Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Please feed (but don't fetishize) the participation

I'm feeling a bit squeamish about a lot of the lonelygirl discussion going on this week, in the wake of the previously secret puppet masters' curtain call. As someone who designs participatory experiences, often games with a serial narrative component, I think it's really important that we stop and look at the kind of participation and engagement actually engendered by projects that purport to solicit the collaboration of the audience.

In the LA Times, the producers of the You Tube serial drama describe their goals for engaging the audience:

The intent was to allow fan response posted in the comment section of lonelygirl15's YouTube and MySpace pages to determine the direction of each subsequent episode.As an example of the fans' influence over the story line, what the team calls "collaborative storytelling," they pointed to an episode in which Daniel reveals his romantic feelings to Bree. "In the 'Hiking' video," Beckett said, "where Daniel filmed her, there were a ton of comments saying, 'Daniel likes you. It's obvious that the cameraman was completely in love with you.' We saw the comments and said this is the perfect opportunity to address this."

Okay, fair enough. I'm all for collaborative storytelling. But I don't think it's right to accept this account of the kind of participation that happened during the lonelygirl project at face value. Today and yesterday I spent a lot of time reading through pretty much every single comment left on the lonelygirl videos, the space where the audience was purportedly invited to help decide and direct the course of the narrative. I would encourage anyone else interested in the currently much praised and hyped lonelygirl "community" to do the same. A great hub for doing this is here.

As the statistics on this traffic counter show, each lonelygirl video has roughly 1000-4000 comments, nearly all of them left before the puppet masters were unmasked. And I have to say this: the level of hate, mean-spiritendess, crudeness and often downright misogeny of the majority of them is impossible to ignore.

As we talk about the “new art form” or “participatory culture” aspects of this project, I want to be very careful that we don’t fetishize the participation aspects of this experience that was had by a very few who may have intelligently, passionately and seriously investigated and responded to the texts and the media objects. I want instead to think about the mainstream experience of and participation in this project and the success of the platform provided for engagement.

To give you an idea, here is a sample of comments that I would characterize as representative of at least 33% if not more of comments to the lonelygirl videos:

You are pretty boring. Get a psychologist.

Ok. Why don’t you just keep your personal problems to yourself and stop making a scene

show us your tits

you are really ugly i hope you know that

Your eyebrows are too far apart. But, you’re still pretty.

Fuck you. Welcome to the new world we Don’t Have to Respect what you think. get over it

I hope Daniel rapes you. No hard feelings.


HHHmmmmm,your caucasian,live in a decent to luxurious house, are well taken care of,and it looks like you are one of those spoiled girls that kiss ass to thier daddy.Think you have it rough?Why dont you come live in East Los Angeles,whee you cant go anywhere without being shot at,you fuckin spoiled brat.

Cry me a river bitch, your a teenager, do what your parents say bitch.

(Most discussion in the comments is not about whether lonelygirl is real or not-- they appear to accept the videos at face value, or otherwise not to care whether they are insulting a "real" girl or an actress.)

So: Is this really the birth of a new art form? Is this a kind of social participation that we like or find interesting? I'm all for participatory entertainment. But let's carefully design platforms, vehicles, and contexts for participation that really work to engage audiences, players, makers, collaborators in meaningful ways.

One more point I want to make: I think this question of "is she real or not" and how does the audience feel about being hoaxed or played with is a really important one. Although many, many viewers were openly skeptical or cynical about the verity of lonelygirl's professed identity, from what I can tell, far more took it close enough to real to play along.

Now I've written a lot about, and worked on quite a few, projects that ask players to perform belief in the story and game experiences, but--and here's the key distinction--without presenting actually credible fictons. (Stories set 500 years in the future, for instance, or involving poker rooms full of ghosts). The media itself never clearly said "I'm not real", but the content absolutely had no chance of fooling anyone. So I'll come out and say it: I don't personally like entertainment in the form of credible hoaxes. Not necessarily from a moral position, but rather because I believe that "real or not" distracts from the more important question: How can I meaningfully engage?

I agree that serial drama on You Tube is a great art form (so are traditional ARGs, the more elaborate art form that lonelygirl represents a pared back style of, in my opinion), but the real conversation should be not about the realness, but rather: How do people want to participate in it? Do they want to be the makers of their own videos? To have role-playing style conversations in the comments? Do they want to directly influence the narrative or to just speculate and gossip about it so they can be proven right by what happens next? And most importantly how do we inspire participation that is more than hostile juvenile comments? How do we create a real participatory community around an entertainment property, and what forms of participation are possible... and desirable?


Autumn said...

I heard about this from someone outside the community. My first thought was "creative" but then... I thought, where's the back up, the work, the something that makes it obviously a game?

