Lonelygirl15, Downloaded Until There Was Nothing Left

By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007; 2:55 AM

Rare are the teenagers who, on occasion, have not declared themselves the loneliest in the world.

And so it was with Lonelygirl15, also known as Bree, who, in two- and three-minute video blogs, introduced herself to the world, told of her struggles with her parents and her best and only friend, Daniel, whose love for Bree was unrequited.

Now, a year later, she's gone, her legacy suggesting the power of empathy and entertainment (as well as product placement) in the online world. Her digital life was proof that Internet audiences hunger for more than unscripted animal tricks, comedy shorts and music videos. It was through Lonelygirl15, in part, that we explored the question: What's "real" on the Web and does it even matter to those watching?

Lonelygirl15's videos became a YouTube sensation in the summer of 2006 with as many as 1 million views per episode. Whether or not they loved her, the YouTube hordes loved to watch the 16-year-old, to debate whether her videos were good -- and whether she was a real person (she wasn't).

A famous 1993 cartoon in the New Yorker featured a dog at a computer, telling his canine pal, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The creative team behind Lonelygirl15, a trio of 20-somethings in Los Angeles, Miles Beckett, Mesh Flinders and Greg Goodfried, clearly agreed, and hired an actress, Jessica Lee Rose, to tell a mystery on the Internet.

What started as a show about an Everygirl pouring her soul into her Webcam took on the contour of a teen thriller, as Bree joined -- and then fled across the country from -- a religious cult, the Order. But after each action-filled sequence, the characters would regroup and quietly video-blog their emotions to the world. It's as if Buffy, fresh from slaying vampires, went to YouTube to share her insecurities, laughs, joys and tears.

In the season finale, which aired in 12 installments on Friday, Bree's death consisted of a goreless murder in a medical facility, the evil cult collecting her blood for unknown purposes.

The show's second season will get underway this week, but, of course, without Bree. (Rose's portrayal of the character has propelled her to bigger screens; she appeared in the Lindsay Lohan thriller "I Know Who Killed Me" and has a recurring role on the ABC Family series "Greek.")

The discovery that Lonelygirl15 was not an angsty teen but an actual production became an outsize media phenomenon last September. The revelation was trumpeted on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, on "NBC Nightly News" (and in these pages of The Washington Post), and Rose appeared on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Headline writers quipped that Bree was lonely no more. The New York Times declared that the show "appears to be in its final act."

So with the secret out, without the real-life mystery, the numbers of people watching declined overall, but die-hard fans made Lonelygirl15 the most heavily subscribed channel on YouTube (yesterday Lonelygirl15 was No. 2, behind Smosh, two teenage guys' comedy shorts).

As Bree struggled to survive, the show struggled to stay viable, partnering with the video-sharing site Revver, which splits a portion of ad revenue with content providers and inks product placement deals. So Bree munched on Ice Breakers gum and her producers got a check from Hershey's. While battling her cult, Bree's friends enlisted the help of a fictional scientist who worked for Neutrogena (hello, Johnson & Johnson).

For months, Bree's survival was a metaphor for her show's survival -- and the endurance of other serial fictional online entertainment.

The outlook seems bright: MySpaceTV, the social networking site's online video platform, signed a deal for exclusive rights to broadcast the Lonelygirl15 finale 24 hours before other sites. And soon comes KateModern, a Lonelygirl15 spinoff funded by the British social networking site, about another young woman on the run from a cult.

Bree could never escape her loneliness, but this variety of online entertainment has more friends than ever before.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company