The girl, the wit, the eyebrows.
One decade ago, a series of mysterious videos appeared on Youtube from the account lonelygirl15. Even in this early, even primeval state of youtube, vlogging and confessional videos were popular. And a girl talking into the camera about her personal life was not very unusual… but “unusual” is exactly what this account was. Something was… off.
Slowly, incrementally, the girl, who called herself Bree, gave away details of her life. Super strict parents, strange camps with stranger rituals, and a bizarre, archaic religion that she and her parents follow. It doesn’t take long for a viewer to understand what’s really going on.
Lonelygirl15 was in a cult.
But this was not a teen in danger searching for help, nor a hoax. It was Youtube’s first serialized, scripted series.
Lonelygirl15 was the brainchild of Miles Beckett. Bree was played by an actress named Jessica Lee Rose. Yousef Abu-Taleb played the supporting role of Daniel. It ran for three years, becoming a viral hit as well as pioneering a new medium of television. Yes, almost a decade before House of Cards, a small group of teens and twentysomethings, armed with nothing more than a video camera and willpower, forged a serialized drama through the medium of the internet. And once a few months passed and enough videos went up, someone just finding out about the channel could “binge” it, long before binge watching was a thing, as the videos are usually just a minute or two.
Is it possible that without Lonelygirl15 we wouldn’t have House of Cards?
Eh, House of Cards probably does happen. But let’s not undersell the importance of the Youtube’s first web show. Because its success allowed shows like Felicia Day’s The Guild and Hank Green’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to take form. In the introduction and part II I talked about how Youtube used to be something of a writer’s paradise. That paradise was built from the foundation built by Lonelygirl15.
So, what was that foundation?
The channel began simply by posting video replies to other early Youtube stars, and developed a connection with the community which at the time, was much smaller and much closer. Put another way, if Youtube today is a metropolis, back in 2006 it was more of a village. The sense of camaraderie and community isn’t simply a matter of looking back through rose-tinted glasses. It was real. Channels needed that communication to survive and rack up views. And so, when lonelygirl15 popped up posting strange video replies, it sparked some curiosity.
They also took advantage of the site’s home page.
Behind the scenes, Beckett was obsessing over how YouTube worked. How did a video get on the most viewed section? How did it climb the charts? When they realised YouTube counted every single comment including the ones you made yourself, they would make it their mission to reply to every single one – so they appeared in the most commented section constantly, boosting their profile, adding more views.
The Guardian, June 16, 2016
Sure, they had to do a little finagling. But is it really a bad thing to encourage interactions with fans? Back in Part 2 I explained how Youtube originally felt much more like a social media platform than it does now. And that social media touch allowed Beckett’s show to expand and find an audience much bigger than he ever expected. The system rewarded community. The more they interacted with other Youtubers, the more Youtube promoted the show. They even got popular enough to land a product placement deal, becoming the first people to make money off original Youtube content. And literally all they had was an idea, a camera, and the willpower to do it.
And they weren’t alone. Take the case of geriatric1927, an elderly man named Peter Oakley, who began vlogging around the same time “Bree” did. Simply talking into a camera about his own interesting life and being a sweet man intent on interacting with the Youtube community was enough to land him the title of most subscribed channel on the site, with 30,000 people tuning in.
Just try and imagine someone doing what lonelygirl15 or Peter Oakley did now. It’s not possible.
Try and record a video response to the people behind the most popular videos on the Youtube homepage right now. You think Jimmy Fallon is gonna respond? Will James Corden take a break from singing with celebrities to comment on your web show? You could try and make a hundred fake accounts to comment on your own videos and drive up popularity artificially, and still it wouldn’t be enough to compete.
But before the invasion of the late night shows there was a paradise for writers. Youtube is (or was) an experiment in free market enterprise. When everyone on Youtube were upstarts on an even playing level, it fashioned this paradise. This environment where talented no-names with a plan could create something captivating and reach an audience. Once pre-established names come into the equation, that equality vanishes. No one cares about Jim and Jane Nobody when their favorite late night host is on the front page, or if Youtube promotes a trailer from a big movie company instead of something original from a content creator. Let’s face it, Marvel will always make Youtube more ad revenue than Jane Nobody. (Side note: Think about this next time you watch a trailer on youtube with an ad that airs before it. You’re watching an advertisement before watching another advertisement.)
It seems there are only two ways for original content creators of Youtube to survive nowadays. They can either give in to the commercialization of Youtube and start displaying ads and paying for promotions and posting to Youtube Red (more on that in a future installment) or, if they’re a pre-established Youtube name like the Green brothers or Felicia Day, they can cling to that sense of community that made Lonelygirl15 great. These channels, vlogbrothers, crashcourse, cgpgrey, geek and sundry, (and others) are like the PBS of the modern Youtube. No longer helped out by the algorithms Miles Beckett was able to utilize to promote Lonelygirl15 from scratch, Youtubers that have eeked out a loyal community can survive on the generosity of their fans. But it shouldn’t have to be so hard.
And what if you’re a content creator who’s got the talent and the willpower, but not the community? What if the evolution of Youtube left you behind? Take the case of Nanalew, a talented film student from Vancouver. You may have seen her parody video of AWOLNATION’s “Sail.”
That 225 million view count is impressive. And her videos only get better production-wise as the channel continues. So you would think, in a fair, ideal world of writer paradises, that her recent videos will amount views much higher, maybe 300 or 400 or 5-
Yeah, you know where this is going. Her videos tend to net around 50,000 views a pop now, despite her clearly getting better at writing, directing, and acting. She even is at the point where she can put out short films of ~10 minutes. But without a one-of-a-kind community like the kind the Green brothers have developed, she doesn’t have much to support her. Talent and willpower is not enough anymore for content creators. The paradise is gone. She talks about becoming “a Youtbe has-been” in a surprisingly candid (and funny) video here:
Not to say original content on Youtube is dead. It’s just so much harder to succeed. You need to have one of: name recognition, community support, or just plain good luck. It’s incredibly hard to start up an original idea from scratch anymore on the site, and starting up original ideas and having that idea of yours reach an audience is what made the place a paradise for content creators to begin with. It was an alternate platform for the dreamers, for the people with an idea to weird or too small for traditional outlets. And it used to promote community and foster creativity. But those days are gone. Lonelygirl15 is dead…
…or is it?