YouTubers Try a Different Forum: Real Life

EvilWillieWonka, center, flanked by fellow
EvilWillieWonka, center, flanked by fellow "candidates" sXePhil, left, and xgobodeanx, right, in the YouTube debate, part of an event in Alexandria. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
Monday, September 10, 2007

Move over, Trekkies. Some new self-described "geeky" enthusiasts are in town.

They're called YouTubers, and on Saturday they had their first social gathering in the D.C. area. It was the fourth such get-together nationwide of an otherwise virtual community that marches to the beat of a different mouseclick.

"These are people we see for two and a half minutes online every day, and now all of the sudden I can poke them and touch them and see they're real," says a man who would give only his YouTube alias, EvilWillieWonka, because he says he works for a government agency. "It's beautiful."

About 170 people filed through Floyd's Bar and Grill in Alexandria during the six-hour event. YouTubers traveled from as far as Florida and California to meet, to film one another meeting and to film one another filming one another meeting.

Most importantly, they came to see their favorite YouTube celebrities in the flesh.

"I heard renetto was gonna be here, but I haven't seen him," said Ian Blau, 15, of Burke, referring to a favorite YouTube star. "I also came to ridicule sXePhil."

SXePhil is the alias of 21-year-old University of South Florida student and Web heartthrob Philip DeFranco, whose videos have been viewed millions of times. DeFranco spent much of the day signing autographs.

In addition to fans (and some purported stalkers), some YouTube celebrities have corporate sponsors, who pay for product placement in their clips or production of online ads. Some have quit their day jobs or changed careers to accommodate their YouTube filming schedules. A handful are also official "YouTube Partners," meaning the company thinks they are so valuable that it cuts them a share of ad revenue.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, issued a statement saying that it wasn't involved in the event, but "DCTube" organizer John Schneider says the company sent him a video message offering help and sent him free YouTube buttons ahead of the party.

Schneider estimates the party cost about $5,000, with most of the funding coming out of his and other YouTubers' pockets. Red Bull, several local businesses and nonprofit group Shaping America's Health also helped sponsor the event. The obesity awareness group is itself trying to harness the power of YouTube by creating a weight-loss challenge on the video portal.

One of the event's highlights was the faux presidential debate for the YouTubian Party, a movement that has become popular among users. True to the chaotic YouTube spirit, no one quite knew what the object of the debate was. Maybe it was for "president of YouTube" or president of the United States on a fictional party ticket, or maybe it was for something else entirely.

"I don't really know what I'm running for," says Kevin Nalty, alias nalts, who is a marketing director for a Fortune 500 company. "I'm just playing along."

-- Catherine Rampell

© 2007 The Washington Post Company