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