Let’s make-believe (Part II)

This is the continuation of the previous blog post.

Lonelygirl15 started very similar to an ARG: it never admitted that it was a show. Everything on the Internet that was associated to primary actress Jessica Lee Rose was deleted (included her MySpace account), Rose was not allowed to even leave her apartment for days lest someone recognized her. As a matter of fact, whether or not the videos were real vlogs was the most important puzzle that the audience had to solve within the next subsequent three months after the show began. Other actors/actresses were introduced “as if” they were a part of the audience of Bree’s videos. Considering this, it is not surprising that LG15 was initially considered to be an ARG by its fans… excect that the creators of the show had no idea about what an ARG was. Similar to the way in which Orson Welles used the new technology of radio to grab an audience for his “War of the Worlds,” the three creators (Miles Beckett, who was a doctor; Mesh Flinders, a struggling film-maker; and Greg Goodfried, a practicing attorney) wanted to explore the narrative possibilities of Internet technologies while creating a community-based show that would elicit collaborative storytelling.

The efforts of the LG15 team to hide and prolong the mystery of the show ultimately failed due to the witch-hunt style investigation subsequently conducted by its fans. As early as the second or third video, Goodfried explains, fans commented that the videos were “fake” and implied that Bree was an “actress.” One fan who went by the handle Mike discovered that the domain name of the phony fan site was registered prior to the first video posted on YouTube, thereby challenging the veracity of the video diaries. Claiming that this whole venture was a put on, probably to promote some upcoming movie or television show, Mike declared that “[e]ven this website is a fake,” and questioned the authenticity of the fan site: “If this site truly was a ‘Tribute to Lonelygirl15’ and a true fansite, then tell me, why was the domain registered over a month *before* the first lonelygirl15 video was posted on YouTube? I think this site belongs to whoever is behind this whole promotion.” Mr. Grieves further noted that the site was registered on the same day as her MySpace page and Yahoo! e-mail address was created (on March 12). But when Grant Steinfeld (who was known as Bukanator in the LG15 forums) grew tired of running the site and dropped out of the project, fans set up their own site devoted to LG15, which soon attracted more than a thousand members. In August 2006 another fan discovered and posted the trademark application by Goodfried, which seemed to indicate that these videos were at least in part a commercial venture. Then, in September 2006, three tech-savvy fans, working together, set up a string on the e-mail address that was being used by “Bree”; the operation netted them the Internet address of a computer at Creative Artists Agency, the Beverly Hills talent agency where the team was being represented. Early September 2006 the creators of the show had no choice but to reveal the fictional status of the videos, but declined to reveal the identity of Bree. On September 12, 2006, Matt Foremski from Silicon Valley Watcher, while searching Google’s cache of online sites, found the actress’ old version of her MySpace page, which had been deleted on account of LG15 and identified her as Jessica Lee Rose.

Although it was long suspected, the “confirmed” fictional status of Bree’s blogs elicited much outrage among some of its fans. While some were ready to accept it for what it is—mere entertainment (and a good one at that)—others felt cheated and betrayed by Bree because they took her plight for real and offered their heart-felt advice to whom they thought to be a young girl in distress. Comments accusing her as a “fake” lasted for months and some fans even posted their own videos on YouTube expressing their anger and disappointment at being treated like idiots.

BlackArrowTera, for example, posts her own video expressing her outrage and notes that there are fans of these vlogs who are trying to be like this girl: “I’m gonna think she’s real. I’m gonna say she’s real. And, I am gonna believe that because… How could someone… how could someone make that up?  How could someone make up a girl who worships Satan??? I mean, this is kinda just something wrong. This is insulting to people. I will keep watching Lonelygirl because I think it is an interesting developing story and I wanna see somehow, maybe they mess up… So to the creators, your videos are inspiring to people… but why can’t Bree come up… I mean Jessica Rose, I’m sorry… Why can’t Jessica come out, sit in front of her little camera and say, this is not real, you guys shouldn’t think this is real, and, if you do think it is real, do not… cause people I… I’ve already met some people who are trying to base themselves off this girl that she’s not even real. She’s not even real and she’s trying to get people to be…her.”

As late as 67th or even the 82nd video, some viewers (possibly those who have not been following the series as carefully as others) had no idea that Bree was not real. Sensing that this was a bit “screwed up,” byoung tells others that he “went to the california state police earlier today. They were totally unhelpful and acted like ther wasn’t anything they could do until a serious crime was committed. crime prevention my butt. and they kind of made fun of me. funny thing was, i made them let me talk to their commissioner, and he was wearing a ring that looked like one of those letters bree had from that weird alphabet.”

