My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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lonelygirl15

Over the last week, i’ve gotten innumerable emails about lonelygirl15. Folks were wondering if i was behind it or if i knew who was. They wanted to know my opinion, if i thought it was fake.

I did. I thought it was fake but i expected that it was a TV or movie organization. I was kinda curious if it was an ARG but it didn’t look like it. I decided that i should do a proper analysis of the different bits when the news broke: LonelyGirl15 is crafted by a group of filmmakers as an art project. Here’s the letter they wrote to their fans on the forum explaining LonelyGirl15:

To Our Incredible Fans,

Thank you so much for enjoying our show so far. We are amazed by the overwhelmingly positive response to our videos; it has exceeded our wildest expectations. With your help we believe we are witnessing the birth of a new art form. Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story– A story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the internet. A story that is interactive and constantly evolving with the audience.

Right now, the biggest mystery of Lonelygirl15 is “who is she?” We think this is an oversimplification. Lonelygirl15 is a reflection of everyone. She is no more real or fictitious than the portions of our personalities that we choose to show (or hide) when we interact with the people around us. Regardless, there are deeper mysteries buried within the plot, dialogue, and background of the Lonelygirl15 videos, and many of our tireless and dedicated fans have unearthed some of these. There are many more to come.

To enhance the community experience of Lonelygirl15, which you have already helped to create, we are in the process of building a website centered around video and interactivity. This website will allow everyone to enjoy the full potential of this new medium. Unfortunately, we aren’t programmers. We are filmmakers. We are working furiously to complete the website, and hope to have it up and running shortly.

So, sit tight. You are the only reason for our success, and we appreciate your devotion. We want you to know that we aren’t a big corporation. We are just like you. A few people who love good stories. We hope that you will join us in the continuing story of Lonelygirl15, and help us usher in an era of interactive storytelling where the line between “fan” and “star” has been removed, and dedicated fans like yourselves are paid for their efforts. This is an incredible time for the creator inside all of us.

Some thoughts

Now that i’ve killed the suspense, let me back up and tell you about what happened. For those who aren’t familiar, videos by LonelyGirl15 started appearing on YouTube over the summer. She’s supposedly a teenager who is homeschooled by religious parents who don’t know she’s creating videos online. Her friend Daniel helps her with the videos and they often talk back and forth across their videos. It’s rather endearing but too good to be true.

As more videos popped up, people started questioning whether this was real or not. Speculation mounted and fake lonelygurls started to appear. People created videos to comment on LonelyGirl15. People flocked to the LonelyGirl15 forum to discuss. Problem is the LonelyGirl15 domain was registered before the videos started appearing. People started tracking down more and more clues, trying to hone in on what it was, who was behind it. Suspicion mounted. In classic fan style, people dove right down and tore apart all of the data. Quite a few thought that this was an ARG, Jane McGonigal style, but she denied involvement on NPR. Others thought it was an advert or some marketing campaign.

The clues people dug up were fascinating. Personally, i was intrigued by “Bree’s” MySpace profile. I knew it was fake but i didn’t know if the YouTube LonelyGirl15 made the MySpace profile LonelyGurl15. Why did i know it was fake? Well, i read too many teenage MySpaces. Not sure i should give away clues as to how to create a real-looking fake MySpace profile. ::wink::

Then press started covering it. Hands down, The New York Times had the best coverage. I can’t help but wonder if the NYTimes knew the truth because they are certainly using the same language: “Hey There, Lonelygirl – One cute teen’s online diary is probably a hoax. It’s also the birth of a new art form.” If so, go Adam for good reporting!

