Astroturf, Humbugs, and Lonely Girls

Last week, reader Todd asked me what I thought about LonelyGirl15. At the time, I had only a passing awareness of the Lonely Girl phenomenon. Just in time, though, my friend Zephoria posted a very interesting discussion of LonelyGirl15 over at her blog, Apophenia. Here's her explanation of the back-story:

For those who aren't familiar, videos by LonelyGirl15 started appearing on YouTube over the summer. She's supposedly a teenager who is home schooled by religious parents who don't know she's creating videos online. Her friend Daniel helps her with the videos and they often talk back and forth across their videos. It's rather endearing but too good to be true.

As more videos popped up, people started questioning whether this was real or not. Speculation mounted and fake lonelygurls started to appear. People created videos to comment on LonelyGirl15. People flocked to the LonelyGirl15 forum to discuss. Problem is the LonelyGirl15 domain was registered before the videos started appearing. People started tracking down more and more clues, trying to hone in on what it was, who was behind it. Suspicion mounted. In classic fan style, people dove right down and tore apart all of the data. Quite a few thought that this was an ARG, Jane McGonigal style, but she denied involvement on NPR. Others thought it was an advert or some marketing campaign.

The clues people dug up were fascinating. Personally, i was intrigued by "Bree's" MySpace profile. I knew it was fake but i didn't know if the YouTube LonelyGirl15 made the MySpace profile LonelyGurl15. Why did i know it was fake? Well, i read too many teenage MySpaces. Not sure i should give away clues as to how to create a real-looking fake MySpace profile. ::wink::

Then press started covering it. Hands down, The New York Times had the best coverage. I can't help but wonder if the NYTimes knew the truth because they are certainly using the same language: "Hey There, Lonelygirl - One cute teen's online diary is probably a hoax. It's also the birth of a new art form." If so, go Adam for good reporting!

And sure enough, the artists who had created the original Lonelygirl15 videos revealed their identities last week:

With your help we believe we are witnessing the birth of a new art form. Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story-- A story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the internet. A story that is interactive and constantly evolving with the audience.

Right now, the biggest mystery of Lonelygirl15 is "who is she?" We think this is an oversimplification. Lonelygirl15 is a reflection of everyone. She is no more real or fictitious than the portions of our personalities that we choose to show (or hide) when we interact with the people around us. Regardless, there are deeper mysteries buried within the plot, dialogue, and background of the Lonelygirl15 videos, and many of our tireless and dedicated fans have unearthed some of these. There are many more to come....We want you to know that we aren't a big corporation. We are just like you. A few people who love good stories. We hope that you will join us in the continuing story of Lonelygirl15, and help us usher in an era of interactive storytelling where the line between "fan" and "star" has been removed, and dedicated fans like yourselves are paid for their efforts. This is an incredible time for the creator inside all of us.

As my son succinctly put it, "that's pretty bad news for lonelyboy15."

But it may not be news to many of the people who have suspected all along that Lonelygirl15 was a fake, a fraud, a hoax, or some other form of fiction. She was perhaps "fake" the way professional wrestling is fake -- that is a fake we are supposed to see through and enjoy nevertheless

. Prehistory

When I first saw the Lonelygirl15 videos, I was simultaneously reminded of two previous works. On the one hand, I was reminding by the autobiographical pixelvision films produced by teenage filmmaker Sadie Benning which became a cause celebre in the art world in the 1990s: here was a teenage dyke sitting in her bedroom, speaking with extraordinary frankness to a camera that was either handheld or propped up on her desk and which produced grainy and very authentic feeling images. In this case, the "authentic" teen girl turned out to be the daughter of an established avant garde artist who used his connections to the art world to help launch here career.

The second was Rachel's Room, an ongoing series of fictional videos produced by Sony Interactive, a few years ago, which also consisted of a teenage girl sitting in her bedroom, talking to the camera, sprawling on her bed, fighting with her parents, and developing a form of serial fiction which unfolded day by day on the web. In this case, my associate Alex Chisholm and I stood on the set in Hollywood and saw the amount of technical support which went into producing the effect of a normal teen's home videos.

The first was clearly marked as nonfiction, the second represented what might be called an epistolary fiction for the web.

ARGs and Epistolary Fictions

Yet, with Lonelygirl15, there was uncertainty about what we were watching: was it fiction or nonfiction? Was it made by an amateur or a commercial entity? Was it really what it seemed or did it represent a gateway to something else -- the rabbit hole into an ARG?

