Scripted Reality Infects the Internet

We technophiles have long said that it’s only a matter of time before the Internet joins (or surpasses) television as a medium for delivering content to audiences on a large scale. With the advent of broadband across the country, we’re starting to see that happen.

As before, the low cost-of-entry means that it’s not just the media barons who can get their message out to the people, but anyone with the time and inclination (and, to be honest, at least a modicum of technical ability) can do so as well. Blogging was a prime example in the print-based arena — no longer was the mass-distribution of the written word limited to publishing houses, but available to anyone with an Internet connection. Podcasting followed, parallelling radio. And now, it looks like vlogging is where it’s at. Sure, the videophiles like me will rail against the quality concessions that still have to be made, but video production (and distribution) for the masses over the ’net has finally arrived.

The biggest mass video “distributor” on the ’net right now is unquestionably YouTube. Sure, MySpace has started incorporating video functionality (Tohubohu, in case you were wondering, has both a MySpace site and a YouTube channel). And right now, one of the most popular “channels” on YouTube (to which Pam drew my attention) is that of someone called “lonelygirl15.”

Without going into too much detail, the videos purport to be the video blog of a sweet-natured sixteen-year-old girl named Bree, who — despite having lived around the globe and being extremely smart — lives a woefully sheltered life thanks to her too-strict religious parents. She is home-schooled and appears to have few social outlets other than her church camp. Her (apparently) only friend is an eighteen-year-old boy named Daniel, who has helped her set up her vlog and secretly (or not-so-secretly) pines for her.

Oh, and she’s cute, too.

(For more information, you can do a quick Google search — though don’t bother checking Wikipedia, where the page has been rather suspiciously deleted, despite some at-times heated debate.)

Sound believable? Well, possible, maybe; my description doesn’t really do it justice. But watch the videos (along with those that Daniel posts in response to Bree’s), and you’ll see a cute little tale unfold, complete with family dramatics, young love slowly developing (or being crushed), and a couple of kids who really care about each other.

There’s just one ever-so-small problem: The whole thing’s a sham.

On traditional television, of course, the fact that it’s all fictional wouldn’t be a concern. In fact, it would pretty much be expected. But the ’net — at least historically — functions a little differently. These videos fully purport to be reality, or at least as much reality as any blogger (of vlogger) presents to the world. The producers of this little soap opera make no admission that there’s any subterfuge involved; as far as any casual (and, well, not-too-critical) observer could discern, these actually are the video posts of a teenager just trying to connect with the outside world.

There are a whole slew of dead giveaways, any one of which — taken in isolation — might be explainable. But taken as a whole, they make a conclusion inescapable.
  • The production value is too high for a couple of inexperienced teenagers.
    Certainly a debatable point, but the picture quality is leaps and bounds above your typical webcam. The lighting — though plausibly natural — is rather conveniently set up to side-light our subject very well. The audio capture is near-flawless (something I have trouble with even on our productions). The editing — though far from professional — is certainly more polished than one would expect from a couple of newcomers. And (feel free to question my “guy” credentials for this one; Pam didn’t even notice it) those eyebrows are plucked way too perfectly for a veritable shut-in.

  • The setup is ridiculously perfect.
    We’ve got a beautiful but lonely and innocent (i.e., completely unthreatening) girl whose best friend (her only friend, in fact) is the geeky guy with the tech skills. Sorry, but reality rarely puts forward a scenario so perfectly aligned with the adolescent-male YouTube demographic. Come on, this is every shy geek’s fantasy girlfriend, giving every ’net-obsessed dweeb the idea that he too can end up with the beautiful girl. Sorry, but outside of a John Hughes film, that ain’t gonna happen: This girl is out of your league.*

  • Bree’s back story is a little shaky.
    For a girl supposedly raised in New Zealand and England, her accent is pure American.

  • Beyond the first video, there are no contemporary or interactive references.
    In the first video, Bree mentions other vloggers she’s influenced by. But after that, all of her references are simple “a lot of you are saying...” stuff. And though dozens of vloggers make response videos to her posts, all of hers are either completely original or responses to Daniel (and the same holds true for Daniel’s videos). All of these things could have been shot weeks ago. Sure, she’s got some interactivity via email or on her MySpace page, but anyone can type.

  • The drama is captured far too conveniently.
    We just happen to see all the high points of Bree and Daniel’s little drama unfold — including a big argument that, for some reason, they choose to have in front of the webcam. Daniel voices an objection, of course, but lets the camera run anyway. And then Bree decides to post it (after apparently learning editing — since up until this point, it’s suppodedly Daniel who’s editing the videos). And then the resolution of this little drama — with Daniel delivering his climactic decision not to Bree, but to the Internet at large — is ludicrously pat. You can almost hear the violins swelling.

  • Bree’s parents are curiously absent.
    The most we see is a shot of Bree’s father in the doorway — his head conveniently cut off by the camera angle. Never a name shouted out from downstairs, never an appearance... nothing. Her (very strict) parents are content to let Bree while away the hours on the Internet, completely unsupervised. Oh, and they’re too strict to let Bree and Daniel go hiking together, but perfectly fine with them spending every waking hour in her room with the door closed.
And then there are a couple of “smoking gun” factors, the ones that really drove it home for me:
  • Bree’s already got a fansite — registered a full month before her first video was posted.
    The site’s proprietor claims that he didn’t register the site — Daniel did, as a joke, and happily gave it to him later on, once Bree had become popular. Sure.

  • Bree’s religion is more than it seems.
    Talk about scripted drama. We learn that Bree’s parents are very religious, and very strict, but absolutely nothing else about their religion, which Bree — though not as enthusiastically — does share. She’s home-schooled, and goes to church camp. The natural assumption is that they’re strict Christians... though the word “Jesus” curiously never comes up. And then suddenly, wham. Bree decides to take the camera from its usual position and wander a bit; in the process, we finally see a closeup of the picture on her back wall: The famous (or notorious) occultist Aleister Crowley. Most certainly not something you’d find on a strict Christian’s wall. In fact (at least in Hollywood shorthand), he’s pretty much synonymous with Satan-worship. (No, he wasn’t actually a Satanist, but that’s the common perception.) Suddenly, Bree’s little story has gained a subplot straight out of a screenwriter’s word-processor.
At this point, most of the debate (except for a few die-hard “I want to believe” types) has shifted away from “Is it real or is it fake?” to either “What’s the real story behind it?“ or “Does it even matter that it’s fake?” (Much of that debate can be seen in action here, with an interesting summary and analysis here.) To the first point, I tend to disagree with the popular notion that it’s all some sort of advertising ploy, and that at some point, Bree will start spouting clothing label names or holding her Mountain Dew up close to the camera for all to see (and at least one investigation bears this conclusion out). Rather, I think it’s just some filmmakers experimenting with a new medium, and treating definitions of “reality” as... well, flexible. Kind of like the whole Blair Witch Project campaign. Or so-called “reality television.”

As for the “does it matter” question, I suppose that’s a question that people will have to answer for themselves. For my part, the story’s sure as hell not enough to keep me coming back for more, and the characters are... well, they’re just a couple of kids. I outgrew that kind of drama... mmm, let’s just say a number of years ago. Sure, there’s a bit of a mystery here, but this little viral campaign is no Beast.

Though — speaking of “beasts” — I suppose I will admit to a little curiosity as to the viewers’ reaction once the whole “satanic cult” subplot is finally revealed.

* Okay, so I’m being a bit disingenuous here, as I obviously did end up with the beautiful girl. But in my defense, I wasn’t a “net-obsessed dweeb” — we didn’t have the Internet back then.


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