I like the idea that it is an art form but i also think it’s part of what Henry Jenkins calls Convergence Culture. Regardless, it’s super cool that people are using new media to create narratives. They are telling their story, truth or fiction. Of course, this makes many people very uncomfortable. They want blogs and YouTube and MySpace to be Real with a capital R. Or they want it to be complete play. Yet, what’s happening is both and neither. People are certainly playing but even those who are creating “reality” are still engaged in an act of performance. They are writing themselves into being for others to interpret and the digital bodies that emerge often confound those who are doing the interpretation. In many ways, this reminds me of the Fakester drama during the height of Friendster. As one of the instigators behind the Fakester manifesto explained, “none of this is real.” I won’t get all existential on you so we’ll leave it at that.

In many ways, i have to admit that i’m sad that the truth is out. I was really enjoying the suspicion. Far more than any episode of Lost or reality TV show. I was enjoying not knowing who was behind it and spending hours speculating and trying to find hints. I was enjoying watching a community of people talk endlessly about what they thought might be going on. Sure, the videos were quite endearing (although the ending of Poor Pluto disturbed the hell out of me) but do i just want to watch the videos by themselves? I’m not sure. I think i liked them for the mystery.

Regardless, i absolutely love the way people are using all of these new social technologies to create cultural experiments. To me, this signifies the importance of social media.

Update: The LATimes is reporting that emails concerning the site come from the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a talent agency in Beverly Hills. (Perhaps i wasn’t as off as i thought?)

Update (9/13): The NYTimes has the full story. Bree is Jessica Rose, a 20-ish film student. LG15 is a 4-person production meant to create intrigue.

Update (9/16): For anyone who is interested in this topic, i’d suggest checking out Henry Jenkins’ entry on astroturf, humbugs, and Lonely Girl and Jane McGonigal’s entry on not fetishizing participation.


September 13, 2006
The Lonelygirl That Really Wasn’t
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN and TOM ZELLER Jr.

A nearly four-month-old Internet drama in which the cryptic video musings of a fresh-faced teenager became the obsession of millions of devotees – themselves divided over the very authenticity of the videos, or who was behind them or why – appears to be in its final act.

The woman who plays Lonelygirl15 on the video-sharing site YouTube.com has been identified as Jessica Rose, a 20-ish resident of New Zealand and Los Angeles and a graduate of the New York Film Academy. And the whole project appears to be the early serialized version of what eventually will become a movie.

Matt Foremski, the 18-year-old son of Tom Foremski, a reporter for the blog Silicon Valley Watcher, was the first to disinter a trove of photographs of the familiar-looking actress, who portrayed the character named Bree in the videos. The episodes suggested Bree was the home-schooled daughter of strictly religious parents who was able to find the time to upload video blogs of her innermost thoughts.

The discovery and the swift and subsequent revelation of other details surrounding the perpetrators of the videos and the fake fan site that accompanied it are bringing to an end one of the Internet’s more elaborately constructed mysteries. The fans’ disbelief in Lonelygirl15 was not willingly suspended, but rather teased and toyed with. Whether they will embrace the project as a new narrative form, condemn it or simply walk away remains to be seen.

The masterminds of the Lonelygirl15 videos are Ramesh Flinders, a screenwriter and filmmaker from Marin County, Calif., and Miles Beckett, a doctor turned filmmaker. The high quality of the videos caused many users to suspect a script and production crew, but Bree’s bedroom scenes were shot in Mr. Flinders’s home, in his actual bedroom, typically using nothing more than a Logitech QuickCam, a Web camera that retails for about $150.

Together with Grant Steinfeld, a software engineer in San Francisco, Mr. Flinders contrived to produce and distribute the videos to pique maximum curiosity about them.

The photographs of the actress, which made it clear that Ms. Rose has been playing Bree in the videos, were cached on Google.

“We were all under N.D.A.’s” Mr. Steinfeld said, referring to non-disclosure agreements the cast – and their friends – were asked to sign to preserve the mystery of Lonelygirl15. “They had a lawyer involved,” he said. “My first impression was like, wow, can this be legitimate? Is this ethical? I was very concerned about that in the beginning.”

But after he came to understand the project, Mr. Steinfeld said, he came to believe that something truly novel was at hand. “They were like the new Marshall McLuhan.”

