Posted by Tom Foremski - September 12, 2006
"Hey Dad, it looks like LonelyGirl15 is a fake," said Matthew, as I'm still bleary eyed from just having woken up. It is 9.30am on a Friday and I'm at the computer moderating comments and checking links for Silicon Valley Watcher, so I'm only half hearing what he has to say.
Matthew is 18; and he just spent the entire summer hanging out with me, the poor guy. My summer held no romps in the woods or lazy days on the beach; it was all about reporting and publishing.
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree; and Matt spent the summer involved in his own media enterprises: buying and selling domain names, setting up forums to build online communities, and spotting arbitrage opportunities in online advertising networks.
"Who is LonelyGirl15?" I asked. Matt told me she is a 16 year-old vidblogger on YouTube called Bree who talks about her home-schooled life, her parents, her friends, her boy interests, etc. He told me to log onto YouTube and take a look.
I took a look; and Bree is picture-perfect in her looks, in a picture-perfect bedroom, from where her vid posts are cast.
I was so into my little corner of the world this summer that I hadn't realized what a huge following she had built up. She became the top vidstar of the summer, attracting a diverse following, and growing media attention, with articles in The New York Times, LA Times, and The Times (London).
I took a look at some of Bree's videos; and to my eye, I saw a highly professionally executed product. But then again, Matt had already told me it was a fake, so I cannot claim any special talent in spotting fakes.
Many others didn't have my hindsight and had gotten sucked into Bree's dramas, and story line, and believed it was a real person. That has to hurt, to be suckered in so publicly.
I saw a lot of anger and resentment in comments and vidblogs when it became clear that there was a group of people, professional Hollywood types no less, who had helped to create the fiction of LonelyGirl15.
The jig was up when some online sleuths had tracked the IP address of one of Bree's emails to Hollywood's huge Creative Arts Agency. The producers of LonelyGirl15 quickly took down her web site and discussion forum, leaving a post that called it a "new art form" but did not name any names.
Here is an excerpt:
To Our Incredible Fans,
Thank you so much for enjoying our show so far. We are amazed by the overwhelmingly positive response to our videos; it has exceeded our wildest expectations. With your help we believe we are witnessing the birth of a new art form. Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story “ a story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the internet. A story that is interactive and constantly evolving with the audience.
Then it goes on to say:
So, sit tight. You are the only reason for our success, and we appreciate your devotion. We want you to know that we aren’t a big corporation. We are just like you. A few people who love good stories. We hope that you will join us in the continuing story of Lonelygirl15, and help us usher in an era of interactive storytelling where the line between “fan” and “star” has been removed, and dedicated fans like yourselves are paid for their efforts.
The part about sharing in the money and the creation had a jarring effect on me, and also on others, which was expressed in some of the forums. I could not see how people could participate in the same way as they had when Bree was "real" and get paid for doing it?!
Matt and I both agreed that this media experiment could not continue, because it had been revealed to be a fake. People do not like being lied to, it is as simple as that.
Matt wanted to explore the phenomenon of LonelyGirl15 further. Earlier in the summer he had bought the domain name LG15.com. He had already suspected that LonelyGirl15 was a faked blog and bought the name as a potentially useful site that could be the basis for an online community.
Now that she was ousted as a fake, he decided to set up a discussion board under a pseudonym, to see what additional information he could flush out, and to see how the online community reacted to the news.
Within a couple of hours he had the discussion board up and running and registrations started within minutes. This was just from people typing in LG15.com, with LG15 being one of the shorthand terms people were using. This was all good but the trouble was that the sign ups were growing at an exponential rate.
Matt was worried about the Dreamhost web service we were using, if it could stand a big spike in traffic. He wanted to put the LG15.com discussion board on Silicon Valley Watcher's TotalChoice Hosting server.
Initially I said yes; but quickly recanted, because I was worried about reader access to Silicon Valley Watcher getting bumped if LG15.com took off.
What was interesting was that Matt's pseudonym was rumbled very quickly. Online sleuths suspecting another turn in the LonelyGirl15 saga had searched through online caches and turned up the registration information of the site. Even though Matt had made the domain name information private, online caches held by Google or others, had revealed all.
Coming next: How Matt discovered the identity of LonelyGirl15
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