For me, as a sometimes player, and friend of many ARGer's, I agreed with you. I think it should be clear we're playing a game - I don't like the idea that this "could be real" because that changes the way the player interacts with the game. Don't misunderstand me, the BeeKeepers LOVE (because there is no other word) for Durga/The Sleeping Princess is strong still and I imagine she will always be a very important character in our lives. But everyone knew from the onset she was a character, was able to love her or hate her passionately like we do a character in any book or movie.

Risking making you character a "real" person, where you don't know if it's happening or not in real life... I think that changes the way you think, the way you balance decisions, the way you communicate. If this person is real your effecting a person life, not just a story line and I think, when you get down to it - people care about that.

Jill said...

So I've been thinking about this this evening, and while I agree that the comments you posted are hideous, I'm not convinced that they're typical. Oh yes, it's clearly typical for there to be a number of such posts, but looking at the most recent fifty odd comments to her latest video they're really not bad - most are commenting on the fakeness but htere are only a couple of horrid ones. I think mean comments attract more mean comments and wonder whether you found a rut of extra bad ones? The other YouTube profiles I've surveyed (just in a couple o fhours though, certainly not a systematic survey) don't have many bad comments either, which suggests that perhaps the LonelyGirl15 videos got these hate-comments after going mainstream?

Counting comments and doing content analysis could answer some of our questions - how large a percentage of comments are vicious? How many refer to sexual attributes of the person in the video? For lonelygirl15? On average? For young women posting video blogs? For men? Does it increase with increased popularity? Did lonelygirl15's get worse when she became "famous"? When she was found to be a fake? Is there a correlation between numbers of links from outside YouTube and the nature of the comments? Are vicious commenters productive - do they make videos or just troll the comments?

But all this is counting kind of research and would require statistical analysis and that's not the sort of research I do well... Would be a great project for someone to do though - I'd love to read that essay.

Jane said...

My comment analysis focused heavily on posts made before the puppet masters were revealed. The comments in the past couple of days have been very different in tone from those left during the pre-reveal experience, and I think if we want to explore the participation generated by the core experience itself, we should be looking way back through the middle and early comments as well. The comments I posted here are completely typical of those stages of the experience. So are simple comments like "hang in there it will be okay" and "lol your eyebrows are cute" (unbelieveable number of eyebrow comments!), but even if you want to argue that a lot of the comments were banal and cordial, it is still a far, far, far cry from the level of meaningful engagement being ascribed to the project, in my opinion, by some people looking to laud anything that is remotely participatory.

Basically, with something like this, I would be looking for a more constructive opportunity to engage and participate-- I guess I have found that in ARGs, which give you specific ways to interact with the characters to solve the problems presented by the narrative, in an environment less prone to degenerating into hostile puerile discussion--whether it be through leaving strategic voice mail messags, social engineering, letter writing, puzzle solving, video making, photo taking, and event staging.

Anonymous said...

One of my personal pet peeves with this has been that YouTube has so few *boundaries* for participation. As you pointed out in your analysis of the comments provided by Bree's loving "community," the viewers' participation followed a few trends: First posters (OMGZORS! I #1), "your [sic] a big fakey mcfakeypants", fascination with Bree's eyebrows (I don't understand it, either), a few "you rule!"s, and then the really disturbing suggestions you mentioned in your post along with my personal favorite "just commit suicide." Naturally, this mix of diametrically opposed brains with no direction, filtering, or guidance led to a big pile of 1000 comment flamewars. Pair the adversary nature of the comments with the "real or not real" hoax discussion that was engaged and what I see is mass chaos. That the creators are suggesting YouTube was a burgeoning community influencing the story narrative seems to be to be a naïve, overly positive, assessment of their creation. Something like this is almost a Pandora's Box - you open it expecting a big golden nugget, but unleash the beasts that you can't control. (Perhaps because you had no plan in place to deal with anything but gold. That's another discussion for another time.)

Looking at some of the other forums discussing LG15 (the Alyssa forum gets referenced often, though I have no desire to register to actually SEE it), they seem to have a better handle on the situation, allowing for some more fruitful discussion of the narrative and the questions about the characters it poses. Perhaps those communities are what the creators are basing their assessment on. *crosses fingers*

I wonder whether a more direct engagement between Bree and her audience - for instance, some form of *reward* for the viewers participating fruitfully: a shoutout, a "so Suzie Charmschool asked me..." etc - would have fostered a more positive interactive experience on YouTube, perhaps drowning out the more juvenile and lewd crowd. YouTube is an interesting platform in that the viewers can record their responses to videos, posting them alongside the subject matter - to me, that was an ample opportunity to create a "face to face" community on a strictly web platform, but I'm not sure that was actually created. It would have been interesting for Bree to have *asked* her viewers to participate. The form of the video narrative was free enough to experiment with the engagement of the viewers. Perhaps I missed the point, but to me, it was more of a passive viewing exercise than an opportunity for active participation.