After all, ARGS do not explicitly mark their fictional status, often mimic real world documents, and thus provide another narrative frame for thinking about the relationship between fiction and reality. A while back, in Technology Review, I made the argument that ARGs (which constitute a modern variant on an older literary practice):

Alternative [sic] reality gaming could be seen as a 21st century equivalent of a much older literary form -- epistolary fiction. Many early novels, including Pamela (1740) Les Liaisons Dangereuse ( 1782 ) or The Sorrows of Young Werther (1815), consisted of fictional letters, journals, diaries, and newspaper accounts, which were presented by their authors with little acknowledgement of their fictional status. The authors often claimed to have found the materials in an old trunk or to have received them anonymously in the mail....The content of earlier epistolary novels turned readers into armchair detectives and amateur psychologists, piecing together the events of the story from multiple, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory, always subjective, accounts. These ARGs take on a more public dimension, exploring conspiracies or mysteries which exploit the expansive potential of the transmedia environment. Though read in private, these early novels became the focus of parlor room discussions as people compared notes about the characters and their situations. ARGS today offer a very similar experience of mutual debate and collaborative interpretation for a society just beginning to experiment with what cybertheorist Pierre Levy calls collective intelligence.


But, ARGs don't just blur fact and fiction. ARGS invite us to do something with the information they give us: we don't just watch; we act. Similarly, as I suggest in Convergence Culture, viewers are increasingly responding to reality television with a problem-solving mentality -- trying to track down what they can from various channels to uncloak what they can before it is broadcast.

This is the nature of art (fictional or nonfictional) in the age of collective intelligence: the work provokes us, incites us into action. Indeed, as an art project, Lonelygirl15 seems designed to encourage our participation. Yet we don't know what we are supposed to do if we do not correctly identify the genre within which the text operates: do we dig deeper into the text in search of clues (as in the case of an ARG) or do we go beyond the text in search of reality (as in the case of reality spoiling)? In this case, the public's uncertainty about the status of these images made figuring out the source of these messages the central task. The mystery overwhelmed the content -- perhaps more than the art students anticipated and forced them to out themselves so that we might hopefully engage with their work on another level.

As Apophenia writes:

They are telling their story, truth or fiction. Of course, this makes many people very uncomfortable. They want blogs and YouTube and MySpace to be Real with a capital R. Or they want it to be complete play. Yet, what's happening is both and neither. People are certainly playing but even those who are creating "reality" are still engaged in an act of performance. They are writing themselves into being for others to interpret and the digital bodies that emerge often confound those who are doing the interpretation. In many ways, this reminds me of the Fakester drama during the height of Friendster. As one of the instigators behind the Fakester manifesto explained, "none of this is real."

Something of the uncertainty that the Lonelygirl15 phenomenon has provoked can be seen by looking behind the scenes at Wikipedia where a heated debate has broken out about whether there should be a post about the phenomenon and what would constitute verifiable information on the topic. The blurry boundaries between fact and fiction here seem to have thrown the categories and logics by which Wikipedia works into crisis.

We'll Always Have Paris

In this regard, I am struck by the parallels last week between the Lonelygirl15 story and what happened with Paris Hilton and her new album. Here's how MTV news described the story:

British graffiti artist Banksy has placed 500 doctored copies of the heiress' debut CD in 48 U.K. record stores, replacing Hilton's album with 40 minutes of remixes and altering the cover to advertise titles including "Why Am I Famous?" and "What Am I For?," according to BBC News. The guerrilla artist also changed pictures of Hilton on the CD sleeve to show her topless and with a dog's head, but kept the original barcode intact -- which means that some may buy the LP thinking it is the real thing. A representative for record chain HMV told BBC News that it has recovered seven altered copies from stores but no customers have returned a tampered version of the disc. The altered copies also include a Hilton remix CD credited to "DM," which Danger Mouse's management confirmed is him. "It's hard to improve on perfection, but we had to try," the Gnarls Barkley mastermind said in a statement. Danger Mouse and Banksy are believed to have met while shopping for costumes in SoHo, New York. ...

So, in order to comment on the fakeness of Hilton's celebrity, someone created fake versions of her album and smuggled them back in the store. Back in the day, this would have been the work of amateur culture jammers, like the notorious Barbie Liberation Army, but now this is -- guess what -- an art project involving, among others, Danger Mouse, himself a star with a cult following for his bold mash-ups of other people's music. And as we speak, the fake Paris Hilton albums are going for ever larger sums on Ebay. So, how do we understand the nature of this particular recording: is it culture jamming or commodificiation? Is it art or self-promotion? Is it a fake Paris Hilton cd or a Danger Mouse/Banksy "original"? And what are we supposed to do with this knowledge? What forms of participation does it require from us?

