How one girl and her webcam became the first YouTube sensation.
Ten years ago today, a YouTuber going by the name of lonelygirl15 uploaded her first video diary. In Dorkiness Prevails, 16-year-old homeschooled Bree introduces herself, blinking nervously at the camera and pulling faces over a Gnarls Barkley soundtrack.
At the time, YouTubers prided themselves on authenticity, regularly sharing personal vlogs years before the concept of “personal brand” was even a thing.
Three months later it was revealed that lonelygirl15 was a scripted show and “Bree” was actually 19-year-old Jessica Rose from New Zealand.
The show survived the big reveal and continued until December 2008, but online video would never be the same.
So what was it about Bree, Daniel and the world of lonelygirl15 that made for such compelling viewing? Ellen Falconer spoke to the creators, the original cast members and an OG LG fan to retrace what was a defining moment in YouTube’s history.
ONE NIGHT AT A PARTY
MESH FLINDERS (CO-CREATOR): It all started one night in a karaoke bar actually. I met Miles at a karaoke bar at a birthday party and I didn’t even know about YouTube. Miles had been experimenting with it and had an idea for a story about a kid who was lonely and would disappear.
MILES BECKETT (CO-CREATOR): At the time I had left a surgery program and I was obsessed with online video and the opportunity to go direct to an audience and not have to go to the traditional networks and studios. I had been producing video podcasts, some different comedy series in LA after quitting my surgery program in 2005 and basically found out about YouTube.
MILES: Mesh was a screenwriter and unlike most screenwriters I had met in LA, he had actually sold a script. I felt like he was legit and he and I hit it off creatively that night and I literally at the bar told him this idea like, “Hey dude, this YouTube thing is going to be huge, online video is going to change entertainment and I have this idea, what if there is going to be somebody video blogging in their bedroom and you didn’t know if it was real or if it was fake?”
MESH: In those days YouTube was pretty much a trusted medium, so we came up with this idea to have her vlog as if she was real and disappear and then we were going to turn it into an independent film.
MILES: We just started bouncing ideas off each other. Mesh actually was the one who knew about the occult stuff, so we started talking about that and we talked about the main character being this girl … Literally the next day I called him and we met up and we started writing the treatment and within two weeks we had the whole treatment, all the beats for the storyline, leading up to the point where she ran away from home.
FINDING LONELYGIRL AND HER LONELYBOY
MESH: The hardest thing in Hollywood was finding actors who were of that age who still had a real freshness about them because this is a girl who was home-schooled and came from the middle of nowhere. Her best friend could be a little bit more pop culture aware, but it had to be believable that he was coming from a small town. They had to not look like actors; they had to look like kids.
MILES: The character [for LonelyGirl] we had in mind was going to be smart and creative. Sort of shy and homeschooled, but with this powerful intellectual curiosity. Jess really captured that, she also had a really great sense of humour.
YOUSEF ABU-TALEB (DANIEL / DANIELBEAST): I was looking for any kind of acting gig and I just moved out here from Virginia and I didn’t know anybody. I remember I walked into the room and every single guy in there, they were a little bit younger than me, but they were all decked out, trying to look as handsome as they could, they had the Abercrombie shirts, which at the time everybody liked Abercrombie, I never wore it. I had a completely different take on the character. One hundred percent different. I looked like a little nervous punk kid and I guess they liked that. They liked that I played a more vulnerable character rather than just play a cool guy character.
JESSICA LEE ROSE (BREE/LONELYGIRL15): I had met with a few different boys that day and then Yousef and I had a scene together. It just worked really well. We knew how to talk to each other, we knew… he was picking up what I was putting down and we both went with our improvised scenes and it did just work. He was great; we both love each other to this day, so it was just meant to be.
MESH: We saw with Jess and Yousef, that when they walked in the door we found them. It was just like, this is it. There were qualities about them that were unpretentious. They were very natural, not the same kind of calculating stuff you usually get from people who have been to a lot of auditions and we were really lucky.