Mr. Flinders and Mr. Beckett obscured their location by sending e-mail messages as Bree from various Internet computer addresses, including the address of Creative Artists Agency, the Beverly Hills talent agency where the team is now represented. Amanda Solomon Goodfried, an assistant at the agency, is believed to have helped Mr. Flinders and Mr. Beckett conceal their identities. Moreover, Ms. Goodfried’s father-in-law, Kenneth Goodfried, a lawyer in Encino, filed to trademark “Lonelygirl15″ in August.

The story of how Mr. Flinders, Mr. Beckett and Ms. Rose were discovered in spite of their efforts to hide, and prolong the mystery, sheds light on the nature of online wiki-style investigations and manhunts. When Mr. Steinfeld’s dummy site, which had been set up before the first Lonelygirl15 video was even posted, struck users as suspicious and unsupervised – Mr. Steinfeld says he grew tired of running it, and dropped out of the project – fans set up their own site devoted to Lonelygirl15, which soon attracted more than a thousand members.

Both sites drew contributions from novelists, journalists, academics, day traders, lawyers, bloggers, filmmakers, video game designers, students, housewives, bored youngsters and experts on religion and botany. In the cacophony of conjecture, analysis, close-readings, jokes, insults, and distractions, good information sometimes surfaced.

Last month, a Lonelygirl15 fan discovered and posted a trademark application by Mr. Goodfried, which seemed to prove that the videos, which presented themselves as nothing but a video diary, were at least in part a commercial venture. Then, last week, three tech-savvy fans, working together, set up a sting on the e-mail being used by “Bree”; the operation revealed to them the I.P. address of Creative Artists Agency.

On the strength of this information, Mr. Foremski was confident he could find some trace of Bree on the Internet. He was sure that any participant in a semiprofessional production like Lonelygirl15 would have posted pictures somewhere. Sure enough, they had.

Mr. Steinfeld, on learning that Mr. Flinders and Mr. Beckett had been found out, offered his photographs of Ms. Rose as proof of his involvement in the Lonelygirl15 videos. He had been hired to take the pictures on the set at the start of shooting.

The series, which Mr. Flinders and Mr. Beckett plan to continue on a site overseen by them, may play differently with fans now that they know for sure that Bree is an actress. Part of the appeal of the series was that the serious-minded, literate Bree offered an unbeatable fantasy: a beautiful girl who techy guys had something in common with.

On learning that Ms. Rose was an actress whose interests, unlike the scientific and religious issues that fascinated Bree, ran to parties and posing, one fan wrote, “Very cute, but she’s really not into Feynmann and Jared Diamond! (I’m heart-broken …But a wonderful actress, had me fooled into thinking she was a geek like me.)”

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60 comments to lonelygirl15

  • All the latest on lonelygirl15 aka jessica rose here: http://topoftube.blogspot.com

  • Bean

    “LonelyGirl15 is crafted by a group of filmmakers as an art project.”

    I tip my hat to the progenetors of the Lonelygirl marketing scheme. This once again demonstrates the soulless results of entertainment created by lawyers.

    Let’s face it, they’re entrepreneurs, not artists. Art is not a means to another end; it’s an end in itself.

    How deep of a personal expression can the artists realize when their creative statement is routed and mandated by the interactive direction of others?

    Find me an artist with a personal vision, who has absolute creative control of that vision, and who also utterly embraces the concept of compromising that vision. I double dare you.

    So they either lack artistic vision, or their intent is other than to create art. And while there is no law against either, I resent the fact that they are represented by one of the most powerful agencies in the business in CAA, and as such, will have a lot of clout to bring whatever exists of their “vision” to light, while legitimate artists with substantial ideas are out in the cold. I know there are great screenplays out there, compelling concepts for TV pilots, and great songs by unheard artists, but somehow, people from outside the artistic community (and of questionable artistic intent) seem to be making decisions which determine what we see and hear. And while the notion of empowering us with creative input seems endearing, the reality is more likely that we’re going to be used for marketing purposes and pay for the priveledge in the form of advertising, and ultimately safer, more homogenzed content.

