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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

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Wed 13
Sep
2006

The Brave New Art Form of lonelygirl15

Writing lonelygirl15So lonelygirl15 turns out to be a fake. What looked like the intimate video diary of a 16-year-old girl named Bree is actually “a new art form,” courtesy of three L.A. filmmakers. And Bree is really a 19-year-old actress from New Zealand named Jessica Rose.

Some of the thousands of fans who followed her videos on YouTube are upset. Some are angry—very angry. Some don’t see the problem. Some think the videos are more interesting now that they know they’re made up, and some feel like they lost a friend.

Me, I’m voting this a neat piece of marketing.

True, they’re not selling anything. That’s the good news: this didn’t turn out to be an ad for acne cream or a movie. The creators say:

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. This is an incredible time for the creator inside all of us.

It’s funny that people who created something so interesting could write something this dumb.

lonelygirl15 didn’t succeed because it told a compelling story. It succeeded because people thought it was real. Without the deception, there’s nothing special. The filmmakers knew this; they went to a lot of trouble to keep up the pretense, to the extent of posting personal replies, as Bree, to people who wrote in. They built fake relationships with fans. And now some of those fans feel like pauldonald:

the reason why im annoyed is because people are going to use this website to try to boost there acting career so now you cant trust anyone on youtube and i do wish bree was real because i fell in love with the character. im not sure if i like jessica rose coz from the pics i have seen she seems like the total opposite of lonelygirl coz she seems like a easy party girl but even though this is fake im not mad at the person who made this even though it was a bit of a spit in the face.

This is what makes it marketing, not storytelling. Storytelling doesn’t abuse its audience. Without the bit at the start that says, “This is made up,” it’s not storytelling; it’s just lying.

Every fiction writer in history has probably been annoyed by how much more power a “true story” seems to have. But that’s the deal we make: we admit up front that our tale isn’t true, then we desperately try to make it as authentic as possible. Doing it the other way around—claiming to have a true story and filling it with fiction—that just pisses me off. Storytelling? A new art form? Give me a break. When you agree to the deal, then you can be storytellers. Until then, you’re marketers.

Comments

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Chris (#816)

Location: Quebec, Canada
Posted: 2961 days ago

How did I see this one coming? ;)

<a href="http://i3.tinypic.com/30htvk8.gif">This</a> (~280KB GIF) is pretty cute, though.

Geez, I hope HTML works in comments...

Machine Man subscriber Danni Brennand (#357)

Location: England
Quote: "Eagerly awaiting the European Tour."
Posted: 2961 days ago

Well said, Max. I've been pretty late coming to the Youtube vlogs (I've mostly watched short fan created clips of Star Trek on there before now) but the lonelygirl15 vlogs were the ones that were just a little too polished. Now, thehill88 is much better :P

Flynn (#520)

Location: Chicago, IL USA
Quote: "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."
Posted: 2961 days ago

Yet another case where people are awakened to the cruel reality of the internet.

To get all Rocky & Bullwinkle, this week's episode is titled - "Skepticism is your shield" or "In the Immortal Words of Howard Jones, 'Always asking questions.'"

Jak (#2464)

Quote: "The Straight-Jacket makes it hard to type."
Posted: 2961 days ago

Nice, maybe Max should hire someone and have her pretend to be Jennifer Goverment for a video diary.

james (#526)

Location: SF, USA
Posted: 2961 days ago

Why does it have to be Marketing OR storytelling? Why can't it be both?

I know that sort of comment probably pisses off a lot of "serious artists," but it's a bit delusional to try and create a huge separation between the two. Fiction books have been commoditized for a long time and while the fiction itself isn't a strict exercise in marketing in the same way a TV ad campaign is, it's not somehow pure simply because it's meant to amuse and it's mostly made up.

Besides, this brings up another question: If lonelygirl15 had been "real" would her video blogs be more authentic?

The point is: If she'd been "real" as in not an actress, she still would have been an actress, her name would have been the same, but she'd have been acting.

Also, if she wasn't cute, no one would have cared.

