Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Issue 1: Lonelygirl15 & Whatever Happened to that Girl Bree?

How Lonelygirl15 Embraces Hollywood, Mediocrity and Poor Planning and Rubs It in the Face of Its Viewers

Part 1: A New Art Form of Interaction? Really?

So, do you know anyone who is a fan of lonelygirl15? Really, does anyone you know watch this story unfold through its online videos? Most people I know respond with something along the lines of “Oh yeah, that fake video girl…Is she still around?” or “Is it that fake girl and her boyfriend?” Well, I am a consistent enough viewer to know the DanielBeast has never been Bree’s boyfriend, although for a short time ago after “hooking up,” he sure assumed so. However, let’s get right down to the point: lonelygirl15 has lost the magic, and loyal fans are paying the price for believing the promises of the creators of this hoax-turned-series.

The three amateur filmmakers behind Lonelygirl15 proclaimed to some outraged viewers once they had been discovered, “With your help we believe we are witnessing the birth of a new art form…” Many people know about the “outing” of Jessica Lee Rose as an actress of NZ decent who is a graduate of The New York Film Academy. But what is supposed to make this series different is the ability for fans to interact with the story and see where the mystery is going. The creators’ September 7th, 2006 message asked viewers to “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 a questionable promise at best and one I will explore in a moment. For now, let’s get back to this “new art form.”

Doled out in one to three minute episodes, which I’ll refer to here in the hip new terminology wepisodes, lonelygirl15 seems pretty impressed with itself for using this serial format. But let’s quickly review this format.

Serials are not new in the history of entertainment. Charles Dickens made his living from serialized stories as did Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As technology developed, serialized entertainment developed along with it with it. When radio was the newest means of entertainment and media, the daily and weekly serialized program kept listeners on the edge of their seats with the exploits of characters in 15 minute audio soap operas. As television arrived on the scene, the soap opera, weekly drama and other stories with continuing storylines offered viewers the chance to follow characters through the turmoil and drama in their lives. A serialized program is really nothing new.

The Internet did usher in a new take on the serialized story for a society of people who did not want half-hour to hour-long programs on their monitor screens. On the web, programming was presented much like those serials of radios golden days, short manageable segments for people on the go. The fictional Sleeping Sarah first placed its serial novel in short chapters online in 1997. In November of 2004, the first video podcast was introduced to the world. These first podcasts were informational in nature. Shows categorized as entertainment soon followed with the likes of episodes of Homestar Runner, the Flash animated Internet cartoon, which began in 2001. Tiki Bar TV, a short video comedy series first appeared on iTunes on March 13, 2005 with its 5 minute episodes. The videopodcast, Cherub, the vampire with bunny slippers which lovingly parodies the Buffy the Vampire Slayer character Angel with its fan-created series, made its way online in short episodes in February of 2006. The comedy parody Hope is Emo arrived on the internet four days before lonelygirl15 posted her first video in 2006. Before these Goodnight Burbank, the parody of a local new show premiered in March of 2006 . And of course, when discussing this “new form,” we certainly must include the forerunner of all webisodes, The Spot from 1995.

However, probably more a more thoughtful example than the lonelygirl15 debacle was Iron Sink Media’s Romantic Comedy Series Soup of The Day, which was announced on May 09, 2006. Billed as an “Interactive-Webisodic” series and a “unique hybrid,” Soup of the Day provides some of the interactive elements that lonelygirl15 promises, however, with planning and panache. Attention to details on their myspace pages, and answers to questions about logistics were clearly and honestly spelled out for viewers. This series, which is currently running, did not have the kind of impact lonelygirl15 had, but perhaps it was because some people were not knowledgeable about this form of media entertainment. Lonelygirl15 built a fan base and raised intrigue through their successfully deceptive practices.

This deception, in addition to scooping up the audience of popular and authentic YouTubers Paytotheorderofofof and The Wine Kone really brought them fame, It turns out that this deception was genius in light of the viewers mesmerized by the mystery of lonelygirl15. Who knows what would have happened without their War of the World’s approach (at least Orson Welles posted disclaimers). People did seem to need what Bree was giving them. That is a plus. However, is this series delivering what its creators promised? Let’s begin by focusing on that which supposed to make lonelygirl15 unique: interaction.

