(Originally published 24 August 2014. Kind thanks to Catcher in the Reel for permission to repost.)
By Aaron Hunter
This article is part of an ongoing project on the topic of web series that will discuss a few key examples over the course of the summer. May include mild spoilers.
In May 2006, a new YouTube user created the account “lonelygirl15.” While the video sharing site had been set up in February of 2005, it only publically launched in the fall of that year, so when lonelygirl15 set up her account, the web site was still really less than a year old old. While more traditional media outlets slowly copped on to YouTube’s potential for everything from free publicity to a platform for providing extra content, in its earliest days it was mostly dominated by individual users putting up their own, homemade videos. A lot of these were jokey or silly, while some users quickly figured out the platform’s viability for “citizen journalism.” But an early and sustained development was the video blog, or vlog.
The YouTube vlog was the channel’s driving element of social media. A user uploads a funny, or confessional, or musical clip of herself – usually addressing the camera directly from the confines of a bedroom or dorm room. Other users then interact with the vlogger by posting comments or uploading their own response videos, to which the original vlogger would also usually respond. Through these interactions, a community was born, one in which the most frequent vloggers, and those with the most appealing content, became the new web site’s earliest “celebrities”: users like Brookers (Brooke Brodack) and geriatric1927 (Peter Oakley).
Into this atmosphere stepped lonelygirl15. As a way to say hello, her first uploaded videos were not vlogs, but mashups of other Youtubers’ content – shout outs, really – in which, using only text and clips, she let it be known which other vloggers she liked. Lonelygirl15 also spent the next month following and liking the channels and videos of many other Youtube users.
Then, on 16 June she posted her first vlog:
Much of what made lonelygirl15 – or, as she informs us in this video, Bree – an Internet sensation is introduced in this video. She’s a bit dorky, a bit lonely and vulnerable, but also has a strong desire to reach out and meet others. She’s not afraid to look silly on camera, which adds to her allure. And her videos are fairly well edited for somebody who (as her own comment below the video points out) had trouble just setting up her web cam. Further postings over the summer would reveal her to be heavily into science (she namedrops Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking), the homeschooled daughter of strict, religious parents, and that her best friend (and video editor), was another teen named Daniel, who occasionally pops up in the videos. (Writers at Womanchine argue that it’s due to exactly these aspects of the series that “the face of the Internet maintains the dominant patriarchal stereotypes of society.”)
However, as I pointed out in the introduction to this series, lonelygirl15 was not really a personal vlog, but was actually a scripted series with paid actors. Suspicions about the scripted nature of Bree’s vlog began cropping up in the videos’ comment sections almost as soon as the vlogs began to appear. As Bree continued to post two to three videos a week over the summer, suspicions intensified: some thought the editing was too good (most vlogs were one takes); others detected professional quality lighting; still others saw the mechanics of story arc in Bree’s conflicts with her parents and her friendship with Daniel and the way those conflicts met resolution. By August the community had split into camps – those convinced the show was fake and those who still believed in the reality of Bree. Even though the show’s reality was still being contested, this early fan interaction – particularly the investigatory nature of the “fake” camp’s community activity – hinted towards a particularly vital aspect of the Internet web series: fan interactivity across a series’ transmedia components and other paratexts.
Lonelygirl15 – the series – can really be divided into three different shows, all of which contributed to its allure and popularity. In the beginning, for the summer and much of the autumn of 2006, it was simply the vlogs of Bree (and occasionally Daniel), sitting around in her bedroom and variously having fun or fretting about some new crisis. As in the clip posted above, she’d occasionally dance and act silly. She also busted out her cute stuffed-animal friends (P-Monkey becoming a fan favorite) with whom she’d have sarcastic conversations about Daniel while he lazed on the bed behind her, reading a magazine. It becomes clear over time that Daniel likes Bree and he wants to take her out, but her strict parents won’t allow it, and the show’s earliest conflicts revolve around such typical teen difficulties, many of which, presumably, Bree’s rapidly growing viewership could relate to.
Another early conflict concerned Bree’s father (who almost never actually appears) wanting Daniel to film events at the family’s religious summer camp, and Daniel being a little weirded out by the idea – having been to the camp before and not enjoyed it. Bree’s religion increasingly becomes an enigmatic topic of conversation, especially once it’s conveyed that she has been chosen to be part of a very special, very secret ceremony that autumn.