Gregor (#1182)

Location: Toronto
Quote: "The righteous man is beset on all sides by the tyrannies of evil men."
Posted: 2961 days ago

Hey Max,
Sounds like "A million different pieces' again. I believe that people lie all the time - 'officer I was only doing 36, surely you cant be serious'? What the problem is, as you say, is that there is a small lie being confused with a big one. The big ones are the same ones that people deny until we think they must be true, their persistance in denial must be the sign of truth! But that is after all fear, since if your caught with a big lie, your life is screwed, and people will lie to stop getting that happen to them. Its funny though, that everyone who thinks they wont be caught, will get caught. So the more we see of this the more everybody might wise-up. That is after all how experience is created...no one takes advice.

Jeffrey (#2286)

Location: Right here
Quote: "Mathematics is a powerful language. Just look at how mathematicians destroyed the housing market."
Posted: 2961 days ago

GD vloggers lol. Now you can't even trust that they won't sell out.

Joe (#1379)

Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Quote: "http://hikerjoe.blogspot.com"
Posted: 2961 days ago

I had never heard of this until your post, but watching the "House Arrest" entry after the fact, I probably would have been suspicious of the artsy production values which no video blog I've ever seen has.

It's also funny to note that, now that I knew to listen for it, her Kiwi accent slips through when she says "Maybe there's some things that I've been missing out on." ;-)

It's marketing, all right. They're marketing the girl we'd all feel sorry for and fall in love with.

Jason Wallwork (#675)

Location: Peterborough, Canada
Quote: "If it ain't broke you're not trying hard enough."
Posted: 2961 days ago

Very well put, Max. I haven't watched this girl - your blog is the first I've heard of her. However, they way they manipulated people makes my blood boil. Sure, they might think, if we hadn't created her as "real", nobody would've watched. That same logic means if a man cheated on his wife, he was justified in not telling her because she'd just get mad and not stay married to him. The point is, we have the right to know the truth and make our decisions based on all the facts, not only the facts that make it convenient for the other guy. And because it's entertainment, doesn't make the lie any less evil.

Kit (#850)

Location: UK
Posted: 2961 days ago

The reason it had so many viewers because people thought it was real, but it was seperated from the other, real, similar youtubers because of it's fictional elements, which made it far more entertaining than "this is what i think about pluto not being a planet yadda yadda" crap which no one actually wants to see. When you take away the reality part, and it becomes fictitious, you can see it for what it is, a particularly boring, monotonous teen drama. Half the viewers were people who wanted to take the piss out of it, or figure out whether it was real or not, which just made it more popular. Of course now it's been revealed, even more people want to see it to find out what all the fuss was about. I expect it's hit it's peak now, after all the controversy, it'll fade out of our radars, I always found it pretty lame anyway, I loved some of the spoofs people did though:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orJeGH3QJRo

I agree with you max, calling this a form of art is pretty up your own arse.

Joe (#2270)

Location: Campbell, CA, USA
Quote: "I'm subverting the system from the inside. I think."
Posted: 2961 days ago

This thing reminds me of one of the oldest sites on the net that wasn't aimed at computer geeks: "The Spot". The Spot pretended to be about a group of 5-6 beautiful young men and women living in a beach house and writing about their adventures, pretending-but-not-pretending that the thing was real, with the characters interacting with the audience. And this was with the relatively primitive mid-90s web.

As it turns out, the front page is <a href="http://thespot.com/">still there</a>, but the content seems to have gone away.

<a href="http://www.answers.com/topic/thespot-com">More here</a> for those who don't remember it.

Janet (#2030)

Location: California
Quote: "There are three kinds of people in this world: Those that can count and those that can't. Which one are you?"
Posted: 2961 days ago

Wow, I had no idea the news reached you. I followed it a little, and it just really did seem so fake when I saw her. She looked...too...perfect...

John Perkins (#1915)

Location: Phoenix, AZ
Quote: "Nothing says love like cash."
Posted: 2961 days ago

I thought I was the only one who remembered The Spot. As soon as I heard about this, that's exactly what I thought of. I had actually worked on a semi-knockoff of The Spot called The Asylum, where I wrote the diaries of seven mental patients. It was never seen by anyone other than my friends and family, but it did exist on Geocities back when they were cool.

As they say, there's nothing new under the sun.

Machine Man subscriber branden (#2100)

Location: northern california
Quote: "...and this is how you betray me!?"
Posted: 2961 days ago

This reminds me of the controversy surrounding A Million Little Peices, where many people were saying 'what does it matter if he made up the story and sold it as truth?' I think your viewpoint can also be applied to that debate, because it rings true; it's an abuse of the audience.

