Lonelygirl and… the future of entertainment?

January 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm (Percy) (, , , , , , , , , )

In June 2006, the series known as lonelygirl15 began. It was an extremely experimental and original series, a testimony to the growth of the power of the internet. However, its legacy is proving less intarwebz-shattering than many expected, myself included.

The medium – YouTube. The Genre – Blogging. Original, I know. Wait, it gets better. It followed the daily troubles of a teenage girl. Bree was pretty and blogged about (almost) nothing at all – her parents are religious, she is homeschooled, she had a lazy eye, she makes a fool of herself sometimes and so forth. She talked about what was going on in YouTube, replied personally to fans’ comments on her channel and videos and owned and operated a myspace page. It is important to emphasise that her fictional status was not disclosed. The majority of YouTube users believed her to be an actual person.

Her first video is a perfect snapshot of an average girl’s blog on YouTube, even down to the music (I did research to reach this conclusion, I’m pretty much never that bored):

She was cute, smart and hidden away from society – every teenage YouTubing boy’s perfect girl. The show gained almost instant popularity; as YouTube’s share of our bandwidth grew, so did lonelygirl15’s subscriber list. And many were carried in its wake – the clash between lonelygirl and Lazydork (omg internet drama) not only increased the popularity of (actual person blogger) Lazydork, but also launched the career of Australia’s most famous blogger, TheHill88 with this video where she ostensibly takes a side in the conflict:

TheHill88 is now one of the most popular YouTube celebrities and, along with loneylgirl, is now a YouTube partner – meaning they get paid for their videos.

A boy who knew Bree (who was head over heels in unrequited love for her) named Daniel started his own channel, began blogging and soared in the subscriber lists as well. His channel was mostly about how strange Bree’s parents were, but also being friends and having fun with her. Clearly a story was developing, and fans were hooked.

The website lonelygirl15.com (supposedly started by a BIG FAN) was inundated with hits, and the forums became a popular destination for many young people. YouTubers began commenting, even contributing to the series with videos that seemed to fit right in (but never acknowledged as canon). A wiki was started, and the analysis began.

The story started to seem a little too coherent, hinting at design, but just barely. The stars’ responses to the YouTube community became less specific, as though all their blogs were filmed on the same day (i.e. beginning many videos with “someone was asking” – you’ll have to do better than that!). Her videos were a little too well edited and well lit, and although Daniel initially claimed the title of ‘editor’, this excuse fell apart when Bree and Daniel fought for a few videos – why would he edit and post such content during a fight?

Her channel reached #2 on both the most subscribed and most viewed, and the serious scrutiny began. YouTube users noticed that the website lonelygirl15.com (set up by a fan, remember?) was bought a month before she posted her first video. And then – was that Aleister Crowley? Yes, her religion appeared to be Satanic, and her parents’ devotion to this religion was keeping Bree and Daniel apart, as revealed in a video in which this photo of Mr. Crowley features prominently upon an altar in Bree’s bedroom:

After her myspace was hacked and the edits appeared to be originating from computers inside the Creative Artists Agency, the jig was up.

The series continued for several hundred more videos, maintaining incredible popularity throughout. There was some product placement after this (with notable brands including Neutrogena), but not before. Most of the revenue was from advertising. When the main character left at the end of the ‘first season’ (whose finale was 12 videos released once an hour, on the hour, following an attempt to save Bree in real time), the show dropped in popularity, but continued on for two more seasons and is currently planning a fourth season.

Heavily embedded in the plot of season one was an Alternate Reality Game, where users were actively involved in finding more about the series, assisting it directly and giving it a concrete “so close to being true” feel. Participants were directed to find containers in locations given as GPS numbers. These numbers would be hidden in the tags, audio and visual of the video as well as on external sites – these were the members of the Resistance who fight the Order (Bree’s religion) communicating in secret to fans. The packages would contain more clues and information which, if delivered on time, could change the course of the story. The players in the game would solve the puzzles in chatrooms, cracking codes, deciphering urls and finding passwords to unlock .rars.

It was not without scandal, however – the creator of the ARG gave clues to female participants in exchange for their naughty photos, and the heavily user-interactive section was thus removed from the series.

The interactivity didn’t stop, however. The characters even asked their audience for advice, at times calling for a vote-via-comment to decide their next course of action or even whether to include other YouTuber’s contribution as canon. The latter is particularly innovative – a girl who participated in the series by playing an investigative reporter by the name of Nikki Bower was eventually fed information from the creators, and helped ‘expose’ one of the canon characters as a spy for the Order, at the urging of fans.

An interesting video to note is Girl Tied Up, an episode in the second season of lonelygirl which has attracted almost thirteen million views. Again, the formula is simple – provocative title, girl tied up on a gurney, boobs and a man who is threatening to inject her with something. The misleading title may explain why this video has such a low rating, but in the land of YouTube, views are all that really matters.

The series wasn’t brilliant in terms of either plot or writing, even after it was revealed to be fiction. That was when I started watching, actually. It was very much a soap opera aimed at teenagers, and the subsequent series have followed the same pattern – relationship drama, action and conspiracy. Its success has always stuck in my mind, as it was the first attempt to truly embrace the interactivity of the internet in all conceivable ways to make the series something truly unique.

I was curious where Jessica Rose, who portrays Bree, had gone. And this is where. Welcome to Sorority Forever:

This is the first attempt by any major studio to launch a series entirely on the internet. Sure, the Sci-Fi channel had 10-minute “webisodes” of Battlestar Galactica, but this is different. It’s syrupy, clearly fiction and produced by McG, father of the O.C.

That wouldn’t necessarily affect its popularity, of course. Gossip Girl continues along those (very general) lines to this date, and continues to top charts in the tween-to-early-twenties girl market and dominate many others. I explored how Sorority Forever performed (it recently finished), and I ended up rather disappointed with the results.

It appears as though either Warner Brothers was getting bad advice, or wasn’t listening to good advice.

Firstly, the episodes could (initially) only be viewed from the Warner Brothers’ website, and only if you resided in the USA. This continued insistence on geographical location being important is very bizarre, and hinders growth of a series on an internet-wide scale. Secondly, it appears as though it was shot over several days in blocks, like a regular TV show, removing the spontaneity in creation that made the first series so popular.

Most crucially was that there was no way for fans to talk – and it appears that none ever really developed. There is no centralized fan forum (I say this with some conviction, as my google fu is pretty strong, but I am willing to be defeated by an eager contender). The show made it to myspace, but never really picked up there either. I found a couple of soppy reviews, but not even a fanlisting – just their bebo page, with only 770 Australian fans (and becoming a fan is mandatory if you want to watch past episode 15). I couldn’t even find something that was critical of the series, and usually there are over 9000 internet bloggers willing to make a name for themselves by attacking something new (c wut I did thar lol?).

I started watching the series, but found it much too unappealing – with no interactivity, I might as well be watching Passions. I mean, come on, it’s about a super-elite Sorority – lonelygirl was enough! The mechanism of embedding yourself in a community with video responses, comments, ratings and tags has been completely erased. With no ARG and no fanfiction, the show had very little in common with any internet series they should have been looking to for inspiration. Instead, it looks and plays like an unpopular, poorly written TV show that just happens to be on the internet. Way to miss the point, guys. It seems as though this studio effort to make money from the internet has failed.

I haven’t seen any other series emerge like lonelygirl. I remember thinking how cool it would be when this genre matures and more intelligent plotting and writing emerges in competing series. Interactivity is certainly all over the place; this video series by chad, matt and rob was a lot of fun and I highly recommend giving this a watch (even if you’ve skipped the other videos in this post):

I don’t know how long I’m going to have to wait until those with money acknowledge the power of the internet and try to make money from it in a sensible way. Some ARGs from studios have been successful (such as the Lost ARG), but some less so (such as the Heroes ARG which always seemed like a publicity stunt). It must be confronting and different for studios to operate on the internet (as it’s been their sworn enemy for so long), but surely they could run their ideas past a few bored 15 year old kids with myspaces before deciding on the best way to attain internet popularity? (Or, you know, me).