Then Aleister Crowley shows up.
By early August, while some fans were becoming heavily engaged in the hunt for Bree’s true identity, others had been teasing out the clues to Bree’s religion, and intrepid viewers had made a discovery that at the time seemed startling: Bree’s bedroom included a shrine to Aleister Crowley, the well-known English occultist. Bree never explains exactly what her religion is, but she does make sly references to elements of Crowley’s religious philosophy, Thelema. She also eventually explains that her parents met in England where they were both studying, and that she’d lived on some type of religious commune there before coming to the United States.
Her actual religion matters very little though, only in that it spurs the show’s evolution into phase 2 – Bree and Daniel on the run! Around the time that “lonelygirl15,” the user, was revealed to be Lonelygirl15, the series, the pressure on Bree to do the secret ceremony increased. Eventually, Bree and Daniel discover that, unbeknownst to Bree’s own parents, their religion is actually a front for a secret organization, later to be revealed as The Order. The Order has a nasty habit of scouring the world for young girls with a certain blood type (known in the show’s parlance as “trait positive”) and then using those girls for nefarious purposes that are only slowly revealed over the course of the series’ run.
With this discovery and Bree’s parents’ disappearance, Bree and Daniel go on the run. Around Christmas of ’06, they accept the aid of a wealthy young orphan named Jonas who may have ties to The Order himself. The rest of Season One consists of the trio on the run, in hiding, trying to dig up information necessary to protect Bree and bring about The Order’s destruction. Throughout this phase of the show, lonelygirl15 remained the most subscribed channel on Youtube. And this phase of the show is probably its most vital in terms of influencing web series to come. When Bree was a cute teen girl making science jokes in her bedroom, her vlog could be read as real or fake – what story there was had to be read between the lines, and even if one knew she was a fake, she still came across as a popular vlogger.
It’s often assumed, however, that once the reality of the show became public knowledge (Bree was portrayed by actress Jessica Lee Rose, Daniel by Yousef Abu-Taleb), the Youtube community was so turned off by having been taken in, felt so deceived, that lonelygirl15’s popularity dropped off. But the opposite is true. The more the show became a proper series with cliffhangers and danger and obvious plot developments, the more popular it became – at least for a while. In terms of cultural phenomenon, “lonelygirl’s a fake!” was the big moment that irreparably damaged Youtube credibility.* But in terms of the viability of scripted web series, it’s really the show’s run as the most popular thing on Youtube that defines it. Lonelygirl15 showed that web series could be popular, they could be made on the cheap, and if they included a likeable cast and a coherent enough story, fans would get involved.
Even as Lonelygirl15’s plot became increasingly convoluted with Bree’s leaving the series leading to its third phase, it continued to receive a huge number of views – it also spun off several other series, including KateModern, a British version with overlapping storylines, and LG15: The Resistance, a sequel that continued to follow the fight against The Order. Recent activity on Twitter suggests that there might be something brewing in the LG15 world again this fall.
Transmedia and Paratexts
The other significant contribution that Loneygirl15 made to the development of the web series was its deployment of and reliance on paratexts and other transmedia. Paratexts, as pointed out in this series’ introduction, are elements of a narrative that are not part of the narrative proper. Transmedia is a fairly recently developed term that describes the telling of a story across multiple media platforms – in the case of Lonelygirl15 this generally meant, in addition to Youtube, MySpace accounts and forums at the LG15 web site. These various extra-narrative extensions of the show’s text were vital in encouraging and maintaining fan involvement in the series long after the height of its popularity waned.
The creators of Lonelygirl15 – Miles Beckett, Mesh Flinders, Greg Goodfried, and Amanda Goodfried – were ingenious in their use of paratexts from the start. They dedicated certain hours of the day to writing “responses” from Bree and Daniel that would then be posted in comment sections across the various media platforms, so that viewers would believe they were interacting with the cast. They built Alternate Reality Games into the series, encouraging fans to solve mysteries and post their solutions on boards, which characters would then respond to. In one of the most fascinating instances, they took a fan-generated conspiracy and folded it into the series’ narrative. Twice in the early days, Bree mentions a girl she once knew named Cassie and wonders what happened to her. In September of 2006, a Youtuber named cassieiswatching started posting haunting videos referencing specific events from Lonelygirl15. It was a bit of fun, a series of atypical response videos, but the creators ofLonelygirl15 liked the idea so much they got in touch with cassieiswatching and ended up creating an ARG around the cassieiswatching idea (read more here).