Blair Yacishyn (#1447)

Location: Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Canada
Quote: "Well, School is hockey since it's never nice to talk about water."
Posted: 2961 days ago

Here's why it's not right. When you create a fictious work the audience knows that what is happening is not real, but most of the time they agree to play by the rules of the story, this is called "suspension of disbelief", this allows the audience to treat the story as it is real, but the paramount of it is the audience chooses whether or not they want to suspend their disbeleif. If you pretend that what is happening is real though, the audioence is given no choice and are forced into beleiving this is real. It's the equivilant oif bullying your audience into believing you. You have just completely destroyed any reason for your audience to trust you, which is probably one of the paramount requirements in fiction, the trust between the creator and the audience. As well, you are telloing the audience that you don't trust them to believe your story otherwise. It's horrible abuse of audience and shouldn't be tolerated.

Kalle (#1278)

Quote: "Sex is herital. If your parents never had it, chanses are you'll never have it either."
Posted: 2961 days ago

So what was the deal with lonelygirl again? I despise video blogs(almost as much as I despise the word "vlog") so I'm not exactly up to date. Is she on wiki? [rolleyes]

james (#526)

Location: SF, USA
Posted: 2961 days ago

Here's a question:

Is a "blogger" or "Youtuber" or any artist for that matter obligated to state:

THIS IS FAKE

Why can't the work simply speak for itself? Fiction need not be announced as fiction and "reality" (I still disagree with the concept of "realness" as supposed to "fakeness" with anything intended for an audience) need not be announced as "reality."

If you saw this show on conventional TV you'd take it as fiction simply because of the medium. Simply because it looks like a blog and is on YouTube/MySpace doesn't mean that it must be "real." That's a preconception the audience is bringing to the table, not what's being forced on them by the creators.

I agree that, in a way, not clarifying whether a piece is "real" or fiction can induce a lot of discomfort for the viewer if what he or she thought was "real" ends up being fiction, but you're also operating under the assumption that it's somehow unfair to stress or challenge the viewer. The very fact that we're having this discussion is indicative of the power of the piece as a piece of art. Art isn't supposed to just be fluffy and nice, but (in my opinion, obviously) it should challenge the viewer/listener/reader/etc.

And that's what these people did. They took a new medium and used it to do something we're not used to: create an interactive drama that is simple and transmitted over the internet.

austin (#2462)

Location: rhode island
Quote: "hmmm...bleh..."
Posted: 2961 days ago

I've never heard about lonelygirl15 either. But from what you say, Max, it sounds like it was just marketing. Poeple are so desperate for fame that they would sometihng loike that? That's pretty lame. Building false hope isn't the way to a steady fan base. No one really cares anymore. Their feeling of suspense and compassion has melted away. There's nothing left to watch but badly thought out vlogs.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2961 days ago

There's definitely a school of thought that says everything is at least a little fictional, so what's the big deal about something like this (or "A Million Little Pieces," or one of the many others). But I don't buy that at all. People *do* react differently depending on whether they think they're hearing a tale or a factual event. If you can't tell the difference, you can't develop an understanding of the world. That's why fiction has an obligation to declare itself: because otherwise you're not forming a bond with the audience, you're abusing them. And that kind of manipulation is more like marketing than storytelling.

I don't think the vids had to have a big "THIS IS FAKE" disclaimer on them, of course, just provide the same kind of contextual clues that every other movie, TV show, or book does--credits, for example. The filmmakers here instead deliberately concealed the fact that Bree was a character played by Jessica Rose, in order to deceive the audience. It wasn't just that people assumed it was real: it was presented as real.

Not a hanging offense, sure. And the videos are well-made, very well-acted, and there could even be an interesting plot in there. But they achieved popularity not on the merits of the storytelling, but by lying to their fans. And that's not cool.

james (#526)

Location: SF, USA
Posted: 2961 days ago

I think one of the fans makes it pretty clear why people are upset:

"so now you cant trust anyone on youtube and i do wish bree was real because i fell in love with the character"- Pauldonald

Paul was interested in a fantasy that was augmented by the belief that this girl could be "real." At no point did Paul (as far as we know) meet "Bree" in person. Instead, he draws a set of conclusions based on how she's represented in 1 to 2 minute video clips on a website that, contrary to Paul's misguided beliefs, is full of people creating representations of themselves. Paul's sad that Bree has made it impossible for him to "trust anyone on YouTube."