‘YOU WANT TO DO A SHOW ON THE WEB?’
JESS: Because they had us meet them to tell us what it was going to be about at a café in Beverly Hills, and when they told me what it was and they said it was going to be on the internet, on this thing called YouTube, and the girl’s underage and it’s going to be called lonelygirl15, I instantly thought, “Oh, this is one of those scams that I’ve heard about”.
When you’re young and you’ve moved to LA, you get warned so often to be careful of these dodgy circumstances that may happen. I had gotten so excited about booking this job and then for them to tell me it was going to be this other thing, it seemed like it wasn’t going to be good.
YOUSEF: They told us it was going to be this show that they do on the web. And we were like, “You want to do a show on the web? Nobody’s done a show on the web”. But in the back of my head I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute, that’s kind of a neat idea, nobody’s ever done this.’
JESS: I had heard of YouTube, kind of, but nobody else would have really known what it was, like, everyone else I told when it started to get bigger and there were a few people I could tell, they didn’t even know what YouTube was so it didn’t matter, it didn’t really feel that like anyone would see it or watch it, because no one knew what YouTube was.
MILES: There were a lot of popular video bloggers at the time, LisaNova, thewinekone, renetto I think was another one… so there were a bunch of people who were basically amateur videographers or people in their bedrooms blogging about their life. It was a pretty collaborative community and people would help promote each other and comment on each other’s videos. It was really just about creative expression at the time, because there wasn’t a business model, there wasn’t a way to make money on YouTube.
JESS: There were a few girls and boys on it that were doing a little bit of video blogging on it. There was one, paytotheorderof that we talk about in our first video and I found myself watching her videos. They told me a few channels to watch so I started watching this girl and it was so strange to me because it was very weird. I felt like I was invading someone’s privacy, but she was posting them intentionally, so you’re not. It was a different world, but it just more exploded into the world it is today.
‘WE JUST USED A WEBCAM’
MILES: Bree’s apartment was Mesh’s apartment and Daniel’s room was my room. So Mesh and I had gone on a run in Target and got a bunch of things we thought would be in a 16-year-old girl’s room that had been homeschooled. I don’t know how accurate we were. We did up his room to look like that. We wanted it to look authentic and so rather than filming with a hand-held camcorder and trying to make it look like a webcam, we just used a webcam.
MESH: Miles set up a webcam that we bought for $140 at Best Buy and that was it, we were off and running.
JESS: First day on set we did a few different videos and they originally, for that first video, where she pulls her tongue out and does all of these silly dances and stuff, they wanted to do a much more complicated video. When we started sitting down and realising all we had was a little round webcam and this small space we realised, no, we can’t do it. So we were like, what could we do if she just did something fun and silly? So I just pulled a few faces and that was just like, this is my party trick.
MILES: We didn’t have any professional lighting, we just used the windows and a desk lamp. We were pretty obsessive about adjusting the lighting to make it look good.
YOUSEF: In the beginning all I did was sit on the bed so I would just go to my bed and I’d play with whatever was there… a ball… I’d just be the most bored guy in the world and over time they started to give me a couple of videos here and there.
MESH: We would shoot two or three in a day and then edit them that night. Our goal was always to be a week or two ahead. I would write the episode and then we would shoot it the next day and Miles would edit it the day after that or the next night. It was probably like three days. Three day turnaround. We stayed about a week ahead so if there were any disasters we could go back and fix something.
JESS: “Hey Jess can you come round on Wednesday and we’ll film a video?” That was pretty much how it went. In the beginning and then later on it was still pretty easy, it wasn’t a tough, tough job. It was a couple of full days here and there; maybe once or twice a week. You could film so many in one day and then the producers Mesh and Miles would put it together and edit it. They did a lot of extra work that I wasn’t a part of, like editing and doing all of the Myspace and YouTube channel and commenting, so they were putting in the hard yards on online.
