May 6, 2010
“Hi guys…um…so…this is my first video blog” (lonelygirl15). So begins the saga of lonelygirl15. Throughout the summer of 2006, sixteen-year-old Bree posted countless videos updating fans on her relationship with her parents, her friendship with a boy named Daniel, and her religious practices. While this seems like any average blog, lonelygirl15 is one of the best-known examples of an Internet hoax: “[lonelygirl15] initially presented her confessional videos as an ‘authentic’ video blog, later claimed them to be an ‘art project’ before they were finally discovered to be connected to a commercial media company” (Jenkins 2009, p. 123). The case of lonelygirl15 demonstrates the strength that YouTube holds over its users: the connection between viewers and lonelygirl15 was so powerful that viewers were noticeably betrayed when the truth behind the series was revealed. Lonelygirl15 seemed like a normal teenager, but the perception of amateur YouTube video-makers as average citizens is not always correct.
The creators of Lonelygirl15 tried to make Bree and her life believable in order to set up a relationship between her and the YouTube blog community. In Bree’s first video, she gives shout outs to several YouTube users whose blogs she enjoys (lonelygirl15). Bree talks about issues familiar to any teenager: overbearing parents, first kisses, and desire for independence. The only topic that is out-of-the-ordinary is her religion; Bree mentions having to learn a dead language and prepare for a secret ceremony. Bree’s everyday life stories helped viewers connect with her, and the secrecy surrounding some parts of her life kept them coming back for more.
While the creators of Lonelygirl15 dove head first into their imaginary world, some did have reservations. Grant Steinfeld, one of the creators, expressed some discomfort with the concept of lying to a loyal audience: “My first impression was like, wow, can this be legitimate? Is this ethical? I was very concerned about that in the beginning” (Heffernan and Zeller). However, the opportunity to gain a public following and draw attention to their venture won out over presenting fans of Lonelygirl15 with the truth. As Bree’s storyline continued, her fan base grew. Even so, viewers began to get suspicious about Bree’s strange life.
Fans of Lonelygirl15 were not content to just sit back and watch Bree’s video blogs; they were willing to go to extreme lengths to find out the truth about this supposed sixteen year old girl. They felt connected with Bree and wanted proof that she actually existed. Conspiracy theorists jumped on the chance to speculate on who was really behind Lonelygirl15: “The videos were a corporation’s viral marketing campaign; a teaser for an unknown major entertainment property; or something dreamed up by an obscure Christian sect, occultists, or Scientologists” (Fine 2006). The reason behind this suspicion was that Bree’s life just did not completely fit into the mold of an average teenage girl: “She’s just a little too charming, her videos a little too well edited, and her story a little too neatly laid out” (Sternbergh 2006). Instead of accepting Bree as an eccentric, but real person, dedicated fans threw themselves into finding out the truth about Lonelygirl15. The first clue: “The domain name for her fan site was registered a month before her first video went up” (Sternbergh 2006). The final straw: “three tech-savvy fans, working together, set up a sting on the e-mail address that was being used by ‘Bree’; the operation netted them the Internet address of a computer at Creative Artists Agency (Heffernan and Zeller 2006). These fans did not just do some Google searches and call it a day; they put time and effort into tracing Bree’s email address to find out her true identity. Fans of Lonelygirl15 liked her videos, but they were interested in finding the girl making them.
Viewers enjoyed watching Lonelygirl15 when they believed she was just an average teenager, but their dedication waned after learning Bree’s true identity. Once it was officially revealed that Bree did not exist and her life was a hoax, viewers were faced with a difficult decision: they could “embrace the project as a new narrative form, condemn it, or simply walk away, never to be fooled again” (Heffernan and Zeller 2006). For the most part, fans chose to walk away. The videos that make up Lonelygirl15 season one, before viewers found out that Bree was not real, have all received hundreds of thousands or millions of views. The later videos that are part of lonelygirl15 seasons two and three, which are a continuation of the storyline introduced in season one with more characters, have view counts mostly in the tens of thousands. The novelty of lonelygirl15 wore off once it was revealed that she was not authentic. Viewers wanted to believe that Bree was telling the truth, but once faced with the facts they were no longer interested in a fake story.
Fans connected with Bree because she seemed so real and abandoned her when she became just another actress trying to achieve fame. The excitement of YouTube is that theoretically, anyone can become famous (Jenkins 2009, p. 113). By anyone, users usually assume this means average, undiscovered citizens armed with “a camera, a computer, and a catchy idea” (Sternbergh 2006). Viewers felt betrayed when they learned that Bree was not a normal girl trying to share her story but a paid actress with her own motivations. They had become so wrapped up in the saga of Bree that they did not want to believe that she was not just an everyday teenager.
According to viewers, authenticity is the name of the game. Bree brought her audience into her world, then betrayed them by being a fake. Most viewers lost interest after the big reveal, and while lonelygirl15 is still being produced as an Internet series, it is nowhere near as popular as Bree’s simple video blogs. Viewers were determined to find out if their beloved Bree was who she said she was and were disappointed when they found out it was all just a ploy. The authenticity of a video does matter: viewers want to know that what they’re watching is what it actually claims to be. Viewers were so interested in finding out the truth about Bree because of their dedication to her stories. YouTube is a site that inspires passion in its loyal viewers: fans of lonelygirl15 were passionate about Bree’s videos and passionate about getting to the bottom of her true identity.
Fine, J. (2006). “The Strange Case Of lonelygirl15”. Business Week [online]. Bloomberg L.P.Available from: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_37/b4000039.htm[Accessed 3rd May 2010].
Heffernan, V. and Zeller, T. (2006). “Lonely Girl’ (and Friends) Just Wanted Movie Deal”. New
York Times [online]. Available from:
epage [Accessed 3rd May 2010].
Jenkins, Henry (2009) What Happened Before YouTube. In: Burgess, J. and Green, J (2009).
YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity. p.
Lonelygirl15. “First Blog / Dorkiness Prevails.” YouTube, 2006.
Sternbergh, A. (2006). “Hey There, Lonelygirl”. New York Magazine. New York Media LLC.
Available from: http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/19376/ [Accessed 3rd May 2010].