But what this example has really done is exposed the truth of representation: that it's always creative and never merely descriptive. Anything posted on YouTube, intentionally fictitious or not, is not strictly representative of "reality." Instead, it's creating something that will be perceived by its audience in a lot of different ways.

Anyway, I understand the point about lying to the fans. I agree that it's not always the best nor nicest move. But I also think that YouTube (or internet media in general) doesn't have to conform to traditiona media. This means it shouldn't have to be organized in the same way, nor should it have to keep the same promises as we expect traditional media to keep. But, I guess I don't agree with the marketing/storytelling dichotomy, either.

Anyway, thanks for the lively discussion.

Linnea1928 (#2654)

Location: Rosemount, MN
Posted: 2961 days ago

I guess it's kinda funny because sooooo many people really liked "her" vlogs because they were so real. haha. (to be fair, I was a fan myself, because they were funny, although I always wondered about it because the montages and effects were always too well done, y'know?)
However, I think it is wrong to do that, though. It is lying, and it is false advertising. To do something knowingly with the purpose of deceiving people is just wrong. It is not a form of art, it is a form of deception.

Kit (#850)

Location: UK
Posted: 2961 days ago

"Not a hanging offense, sure. And the videos are well-made, very well-acted, and there could even be an interesting plot in there." Come on, the dialogue is the cheesiest crap ever, lol.

Machine Man subscriber Dan Maurath (#2013)

Location: California
Quote: "You know, we're not the only ones destroying trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist, why don't you go club a few beavers? - Lindsay - Arrested Development"
Posted: 2961 days ago

i thought everyone knew there were fake. i was directed to them from a bands messageboard and we were all in concesus that they werent real.

Cupie (#1396)

Location: Seattle-ish
Quote: ""You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think." -Dorothy Parker"
Posted: 2961 days ago

It's like calling the J.T. Leroy, J. T. Leroy. Punked? Hoax? Grand marketing ploy? Creating an illusion is fun n' all, but people should be forewarned of the illusion if they're to participate, otherwise it's pure unadulterated slash you tubin'.

Gregory (#1530)

Location: Forest Hill
Quote: "I think therefore I am, I think"
Posted: 2961 days ago

"But that’s the deal we make: we admit up front that our tale isn’t true, then we desperately try to make it as authentic as possible."

You mean that Syrup and Company are not true stories? Fooled me Max. I thought they were racy doco's.

Yenzo (#829)

Location: Secret underwater pyramid base in the Pacific
Quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe (Carl Sagan)"
Posted: 2960 days ago

You see, Max, I understand your point, but I have to agree with james. Furthermore, I think that pretending to be real is an important stylistic device of art in general.

Where would we be without Orson Welles' interpretation of War of the Worlds in the 30s? I mean, yeah, technically he didn't lie to people, but he successfully hid the disclaimer so that the listeners would fall for it anyway.

Art is about making people think and feel. If you have to gut-punch them to do so, so be it. One guy gets on stage naked, the other one pretends his story really happened that way. I understand your frustration as an artist who plays by the rules of novel-writing, but if tomorrow a guy sells his novel printed with dried blood on human skin, then what the hell would be wrong with that, as long as it's a nice novel and as long as it has the effect of creating emotions.

Oh, and as long as nobody gets hurt or killed in the process. Hey, maybe he could use his *own* blood and skin. That would be kinda cool, wouldn't it?

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 2960 days ago

I weep for the people that default to the assumption that things on the internet are real.
Maybe I'm cynical, or paranoid, most likely both. But come on. If there was ever a place rife with people pretending to be what they're not, it's here on the net.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2960 days ago

The War of the Worlds radio broadcast didn't pretend to be real; it was declared as fiction at the beginning. But it was then so convincing that many people took it for real. To me, that's perfectly fine. That's part of the deal.

But lonelygirl15 falls into the category of "pretending to be real so people will think it matters more." That's not clever or innovative; that's just lying to the audience. Anyone can do that. And when it works, people pay more attention. But it's got nothing to do with good storytelling.

