There are thousands of people who post video diaries on YouTube, and, by all rights, Lonelygirl15 should be just as annoying as the rest of them. Even more so, actually, since in all likelihood, Lonelygirl15 is a fake. She’s a suspiciously photogenic teen who films first-person confessionals in her bedroom, detailing the dramas of her so-called life. Most of them revolve around her study-buddy Daniel, who secretly (okay, not so secretly—is anything a secret in the YouTube world?) has a crush on her. This is all supposedly done without the knowledge of her religious, homeschooling parents. From her first video, posted June 16, she’s doled out new chapters in two-minute chunks, each with an alluring title such as “Boy Problems,” “Dad ‘Talks’ to Daniel,” and “What Did Daniel and Dad Talk About?” And lots of viewers are caught up in her micro-soap; her videos have totaled almost 2 million views, her “channel” is the fourth most popular on YouTube, and the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan recently lobbied for her to get her own TV show.
Along the way, people have started questioning whether she even exists, and for good reason: She’s just a little too charming, her videos a little too well edited, and her story a little too neatly laid out. As such, her saga’s taken on the brimstone whiff of viral marketing. Some skeptical YouTubers are posting short films dedicated to debunking her, while others wave a smoking gun: The domain name for her fan site was registered a month before her first video went up.
Ironically, her most prominent critic—a YouTuber named Gohepcat, a film-geek hipster in mirrored sunglasses and a cowboy hat—has become a mini–YouTube star in his own right. And because anyone on YouTube can post responses or theories about Lonelygirl (and plenty have), her story now has its own metastasizing, David Lynch–worthy cast: Not just Lonelygirl, Daniel, and their monkey puppet (don’t ask), but the Javert-like Mirrored Cowboy; her defender, Nerd With the Headset; a nemesis called Lazydork; and Richard Feynman. (Yes, Richard Feynman, the famous physicist. He doesn’t appear personally—it’s a long story.)
But wait a minute—what if the Mirrored Cowboy is in on it, too? After all, networks routinely spray the Internet with fake reality-show spoilers to throw intrepid fans off the scent. Wouldn’t this be the ultimate viral-marketing technique—to create not only the cute-girl phenomenon but the she’s-a-fake controversy as well? And what about the other characters? Et tu, Headset Nerd?
Of course, not everyone commenting on Lonelygirl can be part of the hoax (if it is a hoax). But they’re all, in their own way, now part of her story.
And presto: Just like that, Lonelygirl’s tale goes from Web-based melodrama or viral-marketing trickery toward something like a brand-new art form. It’s the birth of WikiTV: a television show created by a broad community of participants and built not of sequential, hour-long episodes, but of two-minute interconnected parcels. The story line is both linear (will Daniel get the girl?) and expansive (enter the Mirrored Cowboy!), and anyone can join in. I, for example, could don a tuxedo and eye patch, and post a video claiming that the Cowboy’s a double agent. Then someone could post a video refuting me, now known as the Dapper Pirate.
Which means that, of all the possible outcomes to the Lonelygirl story, the one in which she actually turns out to be just some cute teen with preternatural editing skills will be the least interesting of all. The second-least-interesting outcome—and the one I dread, and half-expect—is that once her page views reach critical mass, she’ll start popping open the Mountain Dews and talking about how deliciously refreshing they are.
The best scenario is that she’s a sleeper agent in the employ of MTV, or VH1, or some as-yet-unidentified entity, and that others will follow her fictional lead. Imagine how much fun J. J. Abrams of Lost could have with a YouTube-based conspiracy story. Or forget that—imagine what fun you could have with a camera, a computer, and a catchy idea. Of course, as a necessary side effect, YouTube will be flooded with crap. (Or even more flooded with crap.) But the weak story lines will wither and the smartly crafted ones will blossom, just as Lonelygirl’s have. And 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. If so, we might look back at Lonelygirl15 as Moses with a monkey puppet.