As Seen on YouTube: Lonelygirl Dumps Middleman
Monday, September 18, 2006
The great thing about the Internet is that anyone, even a lonely 16-year-old girl, can record her thoughts and draw a big following.
The maddening thing about the Internet is that she might not be lonely or 16.
If you spend time on the Web, you probably know that the latest cult hit on YouTube -- which seems to generate a new sensation every few hours -- was Lonelygirl15, a shy, angst-ridden teenager who blabbed for months about her life, family and boyfriend in videos that seemed strangely slick.
This set off a nationwide hunt for the online star "Bree" -- plus spinoff satires -- before the terrifying truth emerged: Bree was a fake, a fraud, a cyberscam. She was a 19-year-old actress named Jessica Rose.
It gets worse. The scheme was cooked up by a trio of buzz-seeking California filmmakers, who have since signed with Creative Artists Agency. Rose landed on "The Tonight Show."
Still, this might serve as a case study in how the Net polices itself. Other YouTube contributors made videos questioning, for example, how a Lonelygirl15 fan site could have been set up before Bree's first posting. One video morphed her into the devil. And it was blogger Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher -- with help from his son -- who followed the e-mails (today's version of following the money) and unmasked Rose, a graduate of the New York Film Academy, as the real Bree.
Foremski writes that the scrutiny offers a "media model for the future: a mediasphere that uses the best qualities of professional media combined with relentless pursuit of information by citizen journalists. That's a potent formula that bodes well for our society, IMHO." ("In my humble opinion," for you Luddites.)
But the lesson here is not just that skillful flimflam artists can fool the world, at least for a time. It's that things online are not always what they seem, as creeping commercialization changes the culture.
The alluring aspect of YouTube -- where the Lonelygirl15 soap opera remains online, in perpetual reruns among the 100 million other videos -- is that anyone with a camera can play. Even though YouTube has struck promotional deals with the likes of NBC, it remains a Wild West frontier where someone with a message, a cool dance move or a silly stunt can rustle up a crowd.
But distortions are all too easy to pull off. CBS News asked YouTube last week to remove a video that changed correspondent Byron Pitts's report on attitudes toward the Iraq war by adding a 90-second interview with a retired colonel that was posted on the network's Web site, even though only a snippet of the interview had actually aired. That altered the nature of the story, CBS argued, and YouTube complied.
Post-it-yourself video sites feature the good, bad and breathtakingly ugly. YouTube has dozens of videos -- set to music and with Arabic logos -- purporting to show American soldiers being killed in Iraq. These appear to be lifted from jihadist Web sites, one expert told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
YouTube's shield of anonymity can be politically useful. No one knows who posted the footage of Tramm Hudson, a white Republican House candidate in Florida, saying: "I grew up in Alabama, and I understand . . . that blacks are not the greatest swimmers or may not even know how to swim." (He lost.) Was it subterfuge by a rival candidate?