Even the discussions in academic circles expressed disappointment of “being had.” Miles, a commenter on danah boyd’s blog, apophenia, contends “I am glad that there is a new art form being born, but there is an element of deception here, that [I] find unforgivable. Fool [m]e once, shame on you. I would rather say, [f]ool me once and you’ll never make any money from your film making. I think it would be really hard for Jessica Rose to now try to make her way into a real acting career, because her start was in a fake career. It’s not a respectful way to become an actor. Which I believe is a matter of craft more than making the temporary splash.”

This initial fan reaction to being duped is actually symptomatic of a yet deeper concern about the platform of YouTube or, more broadly, the Internet in general: developing the media literacy necessary to critically evaluate content presented to us through emerging media platforms. As surprising as this may seem to us today, the extreme reaction to LG15 suggests that YouTube users mostly (albeit implicitly) considered what is being posted on YouTube as “real.” So in a sense, with LG15 YouTube users developed a critical perspective towards the platform that they may not  already have prior to the. The video posted by thepoesm, “Authenticity on the Tube,” problematizes this concern by gathering some of the fan and media responses to LG15 and the assumptions we have about YouTube while raising interesting questions about authenticity on the Internet. For some, authenticity is so crucial to YouTube that a fan declares: “Me, I think they should be punished, they should be suspended, the producers of Lonelygirl should be thrown out of YouTube, at least suspended for at least a year.” In one of the television interviews with Miles Beckett, the interviewer rationalizes the fan reaction by claiming that the “[v]ideos on YouTube are perceived as being, sort of the real deal, unless they are identified as an ad specifically.” Another irate fan confirms what the interviewer asserts and insists that “YouTube is not for fake stuff. It’s for real stuff. If it’s not for real, you should come out and let everybody know.” Yet another fan demands that we should“[g]et rid of the fakes, get rid of the liars.” Noting that “we are all producers,” “Authenticity on the Tube” goes on to show other video bloggers who emerged as a result of YouTube and raises valid questions about one’s “real” environment, history, and identity. By asking “which you is the real you?” the video suggests that, even in the absence of an elaborate production team, we do not represent our “real” selves on YouTube, that creativity does not always replace reality, and that “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

Sparki, a commenter on danah boyd’s blog, expresses her surprise at people getting upset about LG15 being staged implying that it has something to do with the media literacy that we have developed as a result of Reality Television: “I find it interesting that people are upset that the LG15 thing was staged. Have we become so bent on voyeurism thanks to “Reality Television” that just being presented with fiction ticks us off?” She continues to make the same point as “Authenticity on the Tube” and notes that even the homemade videos have also something staged about them, just like Survivor and any other Reality Television programs.

No doubt, these types of reactions happen in ARGs as well, but less so… As Jane McGonigal explains, players take pains to maintain the illusion. The reaction that comes up in ARGs mostly comes from outsiders who do are not in on the game and who don’t actively participate in the game. So they, too, see a video of a hopeless boyfriend seeking help for her lost girlfriend… and they take it seriously. In other words, they are not in the “magic circle” a concept that Johan Huizinga formulated. In Homo Ludens, claiming that play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration, Huizinga contends that play creates temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart, and all play has its rules that are binding and allow no doubt (10-11). These temporary worlds constitute what Huizinga refers to as the magic circle. While Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman explain in “This is not a game: play in cultural environments,” that inside the magic circle special meanings accrue and a new reality is created defined by the rules of the game, they are quick to note that some games work at erasing the boundaries of the circle so that space of play becomes indistinguishable from ordinary life (16). Accordingly, McGonigal defines these types of games as pervasive games and they are primarily mixed reality games that use mobile, ubiquitous and embedded technologies that create virtual playing fields in everyday spaces. ARGs according to her, belong to a subset of these games called immersive games because denying its game status these games take place in the player’s world not in a separate place. Accordingly, Dave Szulborski, one of the important figures in the field who (unfortunately) passed away recently, explains that ARGs don’t attempt to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game, but that a successful ARG immerses the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player. The Alternate Reality Game does not really want the player to think of the game world as an alternate reality at all, but that the ultimate goal is to have the player believe that the events take place and characters exist in her world, not in an alternate reality at all, thereby effectively erasing the magic circle (31). Given the erasure of the magic circle, it is not surprising that those who wander inside it take things for “real.” Perhaps the biggest difference LG15 and ARGs is that there was no magic circle created to begin with. The creators never envisioned the show to be a game, their fans did. In a sense, fans created a magic circle around the show that they perceived to be real. However, even in ARGs there are rules of conduct: Puppet masters, for example, can’t act as characters and post on unfiction forums which are considered to be sacrosanct spaces for players. A strict separation between game designers and players are observed. Failure to do so, results in getting banned from the forums. For instance, earlier this year one puppet master befriended several members of the community in character. The result was an outrage equally as dramatic as the one that erupted in LG15. My answer is what I tell my students who question whether or not Lolita was a real story: “Does it really matter?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *