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?