On a cool August evening in East London, hundreds of people crowd into the Ice Father Nation pub to celebrate the curious fan community of YouTube.
Let’s back up a bit. This “curious fan community” can be traced back to 2007, the year that brothers John and Hank Green gave up textual communication in favor of video blogs for 365 days. Several thousand subscribers later, they had spawned a fan community called the Nerdfighters. As these fans began making their own YouTube videos, they found different niches in the community.
That brings us to the likes of Alex Day (YouTube username nerimon) and Charlie McDonnell (charlieissocoollike). As of January, Charlie is the most subscribed YouTuber in the United Kingdom. In 2010, he, Alex, Tom Milsom (hexachordal) and Ed Blann (Eddplant) formed the band Sons of Admirals — one of many groups spawned by the Nerdfighter community. On this night, they were hosting a concert and a book reading by John Green.
So where do I fit into this? Well, I consider myself to be fairly familiar with the concept of fandom. I’m a huge “Harry Potter" fan — I check the websites, listen to wizard rock, go to conventions … you name it. I went to this Ice Father Nation event with friends I’d met at “Harry Potter” conferences, so if there’s anyone who knows what fandom can do for people, it’s me.
I happened to be in London visiting family at the time and thought I’d go to Ice Father Nation to see John again (it was my third Nerdfighter event, after two in 2008) and to hopefully meet Charlie, my YouTube crush. (It turned out that he wouldn’t be there, which significantly decreased my interest in the event.)
I went to the pub with my friends Tom, Rosi (missxrojas) and Lex (tyrannosauruslex). Rosi and Lex are also prominent British YouTubers who knew the band; Rosi was organizing the event and managed to secure places for the rest of us behind the merch counter since we were so far back in the entry line. Before we knew it, we were selling Sons of Admirals CDs to rabid fans while John Green signed books two feet away from us.
John, the band, Rosi and Lex were treated like bona fide celebrities. Fans in line started loudly singing songs by Chameleon Circuit — another band with Charlie and Alex — and cameras flashed at the rate I remember seeing on TV during the last Olympics.
None of this was that unusual; the same occurrences are a staple of events among the “Potter” fandom. But what struck me was that for the first time, I was removed from the fan interaction, watching the events from an outsider’s perspective. And from that perspective, it was some pretty weird shit.
Tom and I were nonplussed by the attention we got. Though unrecognizable to the hundreds of people packed into the pub, we were presumably famous enough to be selling CDs and chatting with John. We were treated differently by virtue of this implied eminence. One fan mistook me for a famous YouTuber; another took a picture of me, Tom and Lex selling merch. Some talked to us, about everything from the University’s StarKid to John’s books to puppy-sized elephants. I was mistaken for someone who was someone, a celebrity in my own right just for knowing the event’s hosts. In the days that followed, I’d find pictures of John tagged in my Facebook feed with my face in the background.
What sets Nerdfighters apart from other fan groups is this: Only in the age of YouTube could people like John, Hank, Charlie, Alex, Tom, Ed, Rosi and Lex become celebrities. They’re not athletes, actors or models … they’re just a bunch of nerds who make videos for us. The purpose of vlogging is to help users talk about their interests. Making them “Internet-famous” was just a side effect.
I couldn’t help wondering: Do my “Harry Potter” friends and I look like this to other people? Does being a fan of someone from the Internet really appear this crazy?
The answer is yes. I spent my own time hero-worshiping people from “Harry Potter” bands and websites, if only to grow out of it and just enjoy the show. People call it many things: fangirling, idolatry … but it’s the same thing we experience daily with “real” celebrities, a phenomenon we learned about in Comm. 102 called “pararelationships.”
Basically, the human brain isn’t designed to get to know people through a screen — be that a movie screen, television or computer. We develop a one-sided relationship with the people in those screens without them ever knowing a thing about us. What’s unique about YouTube is that the celebrities are ordinary people who never bargained for fame. It’s bizarre.
With that in mind, the rest of my surreal experience at Ice Father Nation doesn’t seem so strange. Even though my friends and I still struggle to put the night into words, I can’t imagine it going any differently. In fact, all the singing, selling, signing and being mistaken for someone who’s YouTube-famous seems normal. This is the new era of celebrity. Don’t judge the new medium and fan culture. If this is our generation’s way of furthering entertainment, then so be it.