Additionally, as the LG15 universe expanded to include more characters, they started posting from their own YouTube accounts. This was often done quite ingeniously: a new YouTube vlogger would post several videos without mentioning anything at all about Lonelygirl15. Eventually Bree or Daniel would notice something “interesting” about the vlogger, their stories would be shown to overlap in some way, and they would soon get in touch with each other. So at various times throughout the series’ run, there might be five or six different accounts posting videos, all integral to the storyline, but some of which viewers would have to hunt down and backtrack to once the connection became more explicit. This was all done in the name of maintaining Lonelygirl15’s YouTube aesthetic of multiple vloggers interacting with each other via the site as a locus of social media. This kind of transmedia storytelling would be hugely influential on later series such as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
A Hot Mess
In the end, it must be said that Lonelygirl15 is not a great series. It’s a good series with great ambitions, but various aspects of its style and form began to hamper its narrative as soon as Bree and Daniel went on the run.
Part of what made the early days of the series so appealing to viewers was Bree’s easy manner in front of the camera and the chemistry between Bree and Daniel – it also helped that the series refused to pair them up, and there was something refreshing (and occasionally infuriating) about seeing a male/female relationship that didn’t have to become romantic (they did kiss once, the aftermath of which remains the series’ most popular episode with 18 million views). Once they go on the run and meet Jonas and the situation becomes direr, the series exhibits increasing difficulty recapturing the gentle fun of the early days.
Additionally, by locking itself into the web-cam-only formal structure, the series had to go to ridiculous lengths to capture some of its vital moments. The cast might be running for their lives from The Order’s thugs, but they’d still keep the camera rolling. They’d meet new people and insist on interviewing them about very sensitive information on camera. As immersed as one might get in the story – and during some stretches it can be intensely gripping – a moment inevitably comes along that simply defies suspension of disbelief and you find yourself, usually frustratingly, screaming, they’d never be able to film that!
One final difficulty the series has is that its mythology seems to change on the fly to suit newly developed story needs. There are times when a viewer might think The Order and its many affiliates all make sense, then along comes another entity or character that pushes the story in a different direction that just doesn’t compute. You finally get used to the new parameters, and then it changes again. This lends the series and arbitrariness that undermines its ambitions.
Its ambitions, though, are mighty. Originally conceived as a short-term web series whose story would be completed in a film, it eventually ran to more than 600 webisodes in just over two years, or three “seasons.” It developed a complicated mythology about secret organizations that manipulate and take advantage of teenage girls for sinister biological reasons (in doing so, it seems to foreshadow certain aspects of Orphan Black). Its cast – who were often allowed to improvise their lines and, once the camera became a video cam rather than a web cam, their actions as well – developed great chemistry, so much so that some of the best webisodes of the series have nothing to do with the plot but just feature Bree and Daniel or Jonas, or some later characters, just hanging around having fun with each other. Even when Bree leaves at the end of Season One (in part because she leaves), the show’s cast and narrative remain intriguing enough to keep viewers coming back. So while it’s definitely clunky and often infuriating, the series retains a fascination for viewers interested in an alternative to the glossy sheen of Golden Age television.
So, while Lonelygirl15 might be notorious for breaking the back of Youtube authenticity, it’s likely to be most remembered for its daring first steps into a new world of narrative. Later web series have become more focused, better written, and more inventive. But all of them owe a huge debt to Lonelygirl15.
(For those interested in watching Lonelygirl15, Youtube user Rekidk has compiled all the different user videos into a series of chronological playlists.)
* In a recent episode of The Fine Brothers’ “React” series, longtime Youtuber MysteryGuitarMan claims: “In the beginning of Youtube, everything was real, everything was . . . not fake. Then, lonelygirl came around and ruined us all.”
Up Next: The Guild