Humbugs and Network Culture

Before we dismiss this all as "postmodern", keep in mind that the epistolary novels discussed earlier also played with our uncertainty about the line between reality and fiction within a new medium (the printed book) whose conventions had not yet been firmly established. And keep in mind the elaborate play between reality and fiction set in motion in the 19th century, which writer Neil Harris has described as the golden age of the "humbug." Harris writes about the proliferation of fake "mermaids" and stone giants in the 19th century at a time when knowledge was in flux, science was at least partially amateur and participatory, new discoveries (both anthropological and technological) were being made every day, and people wanted to acquire new skills at discernment to keep up with the pace of cultural churn. In other words, there seems to be a fascination with blurry categories at moments of media in transition -- it is one of the ways we try to apply evolving skills in a context where the categories that organize our culture are in flux.

Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks describes network culture in terms of the intermingling between commercial, nonprofit, governmental, educational, and amateur modes of cultural production. We might extend his concept of a network culture to describe not only one where these forms co-exist through the same media platform but also one where the lines between them start to blur, where it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where one ends and the other starts. Indeed, we are once again in an era where the "humbug" takes on new significance -- as we learn to apply our skills, collectively and individually, to try to reassert order in the chaos which is created at a site like You-Tube where amateur produced and appropriated commercial product co-exist often in unmarked forms.


To be sure, artists are not the only ones who are exploiting our uncertainty about the source and status of content within this new networked culture. Commercial interests and political interests are also increasingly acting in unscrupulous ways -- inserting fake grassroots media content into YouTube and other such sites in hopes that it can be passed off as authentic bottom-up material. There's even a word for this fake grassroots culture -- Astroturf. Here's a classic example of Astroturf. Earlier this summer, The Wall Street Journal outted a YouTube video spoofing Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth not as the product of an amateur but rather as the work of a Washington lobby group eager to discredit the former vice president:

The maker of the Gore-baiting spoof is credited as Toutsmith, a 29-year-old from Beverly Hills, California. The video appears to have been produced on a home computer, with a budget of pennies. But an investigation by The Wall Street Journal has discovered that Toutsmith is actually operating from Washington, on a computer registered to a PR company called DCI Group. The company's clients happen to include the multinational oil company ExxonMobil. If the video was produced by DCI Group, it would not be the PR company's first attempt to produce its own content. The company operates a news and opinion website called Tech Central Station, which is sponsored by companies including Exxon, General Motors and McDonald's. The website takes a highly skeptical view of climate change, and is openly anti-Gore.

All of this brings me back to the debate which has been brewing here around my post about the efforts to save Stargate. One side has been asserting that the campaign I described as grassroots activism may be having closer ties to the production company, MGM, than has been acknowledged, a charge that the group leaders deny. And others are writing to suggest that it really doesn't matter since the goal is for fans and producers to work together to find a solution which allows them to keep a favorite television show in production. I have been trying not to take sides here. I don't know where the truth lies. But I am really fascinated by the controversy itself as an illustration of the increased blurring of distinctions between media producers and consumers.

As I suggest in Convergence Culture, sometimes these groups are making common cause facilitated by the shared communication context provided by the web. They are speaking to each other through multiple channels -- public and private, open and closed, commercial and grassroots -- and working together on an ad-hoc basis. Other times, the groups are steadfastly opposed to each other, pursuing their own interests in their own ways. And sometimes, nobody is certain what is going on. Are we working together or are we being exploited? Could both be going on at the same time? Or could our suspicion of hidden motives get in the way of pursuing common interests, leaving us always looking for conspiracies where none exists?

Chaos or Churn?

Earlier, I shifted between calling this chaos (a negative term no matter how you cut it) and churn (a more positive spin). Writers like Virginia Postrel (The Future and Its Discontents) and Grant McCracken (Plentitude) use the term, churn, to describe a culture of rapid turnover and constant change, describing this uncertainty and unpredictability as generative. Churn encourages the experimentation and innovation at the very heart of the creative process. Clearly, we should be hunting out Astroturf which is simply a new form of spam but we should also be enjoying the creative spark which drives something like Lonelygirl15 or Danger Mouse. We should, like the 19th century patrons of P.T. Barnum, take pleasure in trying to see through a good humbug. We should be going into all of this with our eyes wide open but we should also be prepared to accept impure motives and hybrid works that emerge at the nexus between different levels of cultural production.

Thanks to danah boyd, Zhan Li, and Anna Pauline Van Someren for information included in this post.