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.
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.)”