10 years on: How YouTube’s Lonelygirl15 help invent the web series
Ivan Radford | On 18, Jun 2016
Say the words “Lonelygirl15” to someone these days and you’ll likely be met with faint recognition. “Oh yeah, that YouTube hoax”, they might say. “How long ago was that?” The answer is 10 years ago.
16th June 2006. That was when Lonelygirl15 posted her first video on YouTube – a seemingly mundane vlog like any other that we see all the time. Bree was bored, she spent all her time on the computer, she told anyone who watched. And people did watch: this was at the point when YouTube was really starting to grow, with her videos racking up 50,000 views within a week. By the time Independence Day rolled around, she got that many hits with “My Parents Suck” in a few hours, before hitting the half a million mark 7 days later.
But Lonelygirl15 wasn’t a real girl: she was a hoax. The more popular she became, the more people began to search for her in real life. Fans, forum users, journalists. The hunt for Bree was on. Family members of actress Jessica Lee Rose were sentenced to silence. Her private social media presence was hidden or set to private. But the truth still came out.
The reaction? People kept watching anyway.
By that time, the scripted story had started to sow the seeds for its larger narrative, introducing best friend Daniel (Yousef Abu-Taleb), her parent’s strange religion and a sinister organisation, The Order, that wanted her blood.
The views kept climbing. The people behind it realised they were onto something.
“Far more people were following her on YouTube and interacting with her on YouTube than would be interested if we went to direct a film and get it into Sundance,” co-creator Mesh Flinders told The Guardian.
From there, it continued to run for several years – and one of YouTube’s first major web series was born.
The result was a landmark in modern media, setting a template for others to follow, from product placement to fund productions to cross-posting on other platforms, such as MySpace. A decade later and web series are everywhere, with creators making satirical comedies on Instagram, horror movies on Snapchat. Drug-dealing drama High Maintenance famously jumped from Vimeo to HBO in 2015. YouTubers are making feature films, Viners are bagging corporate deals. Web series, online creators and vloggers have never been more prolific, more varied or more exciting.
“It was the number one channel on YouTube from subscribers and views, for six months to a year, around when YouTube was bought by Google. We were meeting with every single studio and network in town. Our first advertiser was Hershey’s…Neutrogena was our first six-figure sponsor,” Flinders’ co-creator Miles Beckett told New Zealand’s Spy.
Would it have happened without Lonelygirl15? Without a doubt: the world of entertainment is constantly evolving with technology and new audiences. But Lonelygirl15 was an inspirational catalyst for many – and the channel is still getting new subscribers (it’s now on 156,000), despite the fact that its last video was back in 2009. Until now.
On 15th June 2016, the channel had 395 videos. On 16th June, that rose to 396.
Why? Ask Jenni Powell, who was one of the fans of the show when it first launched. Now, she’s got the rights to the franchise with her company, Discourse Productions, and is bringing it back for a new run to celebrate its birthday.
“I was always aware that the ten-year [anniversary] was a thing that was coming up, and potentially could be an opportunity to re-engage old fans and bring lonelygirl to a new generation,” Powell told Forbes. “The opportunity to come back into a story world that made me fall in love with what I do now, ten years later, is just, on a personal level, so fulfilling.”
And so Rose is back on board, reprising her role as Bree in a cryptic message.
“Something tells me you’ll forgive me for breaking in here. But hey, campsite rules, right?” reads the video’s description. “Did you think that because they were quiet this was over? Isn’t that when you’re supposed to worry, when the guys in suits and symbols disappear all at once? They didn’t go anywhere, kids. You did. The world doesn’t just freeze when you close your eyes.
“I know, you’ve got a lot of questions. Questions deserve answers. It’s the only thing that satisfies them and I have many.”
Sure, Lonelygirl15 may be back, but the world has changed since her debut – after all, we’re now talking about web series sequels.
“If I’m going to stick my neck out, I have to know that it’s worth it,” admits the video’s accompanying text. “That you’re here, that you’re still resisting. That you’re ready to fight and put it all on the line. Maybe then we might see more of each other. And if you do show up, I promise, soon enough, we’ll have plenty to talk about. But for now… this should keep you occupied.”
People seem to be showing up: the video is already on 354,000 views, with only 968 dislikes.
“On YouTube now we wouldn’t get away with this for 30 seconds,” Flinders added to The Guardian. “People would know she’s fake immediately. No one will ever trust anyone on YouTube again at face value.”
He’s right – but people don’t look to YouTube just for sincere confessional vlogs anymore. They look to it for television. Whether the show can make another mark in a highly competitive landscape is anyone’s guess, but that’s a testament to how big a role it’s already played. 10 years on, Lonelygirl15 certainly isn’t lonely anymore.