The Curious Case Of LonelyGirl15... Trust Issues In Content Marketing
The BBC recently asked permission to use this story as a case study for an upcoming programme, Silicon Valley Watcher's discovery of the identity of LonelyGirl15.
At the end of the summer of 2006 we had the biggest story in the US: Silicon Valley Watcher discovered the true identity of LonelyGirl15 (above) -- an anonymous 15 year-old video blogger called Bree, that had amassed a staggering number of viewers on Youtube over several months -- but no one knew who she was. The media was obsessed with her and questioning is she is real or fake?
Even when a link between LonelyGirl15 and the William Morris Agency was discovered, for weeks no one knew who she was, or who was funding the deception.
My son Matt, 18 at the time, through some clever sleuthing discovered she was a 19 year-old actress called Jessica Rose from New Zealand who was hired for the role.
Over the next four days major newspapers, then TV, then radio -- went crazy. We were front page news on the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, LA Times; TV crews from CNN, CBS crowded into my living room (below); BBC and other top radio stations wanted interviews.
Matt handled 90% of all the interviews but he hated the attention. It was exhausting work but he did it and he did it incredibly well.
Many journalists and TV and radio producers told me privately how impressed they were with Matt. He was far less impressed he just wanted it all to go away.
I'm hugely in awe and incredibly proud of what Matt did. Dozens and dozens of interviews over several days, and he’s talking about trust and media — hugely important issues. I could not have done it at 18 or even 28.
Afterwards, he was so disgusted by the way the media works, he disappeared into the wilds of Sonoma County and cut off all media for weeks. Seeing how the media sausage is made was repulsive.
He didn’t like that this story was made the lead everywhere. He didn’t like that the TV camera men would get a shot of his bare feet.
Matt in 2005 - (I adopted his "hand" gesture as a signature look for most of my photos :)
Matt has put his media training to very good use, he has combined his intuitive media intelligence with software engineering skills, in publishing his own sites and in affiliate marketing. He's very much a media engineer/architect. He's now in Brooklyn working on some interesting projects. (He says the Brooklyn hipsters are mostly trust fund kids -- the startup kids are too busy or too broke.)
A pebble in the pond...
The LonelyGirl15 episode was a very significant event because it was one of the first times that there was so much mainstream media attention on an Internet phenomenon that looked very real but turned out to be very fake. I tried to use it to educate readers on how the media works behind-the-scenes and how it tackles stories.
The publishing of the story was also part of what I call "dropping a pebble into the pond" and seeing the ripples.
I published the story at 3am. I didn't Tweet it out (no Twitter or Facebook), or tell anyone because I wanted to see how it would travel through the global media infrastructure completely free of promotion, driven purely on its own merits.
When I woke at 9am it seemed that no one had seen it yet. But by noon it was mayhem as my phone never stopped and as the rest of the media industry went for the story and tried to make it their own.
Trust in media…
The story could have been easily squandered by the mainstream media as a slightly salacious piece about an 18-year-old boy discovering the identity of a 19-year-old actress masquerading as a 15-year-old girl in her bedroom. But it was way more important than that.
This was a unique opportunity to point out some very serious issues about trust in a new media format and to question the way commercial interests publish media content.
Matt agreed to talk about the seriousness of this subject in his interviews when his original motivation was simply solving a curious mystery. He had to carry the intellectual burden of this argument at 18 but he was able to do it because he is incredibly well read in English literature, philosophy, and history. [These are the best subjects to study if you want to be a journalist — not journalism.]
Several journalists, and TV and radio producers, privately told me how much they were impressed with Matt. One of the New York Times reporters said he should be teaching journalism at New York University because the journalism professors weren’t as insightful as Matt.
I’m incredibly impressed and very proud in how he handled it all when I know he'd rather have been a million miles away from the media circus.
Here is how the story unfolded in chronological order: