When 22-year-old YouTuber and “The Voice” (NBC) finalist Christina Grimmie was shot and killed while signing autographs at a post-concert meet and greet in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month, it was a tragic, senseless loss of a talented young woman, beloved by family, friends, fans and colleagues. It was also a loss of innocence for a community that has reveled in its intimate relationship with its fans.
“[Creators] don’t refer to them as fans, they refer to them as friends, and that’s why you have all the hugging and the kissing and the crying [at events],” said Adam Wescott of Select Management Group, which has removed the office address from its web site in the wake of the tragedy. “Everyone felt for Christina, whether or not they knew her personally. And then the other side of it is could this happen to me and what does protection and security look like? So it’s about continuing to have that engagement but drawing a line so there’s a sense of personal security.”
For this year’s VidCon, which kicks off today in Anaheim, it means metal detectors, bag checks and no post-panel interactions between fans and creators, along with double the number of security personnel (450), including undercover officers, patrolling the event.
For Wescott’s client Gigi Gorgeous, a transgender beauty vlogger who has a social reach of 4.6M according to Tubular Labs, it means a personal security guard for her performance at New York City’s Gay Pride Parade on Sunday, “only because there isn’t an off-stage talent area in that kind of set-up for the parade,” said Wescott.
“It’s a very heightened environment with lots of people for a very specific cause, and so we’re just making sure,” he added.
Grimmie’s murder has affected YouTube star Shane Dawson deeply. She was a friend, and as he mourns her loss, he’s also grappling with anxieties about his own safety.
“I still haven’t wrapped my brain around it. I just pray to God that nothing happens at VidCon,” Dawson told VideoInk. “My biggest fear was having something like that happen. I stopped going to VidCon a couple of years ago because of my anxiety just went crazy. So many people… the crowds.”
This year, Dawson decided to skip VidCon once again and instead do a tour to promote his new book, “It Gets Worse: A Collection of Essays,” coming out later this month.
“I could have more control and it was less people,” Dawson explained. Still, “I’ve considered canceling the book tour because I got so paranoid and scared, but I think I’m going to do it and we’re just going to increase security.”
Unlike the shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in the same city the following night that left 50 dead and 53 wounded, Grimmie’s murder could not be described as a hate crime. It was the product of a singular obsession.
Grimmie’s killer spent most of his time watching videos of her on YouTube and obsessively following her social media accounts according to a co-worker at the local Best Buy, who described himself as his “only friend in the world.”
It’s not the first time that fan obsession has turned deadly. Beatle John Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment building in 1980 in nearly the same spot where he had signed an autograph for his killer just hours earlier. In 1989, 21-year-old Rebecca Schaeffer, star of the short-lived sitcom “My Sister Sam,” was shot and killed at the door her West Hollywood apartment by a fan who had been stalking her for three years.
Lennon and Schaeffer lived in a time when celebrities were seen as distant, untouchable figures. The digital stars of today cultivate their followings by tearing down the wall between celebrity and fan, and that intimacy and engagement is the key to both their business and their culture.
When stars address the camera in their vlogs, they look directly into the eyes of their viewers, goofing around, ranting and confiding secrets and fears. The intimate connections they foster not only inspire fans to habitually view their videos, driving Google AdSense revenue, it’s also what makes them valuable to brands, which have become the primary source of income for many top digital influencers. The deep engagement is also what sells tickets to the growing number of influencer concert events like DigiTour, which are more about selfie-and-hug meet and greets than the at-times-amateurish performances on stage.
The heightened security could be temporary. While the post/9–11 practice of having airline passengers remove their shoes at airport security is still in effect, it’s been a long time since movie and TV studios checked the trunk of every car and examined their undercarriages with mirrors on sticks.
In the meantime, there’s the risk that a clampdown on fan-on-creator interaction at VidCon and other events could squelch the very thing that made the still-fledgling digital influencer economy successful.
Dawson isn’t concerned.
“Yeah, [the added security] might take away some of the excitement with the screaming and the crowds, but, honestly, no amount of excitement is worth something happening like what happened in Orlando,” he said.