It will continue to prove difficult for people to make money on the internet by generating content, and commenting on issues and giving opinions is infinitely easier than organising an ARG. It seems to me that the internet is just dying for another serious attempt to base a series around ‘reality hacking’, and yet none emerges. I guess I’ll go back to waiting.

Postscripts

I found this picture, and I thought of Dan:
pizzarolls

I’ve also been reading Hey Guys, It’s The Bible!, a blog where an atheist reads the bible for the first time and talks about what he discovers, one book at a time. I’ve been finding it funny, insightful and extremely well written. The first post, about Genesis, is here in case you’re interested.

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16 Comments

  1. juliadactyl said,

    The first TV programs were basically televised radio. Films were televised theatre. People had this new medium, but were so ingrained with the old medium that it took a while before they started properly exploring what the new technology can do. It’s obvious to young folk, used to the internet, that it can be used for more things than a television can, but it will take a while for this concept to sink through to entertainment makers.

  2. danoot said,

    Hey, Percy. Why do you hate fun, good times, and answering the phone? You need to answer the phone so I can tell you all about how I hate you, and good times, and how all your plans are cancelled. I can’t tell you that on the phone if you don’t answer the phone so I need you to answer the phone. Answer the phone. Percy. Percy. Answer the phone. But since you won’t answer the phone I’ll tell you here that all your plans are cancelled and your face will cry alone tonight! And also you should come to breakfast tomorrow and we’ll have good times and bacon, and it’ll be good times. Percy! That’s a thing you should do, coming to breakfast tomorrow, instead of that thing, tonight, that you were gonna do, but which is now cancelled.

    call me!

  3. Heather said,

    Also Percy you should totally read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. It has a whole storyline about people interacting with mysterious footage in just the way that you find intriguing. Read it read it read it.

  4. danoot said,

    Hey, Percy, do you have my copy of Pattern Recognition? It seems like a thing you might have. Read it. Guy.

  5. juliadactyl said,

    I am mystified by Dan’s comments but agree with him that bacon and breakfast would be good.

    Dooo eeeeet.

  6. danoot said,

    I was at work. It amused me (some) to write like a crazy.
    Now I have comment regret, but nothing can be done.

  7. juliadactyl said,

    Now it is YOUR face that will cry alone tonight.

  8. misterfinn said,

    Percy, Lonelygirl15 is oldmeme. Why do you have to be such a failboat?

    I also agree with previous comments, Join us for breakfast! It will be bliss!

    Thank you for directing my attention to atheistblog. The lols are plentiful indeed.

  9. chromefist said,

    I want to stress, gentle reader, that Julia and Dan are high on life.

  10. danoot said,

    I don’t know about high. I might be mildly buzzed on life, at best.

  11. mercboyan said,

    Percy,
    I just came across this article today and wanted to bring to light a few things about the interactivity on Sorority Forever. I agree with you that theWB website was way under par on this one and yes, the content of the episodes themselves may not have been targeted toward someone like you, but I think you may have missed out on the interactive world of SF. In fact, there was a huge interactive portion of the show that existed in the form of Myspace profiles, character vlogs, live video chats, podcasts, advice columns, plot puzzles, forums, clues and codes, etc… Certain characters in the show even existed solely for the purpose of being major online characters. It was mostly on Myspace, so many people missed this experience of the show. How do I know all this? Because I worked on the show as the metaverse director, and it was my job to make all of this stuff happen. I would love to hear some ideas on how we could have better spread the word of this interactivity? I’m not a studio head or anything like that, just interested in what you, or others here, think would help us make the interactivity well known on the next show?

  12. andrewcrisp said,

    Hi mercboyan! Glad you found the blog!

    First of all, I think you need an internationally available forum and wiki set up before the series airs. The lonelygirl wiki is well maintained, and I’m sure the lonelygirl staff do most of the work, but fans do a lot as well. It will allow people to talk about it more flexibly than operating through myspace – throwing up their theories, linking to their forum posts and so forth. You can even throw a banner ad at the top of each page to get some advertising revenue as well!

