Is It Time to Start Caring About Teen YouTube Celebrities?

This weekend, The New York Times ran a hilarious article about DigiFest NYC, a YouTube festival in CitiField that sold 12,500 tickets to an audience of mostly screaming teenage girls. The “performers” on DigiFest were a fresh-faced bunch of Disney Channel-ready teens, boys and girls who look to be about 14. Ryan Seacrest, who’s invested money in the venture, is quoted as saying that this tour “has successfully translated these popular small-screen experiences into live, large-scale events that are fun, accessible and brilliantly authentic.”

It was headlined by a “crew” of dudes who call themselves Our 2nd Life, or O2L for short, cute young men who film themselves doing “weekly challenges.” The resulting videos get ardent, fan-fiction-like responses. Another one of the Instagram stars of this tour, Cameron Dallas, is known for his good looks, and he did a Q&A during this show.

A member of O2L has a perspective on this hysteria: “We had to build five to 10 minutes into the start of the show where we just let them scream and scream,” he said. “I’m kind of shocked anyone wants to meet me,” he added. “I like to say that we’re talented in that we have no talent.”

The tour is put on by DigiTour Media, co-run by Meredith Valiando Rojas, who started the company with her husband. They spent time in the record business, but a switch towards YouTube was a switch towards what the teens want. “I’m constantly on the prowl for the crème de la meme,” she said.

Articles like this — and New York‘s recent issue on “Internet Celebrity” — may come off as cute and funny, and that’s very much because the average, non-14-year-old reader will have no idea about this phenomenon. Even if you’re close in age to these YouTubers, their ardent fanbases create a sort of gigantic micro-generation gap. The idea of following some stranger’s hyper YouTube presence just feels foreign.

However, knowing what’s going on the world of YouTube may start to be an asset in the real world. Look at the success of The Fault in Our Stars this weekend. An “industry”-based website like Deadline was mostly surprised that it ended up making more money then the new Tom Cruise film. People acted as if you couldn’t see it coming… but you could. On YouTube.

Currently, YouTube is running large advertisements for itself, featuring Michelle Phan (makeup), Bethany Mota (hauls, lifestyle), and Rosanna Pansino (baking). All three women are attractive, self-made 20-somethings, and that’s great, but when you think about it too much… they’re not really pushing the envelope, and they’re steeped in the gender norms of the Internet. But they are creating something.

Being able to figure out what has legs on YouTube gives you an interesting, real-time look into the teenage world as it currently stands. So far, it seems like it’s creating a lot of specialized niches which reach passionate fanbases, but there’s no chance of a YouTube Madonna rising from one of them. (Well, there was, at one point: Justin Bieber. But he was discovered on YouTube, which is an important distinction.)

So, will the “creme de la meme” have legs? Is YouTube becoming its own little star factory, like a Disney Channel that’s sort of self-driven? Perhaps — think of one of YouTube’s biggest hits, the helium-voiced child Fred, which became a Nickelodeon property for its 20-year-old creator, Lucas Cruikshank. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries used YouTube’s platform to update Pride and Prejudice for a ravenous audience. Even a one-and-done meme like a Rebecca Black is still going. She still gets views in the six figures for her videos.

How YouTube popularity will translate into the real world, beyond the cozy confines of the Internet, remains to be seen. But when it comes to seemingly out-of-nowhere fame, YouTube is slowly becoming the engine behind these surprises. It may be worth taking seriously… or it may just be the platform giving teens the power to replace reality television with their own mundane visions.