    So while I encourage the filmmakers to prove me wrong, I remain pessimistic at best towards any further products of this media business enterprise.

  • c k shanholtzer

    Does anyone remember how Orson Welles and a small team of radio men shocked the world in 1939 with their “news broadcast” of a “real” story of a martian invasion? I may have name/date wrong there. So many were amazed, amused, scared, incensed, etc. about the event! Orson was actually forced to go back on the air to set the record straight after an episode or two, and many people still thought it was real, that he was being forced or manipulated by the invaders. I put it to you that this is little different, and humanity has changed very little since that time, despite all the supposed technological sophistication of subsequent generations.
    I also challenge you with this consideration. What is more real, more honest, or better art: a few independent people on a free-view website trying to portray a believable young woman with unusual life circumstances, or the constant bombardment of attempts to alter our points of view by commercial media executives and their multimillionaire professional actors? People worldwide, and Americans in particular, are famous for being too crude-minded to understand or interpret simple metaphors, which is the basis of all art. Real “Truth” is at best reflected in any attempt represent it in a limited image, and the popularity of lonelygirl15 — or the 1939 martian invasion — are proof that sometimes fiction can better expose or portray the concerns and yearnings of an era than so-called news or non-fiction documentary.A
    Also, the milllions of viewings of lonelygirl videos were not in response to the commercial or professional ambitions of the people who made it. The creators, in fact, took great pains to prevent or delay that very thing. The response was an honest identification or enjoyment of the artistic material itself without financial considerations. Maybe that is what made it so powerful, and so dangerous. It could be the beginning of the end for superhype, multimillion-dollar pampered media posers who want us to identify with their creations for a steep price. With lonelygirl, at least we got to judge the product before anyone has asked us to pay for it, if ever. How many movies recently (say, “War of the Worlds” or “Pirates of the Carribbean 2″) would we have bought tickets for AFTER we saw them? I didn’t think so.
    Finally, if you want to complain about lies or hoaxes, complain about the everyday people around you (including you?), who constantly try to make themselves seem better/smarter/more trustworthy than they ever intend to be. Complain about TV news. Complain about newspapers. You pay for these lies every time you shop for anything that buys advertisement time or space in these venues. They tax us to sell us their lies, and then they tell us boldfaced that they represent the real truth. Lonelygirl15 was just a plain, free, presentation of a video story that sought to show us someone who might really exist, without trying to make us give up our money or freedoms to support her lifestyle. That may be the purist art of all…

  • kim

    …and now lonelygirl15 has her own pop song…check out this music video that takes place in the lonelygirl15 bedroom by a Montreal band called DEE: http://www.youtube.com/deemontreal
    download the song here: http://www.myspace.com/deemontreal

  • vast difference sounds like vas deferens.

  • Check out This emotional confession by the so called Lonelygirl15
    She admits it all, and she’s sassy.
    How could we believe that danielbeast can stand someone like that? uuuurrrrgggh!!!
    Youtube still rocks!

  • Lonelygirl15 beat NBC earlier this week on YouTube views! You can see the daily analysis at http://www.tubemogul.com/blog/ where I just posted the chart comparing the two. I’m a graduate student working with some friends who recently developed the site to let people track video viewership trends across several video sites (including Revver and myspace.com, where you can also see lonelygirl15). The url is http://www.tubemogul.com. We’d love to hear any one’s thoughts on our tools.
    Best,
    Mark

  • BigSgtG

    Our country is wasting away into nothing……why did I read this garbage…Anyone want a free quad core computer? Im throwing it out.

  • I have a question: what tis is aphopenia. Thank’s for answer.

  • Our country is wasting away into nothing……why did I read this garbage…Anyone want a free quad core computer? Im throwing it out.