recognize the face... at all! "Who is that," I asked my son? "That's Mystery Guitar Man," he replied, wishing I hadn't asked so loudly.
You quickly find out that those funny viral videos are a very small part of the YouTube landscape. It has all transformed into million-viewed make-up tutorials and canny product placements. These days more and more people are cashing in on those YouTube clicks and getting uber famous too.
There are a number of big YouTube stars that may not be household names yet, but have audiences larger than Jay Leno or David Letterman. And their fan base is as fiercely loyal and partisan.
Three years ago just over a thousand people attended the first-ever VidCon. It's now over six thousand strong filled mainly with young tween and teenage girls. Upon running into a flummoxed friend at the conference she blurted out, "I am officially 100!" But despite feeling ancient, it was actually quite fascinating to see the YouTube star system in action.
Though these internet sensations may not be as recognizable as Ryan Gosling or Gwyneth Paltrow, they have just as many millions of loyal fans. "It is a little different than a celebrity," says Joe Penna, the YouTube sensation also known as Mystery Guitar Man -- the very one I didn't recognize when we walked in. "People feel a little bit more like they're my friends and not like they are going up to George Clooney. It's more like, 'Hey, Joe what's up?'" That familiar feeling of knowing someone may explain why he has over two-million subscribers.
Another big star is the reigning YouTube queen known as iJustine. At 28, Justine Ezarik has millions of loyal followers. The viral video superstar who can best be described as having the looks of a supermodel, the mind of a tech geek and the quick wit of a late night talk show host, had her first website at the age of 11. She knows how to take a television apart, is obsessed with Apple products, plays the video game "Call of Duty" all while paradoxically loving fashion and makeup.
At Vidcon she was an internet celebrity par excellence, a superstar, barely managing a walk through the Anaheim convention center without a crowd eagerly surrounding her with pleas for an autograph. Even when she went outside to do a television interview, teenage girls surrounded her asking for an autograph and how to get started on YouTube. She simply replies, "Just start," and adds, "I've definitely posted videos that are very bad, but the best part of getting a very engaged audience is they become your friends."
iJustine may not be a mainstream name quite yet, but she is a brand. In addition to millions of fans, she has big business contracts too. Over the last couple of years she has signed deals with companies from Bing to Nikon to Mattel. Writer/producer Jill Golick understands the new game and is trying to emulate a similar business model. Her Ruby Skye P.I. is a digital detective series for tweens on YouTube. She came to Vidcon from Toronto to create a buzz for what Golick describes as an online Nancy Drew-type show that was launched in 2010. "These are the rock stars of YouTube. These are the people who are making money on the web," she says as she sits in her booth on the edge of the convention floor. "These are the people who have an avid fan base and know how to connect to an online community and build it."
But for now, anyway, YouTube stars get some of the perks of being a star in the online community while still being able to walk the streets normally without being mobbed. Maybe they'll get recognized by a kid at the mall or at a foreign airport. "Vidcon is a concentration of people who are watching your videos," explained Justine of the constant tweens and teens seeking her autograph on the convention floor. "In everyday life it isn't like it is here. After all, just because these Internet stars are more approachable than their small or silver screen peers doesn't mean they aren't cashing in where they can.