While I continue to ponder wildly on a blog not my own, it is also entirely possible that some of negative poo might have been subdued had there not been the overwhelming question of Bree's place in reality :P (I say some, as I do remember a number ILB "omgzorz this is all fake for microsoft" on Dana's blogspot, despite the irrationality of the fictional situation. There always seems to be SOMEONE out there determined to educate the masses following the dangerous hoax. See also "Who Is Benjamin Stove," which I believe treaded the reality line with some danger, though seemed to ease the threat of its thinly veiled game-iness by providing a controlled community that was able to respond pretty effectively to questions.)

I could also just be a big cynical McPoopypants who has been spoiled by great games.

Anonymous said...

Shakespeare's plays were first performed in front of crowds accustomed to shouting crude comments and causing general disruption if displeased. Gifted writers learned to please both the high and the low; performers learned to roll with the punches. To hope for a 'high minded' audience on such a rough-and-tumble platform as Youtube is a waste of time. The creators clearly read what they wanted, judging their audience while staying within the bounds of decency (how different it would have been if she had shown us her tits!)

On the subject of hoaxes, I get enough uncreative hoaxes in my inbox every day in the form of spam, phishing and kind nigerian diplomats with poor spelling; to be had by a hoax as interesting as this one was a pleasure.

Jill said...

Jane, have you looked at the video comments to the lonelygirl videos? I certainly haven't looked at all of them (there are a lot!) but the ones I've seen do seem to have more of an investment of self and to be less vicious. There are lots of spoofs and parodies of the lonelygirl videos in these responses, and certainly it's not all the kind of engagement we'd like to see in a collaborative narrative, but there's definitely some good engagement too.

The video responses do get a "reward" - they're prominently displayed right after the lonelygirl videos, and so are likely to get lots of clicks - and lots of clicks gets them more viewers, which gets them higher up in the ranking system.

I actually saw one young girl who jeered at the trolls in her comments (there were some pretty nasty comments going on) saying ha, you're just raising my comments score, idiots. So I do think getting up the ranking lists (most discussed, most viewed, most subscribed) on YouTube has value for the players of hte youtube game. It makes your videos more visible too.

Jane said...

I really appreciate all of the excellent comments here-- even when I don't necessarily agree with all of the points raised, it's great to hear them.

Chris, I feel there is a big difference between people being crude and shouting obscenities to characters on a stage during a live play, which is obviously a framed entertainment and not taken for real, and people being shockingly aggressive and hostile to a stranger that by all evidence many took to be real, or at least possibly real. It's not the crudeness I necessarily object too-- your Shakespeare point is well-taken on that front. But the fact that this is what passes for social interaction online, and people's sense of entitlement to be cruel to others, is a problem both in "real" and entertainment social spaces. We shouldn't celebrate that, we should wonder about it and try to channel that energy into something a little less hostile. That's just my personal mission, I understand if not everyone agrees.

And Jill, to your last comment-- indeed, as we were discussing on your blog, the You Tube community has certainly constructed a kind of game around views and ranks. But just because a system can be gamed, does that necessarily make it a game we want to play? I feel instead that anyone aspiring to invent a new, participatory art form should aspire to raise the level of the game beyond personal ego-boosting.

Jill said...

I was interested to find this comment from Jessica Rose, the actor who plays lonelygirl15, in an MTV interview:

Just as the creators had hoped, that vast space has been filled with an emerging community dedicated to lonelygirl15. Rose says she's received copious feedback from across cyberspace.

"I've had so many positive e-mails sent to me. People were concerned that I was going to be getting hate mail, which I haven't," she said. "All of their e-mails are like, 'I'm sorry for all the hate mail that you must be getting.' And I'm like, 'I'm not. There's none.' I've had so many positive and lovely messages, so it's been really nice."

I seem to remember reading research about how we treat each other in emails vs f2f - I think the more perceived distance between us the less humane, polite, empathetical etc we are? Maybe some of that's coming into play here too - especially if the emails she's getting directly are friendly.

I agree with your basic point though, Jane, that there are better ways of doing participatory art.

Sarah Bay-Cheng said...

Is it possible that the lonelygirl15 performance is designed to elicit the kind of responses Jane mentions?

Even in her name, lonelygirl15 invites a kind of openness and abstraction for the audience to shape in whatever way they choose. Her status is simultaneously singular (lonely, alone, isolated) and multiple (1 of 15, or more?) She is not unique, but neither is she connected to clearly-defined groups lacking cultural markers of identity. She is anyone; she is the one.