On the lonelygirl15 website, there are certainly ways to interact. There is a forum to discuss such issues as the plot, characters, theories about where the story is going. But just about every form of media has its own forum of loyal fans wanting to discuss the likes of Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reality television shows, even the NBC sitcom Scrubs. Admittedly, the lonelygirl forum is very active with a weekly average of about 2,000 users as compared to the roughly 1,000 users BuffyWorld Forum according to the Alexa Web Traffic Rankings.

Lonelygirl15 also offers “in-character” forums where users can interact with main characters in the story such as the protagonist Bree, her friend Daniel as well as other main characters in the plot. However, there really has not been much interaction from anyone but Bree with a total of 68 posts. And most of Bree’s posts are very brief and have yet to reveal any information other than short, one line responses that thank fans for support and such. A typical response was made by “Bree” on Tue Jan 09, 2007 to a viewer offering his support and willingness to lend an ear to a grieving “Bree”:

“Thanks Evan. I'm still not in the talking mood, but I do appreciate your offer of support.”

Daniel is a very, very distant second with three posts. Gemma, the friend-turned-traitor from Bree’s past, who currently has been assumed to be murdered, has never posted. And all the rest of the characters with spots on the forum have yet to answer the many threads started for interaction by eager fans. For example, in the forum marked “Others,” which would seem to include minor characters like Bree’s mother, Lucy and the Deacons, there are over 15 active threads started by fans. But not a one has been responded to by the “characters.” It should be noted that the writers or staff people are assumed to respond as the characters, so there is little chance of fans posing a question to Bree and getting a response back from Jessica Lee Rose.

Seemingly, the most popular way that fans can interact is on the forum, theorizing about the “clues” in the story. however, as of late, there has been little, if any, resolution to any of the clues. By judging from the posts at the official forum, even the most devoted fans seem strung along by the “Creators” as they continually research ideas that come up and hunt for clues, never receiving resolution or acknowledgement about the story. These same three men who call themselves “The Creators,” certainly received the forgiveness of the fans of Bree and her sidekick, DanielBeast for their early deception. Now it seems these original fans, who seem to be most concerned about the declining quality of the storyline, have been pushed aside as the three entrepreneurs seek entrance into grand life of Hollywood’s movers and shakers. A Wired magazine article, along with a cover photo of Ms. Rose, seemed to move them toward what seems to be their goal. Their appearance at VH1 ’06 was a wonderful moment for Jessica Lee Rose, who seemed a bit uncomfortable, yet glamorous received Biggest Web Hit Award.

In addition, some fans consider the move to provide a guest starring role to American Idol runner up Katherine McPhee under the guise of finding ways for fans to participate. According to the AP article from January 17, 2007, “The writers had already been devising a female character who briefly meets Bree and had been searching for ways to cast fans as characters. They readily agreed to cast McPhee in the nonrecurring role” With a new album released a day after her lonelygirl15 appearance, it seems like a slap in the face for the typical viewer to live up to the expectations for “fans” that McPhee has set. Is the trio behind lonelygirl15 looking for famous fans to include in the story or will they be willing to accept the typical viewer who might not possess the Hollywood beauty or connections that the talented McPhee offered to their franchise?

From the looks of things, fans with lucrative entertainment contracts, a fan base of their own or model-like attractiveness to pull in new fans should feel optimistic for the fan interaction promises. Others, it seems, need not hold their breath. After all, those fans can post away to their hearts content. But they shouldn’t really expect their posts to be answered by a character. Ah, yes. Fan interaction at it’s best.

This is probably enough to chew on for now.

~In the next edition, I’ll explore several other attempts at fan interaction from the lonelygirl15 creators, including a chat session, a contest for the fans and OpAphid, the Alternate Reality Game that was a fan-creation endorsed by the series.