‘HEY I LIKE YOUR VIDEOS, WATCH MINE’
MILES: Nobody knew how to promote stuff on YouTube, so it was literally trial and error.
MESH: We had been very careful to reach out to the other members of that community and in those days it was very small and there were only about … I remember 25 or 50 YouTubers with significant followings that we reached out to and interacted with just to say, “Hey I like your videos, watch mine”, that kind of thing.
MILES: Basically, I noticed that there were two main sections on YouTube: most viewed and most discussed. If you can get your video onto most discussed for the day, it might get into most discussed for the week, and then it might get into most discussed of all time, and as it started to glide through those ranks, it would start to get into most viewed for the day, and most viewed for the week and most viewed of all time.
MESH: Response videos were really big back then, you’d click on a video and then respond to it. So we just did that at first. We just responded to a bunch of videos and people started messaging her and once you have that kind of ground swell of approval, it was possible to grow from there.
MILES: Initially Mesh and I were pretending to be the character of Bree, interacting with all of the fans who were talking to her as if she was a real person.
MESH: I didn’t love responding as her to fans because that felt a little phony to me, but there was nothing else we could do, because people expected her to respond. In order to convince people that she was real, she had to respond with these comments because everyone else was. It would have seemed really fake if she never responded to a single comment.
‘IT’S OK YOU’RE A DORK! WE’RE ALL DORKS!’
JENNI POWELL (FAN AND LATER PRODUCER): One of the things that a friend of mine introduced me to was a vlogger by the name of Bree, who vlogged on lonelygirl15. I was a very early watcher. I remember when the first video came out. I remember thinking pretty quickly there was more to this than just a girl sitting in her room video blogging and called out early on that I thought it was actually a scripted show.
MESH: We never could have predicted the response from the fans. It basically became a medium unto itself. The original idea was that Bree would disappear and then six months to a year later come out with this independent film that explained what had happened to her and that very quickly became irrelevant because this was a medium.
JENNI: Well, what was interesting was lonelygirl15 was not the only thing that was gaining the interest, there were also a lot of actual vloggers at the time who were as well and I think what was different about Lonelygirl was it brought those people who do really enjoy a personality, but it also brought people that love stories, and storytelling.
MESH: Telling a story on YouTube was a medium and the fans were passionate about interacting with these characters every day and finding out what was going on in their lives every day.
MILES: It was really the first time that online video was emerging as a medium and because we were playing with reality and fiction it made people really intrigued and excited about … is this real or is it being produced? If it’s being produced, why are they producing it? How are they going to make money off of this? What is it? There was all of that.
MESH: It was a perfect storm, it was new technology and then the way we were using it to tell a story, which hadn’t been done before, but also the fact that there was this community that embraced her and she embraced them back.
YOUSEF: [The fans] felt like it was okay to be an outsider, which is how we portrayed both Bree and Daniel’s characters. They were outsiders. They weren’t the popular kids; they were never the popular kids. Dorkiness Prevails I think was the first real episode and right there, we’re talking about, “It’s okay you’re a dork! We’re all dorks”. That’s what was special about the show too, is that we interacted with those people, we gave them a home. Our comment boards were their first sort of outlet where they started to get to know each other.
JENNI: I was always checking LG15 Today everyday, which was one of the blogs that tracked what was going on in what we called the “Breeniverse”, which is the world that lonelygirl15 lives in. But I was really hardcore, I would say. It consumed my life for two years.
JENNI: Those kind of people are also fiercely loyal. By tapping into those people, they grew these fans that already have that personality to do that, and those became basically their super-fans and anything they did, those people would be like, “Look what’s happening, look what’s going on!” and they would show all of their friends and be like, “Look at this girl and what’s going on with her. We’re going to help her and we’re going to save her!”.
I think that was what made it really unique, was you felt you had the ability to influence the story and be a part of it. And that was what made it really unique and nobody else at the time thought of using YouTube as a platform for storytelling.