Good storytelling says, "Here's a piece of fiction," then makes you believe it anyway.

Sure, you can say that we should all be cynical enough not to be fooled. But doesn't that basically mean not believing in anything--even the true stuff, just in case it's fake? That would also damage to your ability to discern fact from fiction, and understand the world.

I really think this kind of this is corrosive. At what point do you say, "Okay, in THIS medium, what's real is real"? TV documentaries? The nightly News? Newspapers? I don't want these things to present innovative new art forms. They could, and they would get a lot of attention, and many people would probably applaud them for pushing artistic boundaries. But that would be because they had lied to the audience, not because they had crafted a great story.

austin (#2462)

Location: rhode island
Quote: "hmmm...bleh..."
Posted: 2960 days ago

Wow, Max. You seem very attached to this subject. In a good way.

The difference between these and the War of the World broadcasts were that they said it was fiction at the start, not while it had been going on for a while and people actually believed it.

What they did with the lonelygirl thing was try to make people believe it. they succeeded and now that are coming out and saying it's false, everyone that believes fells like they were scammed.

Machine Man subscriber David (#1456)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Why are the pretty ones always insane?"
Posted: 2960 days ago

Thanks Joe! Yeah that's the one, The Spot! I've been trying to remember the name of that site ever since I first heard of lonelygirl15 a couple of weeks ago. She's nothing but a webcam ripoff of The Spot - and didn't that die in the bum as soon as the marketing lie was exposed all those web years ago!

David (#1848)

Location: Texas
Quote: "Delighted!"
Posted: 2959 days ago

Does the desired result make any difference?

For instance, The Blair Witch Project went to a great deal of trouble to support its fictional story as truth...even placing a "documentary" on the "witch" on TV in advance of the movie's release. Of course, there were probably the usual credits and disclaimers, but still.

But they were just trying to scare us, not make us care. Should that make any difference? Certainly Max is right, in that the degree to which lonelygirl was a hit with her viewers was directly linked to the collective belief that it was real. Lonelygirl was a con, plain and simple, not just a trick.

Sophie (#891)

Location: Devon
Posted: 2959 days ago

Creating video broadcasts for the sole purpose of lying to people isn't a 'new artform', Fox News have been doing it for years.

And if these guys are going to make homeschooling cool, then they've got my support. I was homeschooled until I was 16 and I always thought it'd be nice if it became really trendy and stuff. So if they've made something about homeschooling that doesn't involve hippies or extreme religious fanatics, then I'm happy about it.

Hobbie (#1359)

Location: Cornwall, England
Quote: "There was a little man in his hair!"
Posted: 2957 days ago

"Creating video broadcasts for the sole purpose of lying to people isn't a 'new artform', Fox News have been doing it for years."

That made me giggle.

Anyway, I happen to agree with Max about this sort of thing. There are enough mentally disturbed people out there who can't legitimately tell the difference between reality and fiction without some bunch of morons making everyone else doubt how genuine everything is in the name of some spurious new "art" form.

It just damages the way people perceive other, honest video bloggers.

Andrew (#2695)

Location: Australia
Posted: 2952 days ago

"Me, I’m voting this a neat piece of marketing.

True, they’re not selling anything. That’s the good news: this didn’t turn out to be an ad for acne cream or a movie."

I Love Bees was much neater, but it was selling a game.

"For instance, The Blair Witch Project went to a great deal of trouble to support its fictional story as truth...even placing a "documentary" on the "witch" on TV in advance of the movie's release. Of course, there were probably the usual credits and disclaimers, but still."

And the Stephen Kíng Miniseries Rose Red was marketed as being based on a true story. Also, Spinal Tap was such a great mockumentary that some people thought it was true!

Stryde Tamashii (#2617)

Location: South Australia
Quote: "there's 2050 members on this site yet im #2617???, stick to your day job max XD"
Posted: 2945 days ago

hah i thought i was hilarious to see that particular vlog crash an dburn, though i must admit i am pretty impressed by how long it survived behind its little masquarade.
looking back now, i think the reason why i am so amused by the whole thing is that i was never remotely interested in that vlog and so i wasnt decieved when it turned out to be fake. its ust funny to see how hurt many people were when they found out it was all staged

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