This openness is further accentuated in the face of the actress, whose facial structure (often a subject of not only comment [eyebrows], but also her own manipulation) and close proximity to the screen make her into a kind of projection surface. The blankness of her look, the emptiness of "plot" in the episodes (for lack of a better word), and her apparent lack of engagement with the outside world (home-schooled, and filmed predominently in a single room) invite a way of looking in which the viewer can manipulate the image into whatever he or she wants to imagine. Compared to other vaguely similar YouTube videos, which are saturated with objects and statements that define the identity of the creator, lonelgirl is an unusally blank slate. I suspect it is this openness that was/is so attractive to viewers, who could project themselves into the open spaces of the performance.

The revelation of lonelygirl as a performance obviously forecloses this imaginative space, thereby reducing the aggressive comments, and I would expect eventual viewership.

This, it seems to me, is very different from both both the live theatre, which relies on a willing suspension of disbelief and games, which require a different kind of (performance of) belief. And it's far more troubling.

Anonymous said...

To throw some thoughts out...

I am surprised by the impulse many people here have towards delineating "appropriate" interaction. It would seem to undermine any notion of "true" interactivity. That is, by trying to create "constructive" forms of engagement, you are really trying to *limit* interactivity (as base as it may be at times) within preemptive constraints.

To say the "real or not" question gets in the way of participation seems to deny the particpatory nature of the discussion. There are many for whom the debate itself is part of the pleasure of the narrative no?

WriTerGuy said...

"This is not a girl"

I seem to recall that years ago, Dr. Marcus Welby regularly received letters asking for medical help, despite the fact that he was a television series. I don't recall anyone being alarmed (or harmed) by this form of participation in the show.

Trolling is a sad reality and a difficult one for me to ponder, but I wouldn't want to give it more power than it's due. If an art museum had a device that recorded the thought of every viewer of an artwork, it might read more uncharitably than YouTube. That shouldn't put limits on art.

MV said...


the reason why the video comments are less vicious is because of this thing we got here going on in the internet called "keyboard bravery", its been around since the early 90s, with vid comments though youre not 100% protected.

anyways youtube message boards are particularly mean, pardon the misogyny but go look at message board comments of say a girl high school fight, it almost always errupts into a race war or a comment about physical appearance. Think Mean Girls and the Biggest Bully at your high school times 1000 when it comes to youtube comment bravery.

That's the youtube message board community for ya

Anonymous said...

A very intersting article. I would simply like to point out that you are jumping to conclusions when you take the YouTube comments as the main source of particatory involvement with the audience.

Firstly, because the Puppetmasters (referred to in the LG15 community as The Creators) have in their first OOC communication implied that they aim to provide a separate community, which will incidentally not be based on YouTube, but on the more restrictive Revver.Com.

Secondly, that YouTube provides such crude communication and participation tools.

And finally, that the actual community at YouTube seems to be undergoing a bit of an existence crisis. Traditionally the domaain of vbloggers, hence very much invested in the perceived 'real', but also swarmed with an audience that does not want to play along to this earlier self-understanding. Prominent vbloggers (e.g. Renetto) have come out and challenged this limited view on the worth of the 'real' versus the often invoked 'fake' (i.e. produced, scripted, acted) in the sense that in the end only the quality of the content should matter, if YT is supposed to grow beyond its initial identity.

These are growing pains in the community, and also evidence of the old John Gabriel 'General Internet Fuckwad Theory': Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad.

The evidence in the comments on YouTube have no bearing on the meaningfulness of audience participation narratives, beyond the clear indication that moderation is obviously necessary.

For better examples of the core audience of LG15, I invite you to examine the discussion at

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a renegade story spinning-off the original content that might very well be a true ARG. It certainly has drawn the attention of some veterans at

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of this commentary is premature...we've only seen Act I. I expect these guys (Miles and Greg are Berkeley grads, Jane, BTW,) have a lot more up their sleeves with interactivity. And, let's face it, had they been transparent from the beginning, would we have even heard of them? Would anyone outside of You Tube?

Anonymous said...

Just for balance, I would look at the comments of any other popular video on YouTube – the comments on YouTube videos are consistently offensive. Considering the source of the comments, what is surprising is the amount of positive feedback. The comments of LonelyGirl15 suggest a community of caring viewers because there are comments beyond the typical chorus of mean-spirited one-liners. The YouTube “community” does not typically have dialog, and any analysis of the comments might want to take that into consideration… Or consider that the second highest rated video today is “Buddhism is Stupid and Evil.”

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