This summer YouTube users have eagerly followed the story of lonelygirl15, a 16 year old home-schooled girl, and her friend Daniel. Since June the pair have posted a couple dozen short video clips that mix slice of life vignettes with a very thin plot line involving the girl’s eccentric family. It’s sort of like microwave reality TV. Except it’s not on TV. And it’s not real.
While the videos have found a willing audience, some having been viewed nearly a half million times, they’ve also create a mini-backlash among YouTube viewers who fear they’re deceived. I’m not sure which I find more unlikely, the fact that someone would believe the lonelygirl15 videos are actually produced by a 16 year-old with a webcam, or the possibility that viewers feel betrayed because a video they saw on YouTube turned out to be fictional. Hell, these days even television news isn’t alway real. Why should we hold YouTube to a higher standard?
Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times Screens blog has taken the lead in covering this story over the past month. Heffernan has alternated between a willingness to believe and healthy skepticism. She’s exchanged emails with “Bree” (lonlygirl15’s “real” name), and considered all a variety of possible explanations, including Sweet, Weird, Fraud or Other.
Meanwhile Brian Flemming has declared that Lonelygirl 15 has jumped the shark. Flemming has a bit of experience with reality manipulation and points out a number of obvious signs that clearly indicate this is a hoax.
But questions remain, who’s behind these videos and what are their motives?
Here are a few theories, in order of plausibility:
- YouTube: Some have speculated that this must be part of a viral marketing campaign designed to sell a product. So far that seems unlikely since there doesn’t seem to be anything to sell, except maybe the medium itself. Which could mean that this is actually a YouTube production, designed to promote the video sharing service. If that’s the case this series could run its course without ever explicitly revealing its purpose. If the series was designed to promote YouTube the product is implicit in every episode.
- A production or marketing company looking for exposure: Everyone and everything is going viral these days. Someone has to conceive and execute viral campaigns. What better way to build a name for you firm than to create a YouTube sensation on a shoestring budget.
- The real deal – sort of: It just might be possible that lonelygirl15 is simultaneously real and fake. Consider the possibility that this might be the first ever summer series created by teens, for teens. If I were a 16 year old on summer break in the year 2006 I’d certainly be experimenting with the media and internet distribution. The production quality seems a bit high for this to be a likely scenario, but it’s possible that film students might be involved.
- Art for art’s sake: I remain convinced convergence is leading us into new forms of storytelling. Right now there’s a tremendous opportunity for creatives to develop stories that unfold covertly, and across a variety of media types. This could simply be an exercise in story development, or possibly an homage to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.