ANAHEIM, Calif. — Two dozen people huddled around Sammie Lewis, 18, as she prepared to belt out her signature catchphrase.
“Here’s the mother frickin’ tea,” Lewis said, punctuating each breath by slamming her yellow acrylic nails into her phone screen while another person recorded the moment.
The crowd, along with thousands of other attendees who have descended on the Anaheim Convention Center, are part of the year's biggest event for youth-focused online content creators, VidCon, which is celebrating its 10th year. The event, which kicked off Wednesday, draws a varied collection of YouTube stars, young fans, digital and legacy media companies, and a variety of companies hoping to capture their attention.
But while the event has primarily revolved around YouTube as the platform on which young people can start a channel and achieve fame, the rise of short-form video app TikTok has changed the scene. Fans who once mobbed their favorite YouTube stars at VidCon — a staple of the event that organizers have tried to curtail — now flock to personalities like Lewis.
“I’m, like, really scared because I feel like I’m going to get mobbed," Lewis said. "I’m not against getting mobbed — I love taking photos, love being around everybody, but it’s a little overwhelming."
At VidCon, the year of the TikTok star is in full swing, and many creators who have large fan bases on TikTok agree — if you want to make it in the world of YouTube, you now have to start on TikTok.
TikTok is a smartphone app that serves as a platform on which people can post short videos of themselves lip-syncing along to songs or performing dance moves and skits. A TikTok video lasts anywhere from 15 seconds to one minute. The app was formerly known as Musical.ly until 2017 when it was acquired by the Chinese tech company Bytedance and rebranded. As of December, mobile analytics firm Apptopia estimated that TikTok had 251.2 million monthly active users.
Several TikTok stars arrived early Wednesday to meet with fans, take pictures and record videos their fans could post to the app — a new form of digital autograph that has started to rival the selfie.
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As more TikTok stars arrived, shrieks echoed throughout the open corridor as fans spotted their favorite creators. Many of these creators have built fan bases hundreds of thousands strong, which they can funnel toward their personal YouTube channels.
“TikTok is the jump-start to everything else,” Alex Youmazzo, 19, who has more than 727,000 followers on TikTok, said.
Emmy Combs, 18, a makeup artist with more than a million followers on TikTok, agreed.
“Fans want to engage with you on other accounts, so they look for your channels,” she said.
The pair said that YouTube and TikTok go hand-in-hand and, in a sea of creators hoping to go big on YouTube, TikTok allows users to cultivate a close fan base before moving on to the larger platform. YouTube is still the easiest place for creators to make money from ads and sponsorships.
Isaiah Perysian, 17, who has 1.2 million followers on TikTok, flew to California from his home in Michigan to meet his fans and earn a few new ones.
“Right now, the most smart way to use TikTok is to build up on TikTok and then transfer to other socials,” Perysian said. “It’s much easier on TikTok to get known and get your name out there than on YouTube.”
More than half a dozen TikTok stars who also have YouTube accounts told NBC News they don’t feel that the short-form video app will ever overtake YouTube as the primary app for content creators.
However, some of the younger users, who came to VidCon to see their favorite TikTok stars, said they’re using the short-form video app more than YouTube, despite having been on YouTube for approximately 5 years.
Josie, 13, who came to VidCon with her mother, Desiree Villicana, and four of her friends ranging between 12 and 13 years old, said she the fact she can learn viral dance moves, hear new songs and find new people are among the many reasons she prefers TikTok to YouTube.
The group of tweens agreed, saying they too would one day like to be TikTok stars.
“I have no preference,” Villicana said when asked if she’d rather her daughter be on TikTok or YouTube. “As long as they’re not doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.”
Villicana added that she monitors all of her daughter’s social media down to the comments she receives and reviews each video before it’s posted.
But those who are already cultivating followings on the app remain adamant that TikTok is still a stepping stone on the path to larger, more established platforms.
Michael Pelchat, 21, and Catherine Cortez, 20, who go by “NiceMichael” and “MeanCatherine” on the app and have a collective following of more than 800,000, said they both feel TikTok is a good place to make headway in the social media world, but that YouTube, where creators are able to make money, is still the ultimate goal for success.
“They both have their place in social media … It’s a good place to start. It’s harder to make money on TikTok but it’s easier to grow a fan base through TikTok,” Pelchat said.
Kalhan Rosenblatt is a reporter for NBC News, based in New York.