    The success of lonelygirl was really down to how much the geeks (like myself) got involved. SF seemed to appeal almost exclusively to the teen girl market, and whilst there are many geeks amongst teenage girls, I’m sure you’d have more success if you hooked the boys in as well.

    For the podcasts, chats, columns and so forth, have them hosted on a “portal” site, where fans can easily access them.

    I understand that SF was in partnership with MySpaceTV, who wanted a lot of exclusivity in when the episodes were shown. I suggest going with YouTube, as it can be shared across MySpace and Facebook with relative ease. Not only that, but it appears as though all the videos have been taken down from MySpaceTV for some reason. I’m guessing it’s in anticipation of the UK release, but it means that someone from outside America will just be disappointed upon finding many videos which simply read “Error”. The bottom line is that the more international you go from the beginning, the bigger a stir you will cause.

    Maybe you guys made a lot of money through the partnership with MySpaceTV, and if that’s the case, then maybe you should stick with it. However, for a truly interactive experience with thousands of fans pouring over clues across the globe, you’ll have to let go of some of the exclusive control and let people have at it.

    I’m really looking forward to the next series, as this is a medium I’m really enthusiastic about. I think a viral marketing campaign before the series starts would also be great – a word or phrase or idea or video or image that appears all over the internet to whet people’s appetites. The movie Serenity had a great viral video campaign (called the River Tam sessions), and it would be fantastic to see something like that again.

    If I had seen some viral marketing, and found a forum and wiki with links to the YouTube videos and a portal to all the interactive content, I would have watched the series from beginning to end, even though I’m neither a girl nor a teenager; I found out about the series only once it had finished, and all the interactivity was gone. I suggest talking to the Alternate Reality Game Network ( http://www.argn.com/ ) with a press release and commenting on blogs that deal with lonelygirl and other ARGs with your viral awesomeness.

    I really can’t wait for the next one. I will help you get the word out, I just need to know what the word is first 🙂

  13. Danoot said,

    I don’t know, I think a press release kind of defeats the point of an ARG? Unless it is being clearly set up as an online thing, I guess. But some/all of the fun is finding trailheads and then following them down into crazyland, but not being sure that they’re actually anything at all, until you’re already in.
    Like the that’s my milwaukee video. It was weird, but it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with a game (also it didn’t keep my interest enough for me to follow it, eventually). But it was awesome to find, and then see if it was an ARG or just a weird thing.
    Also, something I’d really like to see is some international approachability – there is no way we in Aus can really get into a game which uses phones at all, unless the writers specifically set up an Australian number – so using phones immediately cuts out a lot of your potential audience’s participation. Email is not time-constrained, like phones are, and is easier to automate. Also as mentioned, youtube comments, forums, etc, all good ways to get your audience internationalised.
    I find it a bit depressing when there’s a heavy US-centric bias in the material, but I suppose it’s to be expected, given where most ARGs originate from…

  14. andrewcrisp said,

    I partially agree with Dan, on reflection. A press release may be a bad idea, as it kind of gives away the secret before you’ve even started.

    That said, talking to ARGnet is probably still a good idea, even if it’s just an email to the site admins. At the very least, read what they have to say about the ARGs currently operating.

  15. Gratitude time! « Hey Guys, It’s The Bible! said,

    […] Thanks to A Pleasing Fiveness for the link and the nice words about the […]

  16. mercboyan said,

    You better believe I’ll let you all know when get our next show going! Thanks for the tips. Many aspects, such as where the show will be hosted from and international issues, are out of my hands. Personally, I’d love to have the show on every platform in every country and available to everyone, but it’s more complicated than that unfortunately. I agreed with Dan on the Press release, too, but perhaps certain parts could be announced while others are left for those who really want to dig deep. For example, we release the fact that the show is highly interactive and that there is more to the show than meets the eye, but not give out clues or anything specific. Either way, once our next sow gets going, I’ll be sure to come by here and the ARG site to make sure word gets around. Thanks again!

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