The summer's best TV show wasn't on TV, and this year's most compelling pop-culture guessing game didn't come courtesy of Lost.
Meet YouTube's lonelygirl15, also known as Bree, and her best (and only) pal, the schlumpy Daniel. The two have been starring in videos posted to YouTube since mid-June. But already lonelygirl15's videos have each been watched hundreds of thousands of times. Her YouTube "channel" is the second most subscribed to of all time, and each video elicits thousands of viewer comments. Bree and Daniel are proof that a secret-handshake-styled series of short videos can be a bona fide hit.
As of late August, Bree's and Daniel's videos run a mere 45 minutes when laid end to end. They are earnest, goofy, chaste (Daniel's crush is thus far unrequited), narrated in tight close-up, and largely set in Bree's bedroom. They focus on time-honored teen themes: parental conflicts, social isolation, boy and girl troubles. They are, as the stats suggest, hideously addictive. There are at least two fan sites, and a casual blog search reveals references to lonelygirl15 in six languages, including Russian.
ALAS, THE BOOKISH AND CUTE BREE is not real. Or at least not what she purports to be, which is a 16-year-old homeschooled daughter of strict parents who are intensely involved with a never-identified religion. A hot and damn-near obsessive debate about all this is playing out in video responses posted to YouTube, in the comment sections of Bree's and Daniel's videos, and on countless blogs.
Early chatter suggested a few theories: The videos were a corporation's viral marketing campaign; a teaser for an unknown major entertainment property; or something dreamed up by an obscure Christian sect, occultists, or Scientologists. (Spending time with the online debate over lonelygirl15 gets grassy-knoll very quickly.) It is a measure of the characters' appeal and the strength of this behind-the-curtain-of-teen-angst narrative that even one of their earlier debunkers now thinks the saga may be real. "If this is marketing, they are [expletive] brilliant," says Stephen Hill, who, as YouTube user gohepcat, video-blogged his suspicions of lonelygirl15's sharp lighting and seamless dialogue. "I've never seen anything go on for weeks without people being able to pull it apart."
At least, I think the guy I phoned was gohepcat. He sounded like the guy on those videos and denied being in on any fakery. But you never know with these things, so you're drawn into conjectures and clue-searches which make the videos that much more interesting. (Ask any Beatles fan who spun records backward seeking clues that Paul was dead.) So I assume that Stephen is real.
As for lonelygirl15, sadly, no way. Based on comments from media and talent agency executives, the videos appear to be produced by a small coterie of creative types. They have had discussions with at least one major media company. Agents are pursuing them as well. (They should be aware that in real life Bree's name is not Bree.) Repeated messages sent to Daniel's and Bree's YouTube addresses yielded one brief e-mail, signed Bree, which politely stated: "I have decided not to do any interviews." The name on the e-mail header, though, was Jane Jones, which -- blogger alert! -- could be a clue, were the name not so close to Jane Doe.
None of this, by the way, affects the genius-in-miniature of the ongoing lonelygirl15 saga, or its triumph as a new form. The longest video is but 3:29, or the length of a pop song. As lyrics of pop songs are avidly deconstructed, so are all aspects of Daniel's and Bree's friendship and every bit of d?cor in Bree's room. The native teen awkwardness portrayed in the videos is exacerbated, in very 21st century fashion, by the two airing their sides of arguments to YouTube viewers before ever calling or speaking with each other. At one point Bree sighs: "I guess this whole putting personal videos up on the Internet thing wasn't such a good idea." Bree, or whatever your name is and whatever your affiliation may be: You're wrong. Don't stop. No soap opera was ever this good.
For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia
By Jon Fine