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December 3, 2009
By Julia Allison

LonelyGirl15: the post-modern Hughesian icon for the Face-space generation.


Sixteen years old, with widely spaced brown eyes – and those crazy eyebrows! – Bree’s first video as “LonelyGirl15” on her eponymous YouTube channel had all the sophistication of a pink fuzzy diary (with over 100 million people leafing through the pages) and all the plot … well, it didn’t really have much of a plot at all. Ostensibly the clear-skinned home-schooled daughter of super religious parents, somewhere in a generic IKEA outfitted room in the heartland, she pulls her legs in close to her chest, has difficulty maintaining eye contact while glancing around nervously, and awkwardly stumbles over her lines … oops, wait – did we say lines?

Oh yeah, Bree isn’t really Bree, of course, but an unknown Kiwi actress named Jessica Rose, now 22, playing what the New York Times dubbed “an unbeatable fantasy: a beautiful girl who techy guys had something in common with.”  Bree certainly captured the eye-roll inducing late-aughts zeitgeist of semi-precocious teens spending their free time angsting into web cams and editing it on iMovie.  That made it all the more shocking for the millions of fans who finally realized they had been duped when it came out that LonelyGirl had a web cam Svengali: the 2007 budgetless (talentless?) John Hughes.

The story lines were unabashedly basic, but media outlets obsessed over the hoax, with the NY Times calling it “one of the Internet’s more elaborately constructed mysteries.” User generated content that wasn’t so user generated?  It was, as NY magazine concluded, “the birth of a new art form.” An art form with more views than the last two superbowls combined.

That the popular success didn’t necessarily translate into direct monetary success was neither here nor there: LonelyGirl15 was more proof of concept – a concept that some argued represented the future.

“Maybe this, and not some NBC shows for sale on iTunes, is the future of television—or the promised land of a new narrative form,” NY magazine wrote presciently in 2006, far before the LonelyGirl creators released the sub-three minute “In the Bedroom,” their highest viewed episode, clocking in at almost 25 million views as of October 2009.   The irony, of course, is that hits-based-upon-trickery are inherently un-replicable: fool me once, say the easily-jaded internet viewing masses, and we’ll find it creative and maybe a bit charming.  Fool me twice?  Well, uh … you can’t!

In the end, LonelyGirl’s rank in the annals of pop culture certainly won’t be for masterful story-telling (You got kissed? Whatever. Get murdered and now we have a show NBC might air).  But with the Blair Witch-esque blurring of the lines of is-she-or-isn’t-she real – the hallmark of the muddled “reality-based” entertainment in this decade – it did, at the very least, capture our attention.  And as the first episodic internet series to go mainstream, LonelyGirl showcased the web’s ability to create and sustain a viewership for content beyond cat videos and Andy Samburg.

For that alone, Bree deserves a prize.

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