At 1:30 p.m. on a rainy December Saturday, I headed to a New York nightclub for an event that I can only properly describe in terms of decibels. If a Beyoncé concert falls around 110 on the noise scale — which puts it at extremely loud — this was probably closer to 150, a level that can cause permanent hearing damage.
That is because the room was at capacity, filled with 750 pre-teen and teen girls, emitting a pulsing, hair-raising, collective shriek. When those sounds took the form of actual words, they seemed to be screams of "Daddy" and "I love you."
But they were not calling for their actual dads. They were attempting to lock eyes, or if they were really lucky, touch hands with the concert's performers, Gen Z Justin Biebers and Selena Gomezes.
This is DigiTour. Founded in 2010 by former music executive Meridith Valiando Rojas, it's probably the closest you'll get to understanding what the future of social media — and its audience — will look like. All of the performers at DigiTour, which takes place in dozens of cities in the U.S. and internationally, are digital natives. That is, they grew up online and have built massive fan bases on popular teen apps like Musical.ly and YouNow. For most of the performers, DigiTour is their first professional, offscreen experience.
For some, it will be the way they establish careers outside of performing. Many of DigiTour's earliest stars came from YouTube, which was famous long before Musical.ly, YouNow, and even Instagram established themselves with millions of teen users. Connor Franta, a lifestyle vlogger who was on tour in 2014, now has a clothing line in Urban Outfitters, a coffee line, and a best-selling book. Zoella, a U.K. beauty guru on tour in 2013, has her own makeup line. So, there is life beyond the screen.
When I arrive at DigiTour, I have to fight my way to the balcony area overlooking the stage, past a sea of 11 and 12-year-olds who are waiting to get their posters signed and buy T-shirts bearing slogans, including "no chill." Upstairs is the meet-and-greet area. Kids — or rather, their parents — have paid an extra $75 on top of the $25 general admission price to take selfies with the performers, who include six boys — Blake Gray, Liam Lis, Mark Thomas, Zach Clayton, Weston Koury, Nathan Triska — and two girls, Sophia Kameron and Baby Ariel.
The meet-and-greet scene looks almost like a vigil. Most of the girls who go down the line, passed from one digital star to the next, have brought swag for their favorite stars — everything from handmade posters to Lush Cosmetics to Starbucks drinks. (If Gray or Thomas is in the mood for a peppermint mocha, they tweet it out, and receive dozens of drinks within a matter of minutes.) Most of the posters include the fan's handles on Twitter, Musical.ly, and Snapchat with the request "Follow me!" After events, cleanup crews will send some of the gifts to the performers' childhood homes (Gray tells me that he has one huge room full of the fan gifts he has received), while others will be thrown in the trash or donated.
Many of the girls are crying. There are reciprocal messages of love passed between fan and star ("I love you!" "I love you!"), and each of the performers has their own signature pose. Gray likes to lift fans on his back or pick them up in his arms. In the past, some performers gave "stage kisses." That's where a star puts his thumbs over his lips and lets the fan kiss his fingers. In a photo, it looks as though the two are making out. Sometimes, fans will try to push the star's fingers out of the way so that they actually are kissing. Anything for the 'gram.
Of course, the relationships are fake, but no more so than the ones people of my generation had with members of the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC at their concerts. The difference is that while those performers often kept a line between themselves and their fans, the DigiTour stars' status relies on their ability to keep their teenage fans engaged in a far more personal way.
"People ask me, 'Do you think these kids are talented?'" Valiando Rojas tells me. "It's a blurry line. They're not traditional talents. But the common denominator is that they are all relatable and have the ability to relate with fans. That's a skill in today's pop culture climate. It's not anything to scoff at."
When the concert starts, some of the performers sing original songs about love, but many sing covers of artists like Fetty Wap and Bieber (who, you will remember, got his start online, too). When Mark Thomas goes on, he sings his original song, "Selfie," with lyrics like, "Can you take a selfie for me. Post it up real sexy for me. Let me know that you're ready for this." Pre-teen and teen girls chant along.
Interactions with the crowd include requests for them to "throw up hearts," get together for a Snapchat photo, and turn on their iPhones' flashlights and wave them in the air during slow songs, like the lighters of yesterday. The crowd happily complies. In between songs, Thomas and Gray come out and challenge their respective sides of the crowd to scream louder than the other's.
Before you pass judgment, consider that some of DigiTour's stars may very well be smarter businesspeople than moguls like Jay Z. They are masters of what Valiando Rojas calls cross-platforming. "They don't only put content on one platform — in many ways, that would be a crime," she says. "They know the right amount of content to put up across five to six platforms daily."
Want to increase a fan's loyalty? Follow them. These "digital autographs" are the ultimate badge of honor, Valiando Rojas says, and many fans will mention the follow in their social media profiles along with the date that it happened.
This kind of stardom doesn't come without its drawbacks. DigiTour's performers decline to tell me exactly what has been said to them in direct messages on Twitter and Instagram, but suffice it to say that these are not all PG notes. Letting fans into every aspect of your life through photos and tweets means that some are bound to get more comfortable than is probably appropriate. They feel as if they're closer to you than they really are.
"I think it comes with the territory," Valiando Rojas says. "Even if you're not a social media star or working in a social media business, most people see the dark side of the internet and the trolls. It's everywhere. It's unavoidable. You learn to tune it out."
Is tuning it out a good thing when it comes to dealing with obsessive teenage fans? I'm not so sure. But we may have to reserve judgment on that until this generation of social media natives has grown up a bit.
Perhaps this is just a phase that girls have to go through, in much the same way that millennials obsessed over Bieber and Mickey Mouse Clubbers. But given that the currency of 2016 is already based, at least partially, on follows and Likes, you have to wonder what the future will look like when it's run by kids whose perspective on life is fully steeped in that culture.
After I ask Gray, the show's main heartthrob, how old he is (15), he asks me the same question. I tell him that I'm 25, about to turn 26. "You don't look a day over 20," he tells me. Maybe this is Gray's way of telling me I'm one of the "cool" kids. Then again, I only have 600 Instagram followers compared to his 2 million.