MILES: At one point the fans said, ‘I think Daniel has the hots for Bree’. We knew that that was a plot point that we were going to do, we weren’t sure exactly when and we hadn’t planned out the exact video, like, “The time is now, let’s make a video where they go hiking and he’s going to film the video, he’s going to edit it and anybody watching the video is going to be able to tell that he is in love with this girl by the way he films and stuff”. So we put together this hiking video and it’s got sappy music and lots of shots of Bree looking cute and people of course commented below the video: ‘Oh my gosh, Daniel’s totally in love with Bree, it’s so obvious. Daniel I think you need to say something...’ so then we made a video where Daniel said something.
YOUSEF: It started getting things going, we got 100,000 hits on one video and then all of sudden we got a million hits and people were talking about us and we were in the New York Times and the LA Times and all of these different media.
‘I JUST WANTED TO GO OUT’
JESS: Yousef and I had jobs at bars and clothing shops and we’d see multiple people a day, so it was in their best interests for the show to have us not in the public places four or five days a week, so they gave us just enough money that we didn’t have to work. Just enough to pay the bills.
MILES: Pretty early, Jessica went to Barnes and Noble or something like that in Santa Monica and it was after three videos and we saw a comment on one of the videos “Oh my gosh Bree, I think I just saw you at Barnes and Noble, but there’s no way you could be there because I don’t think you live in LA”.
We were like, “Oh my god, fuck”. Jess and Yousef, I feel bad for them, but they were total troopers. They literally did not leave the house for three months while it was a secret.
YOUSEF: I was so paranoid about getting recognised that I stayed in and I expected my girlfriend at the time to stay in with me and she was young, probably at the time 20, I don’t know, something like that, so she wanted to go out, she wanted to party and I just wanted to go out and I just wouldn’t. I became a hermit for that little bit of my life until we came out.
‘EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD MYSTERY, RIGHT?’
JENNI: I was a pretty early part of what’s called Anchor Cove and those were the hardcore fans … at the time people were still speculating about whether or not it was real. Anchor Cove was the hardcore people who were going to find out come hell or high water.
JESS: People were pointing out the flowers in the videos, saying they were only native to this part of America, California specifically.
MILES: We were pretty paranoid. We knew this whole thing of, “Is it real or is it not real?” - well, we hoped - that it was going to generate a lot of buzz and controversy so we wanted to put that out and see where it went. We had a very small number of people who knew about it.
MESH: She came out of a collection of video bloggers who were all real and she looked and sounded like them. So why wouldn’t you trust her?
MILES: Well, everyone loves a good mystery, right? So whether it’s about who shot JR, or what’s the secret of the island on Lost, everyone likes a mystery, whether it’s part of the story or not part of the story.
JENNI: I can’t really pinpoint what it was about it; it was just a gut instinct. But the instinct went so far where I was like, “Okay if this does come out as scripted content, I won’t even be mad, I think that’s awesome”, and I was really inspired because I was like, “Wow, you could use these platforms to tell really amazing stories to the point where they’re so immersive that people think that they’re real”.
I’d interact with them and really deep dive into a whole story world and I just thought, “This is the best thing ever!”
YOUSEF: My favourite comment was “It’s faaaaaaaaaake!!!!!!!”
JESS: They traced the IP address from the Myspace account to the CAA [Creative Artists Agency] building in Hollywood, which was actually just kind of fluke that the wife of one of the producer’s was an assistant at CAA at the time and she was helping them by taking care of the characters’ Myspace, but actually CAA had nothing to do with it in the beginning.
JENNI: As a courtesy, [the fans] messaged Bree, basically, “We know this isn’t real, we know where these things are coming from, out of respect for you guys, we’re not going to blow you up, but if you don’t come out and say this isn’t real by this date, we’re going to do it for you”.
There were a lot of debates at the time about whether pretending Bree was real for so long was ethical or not, especially when it was getting to the point where it was clear she was in danger. It got to the point, where, certain people, who believed she was real, were trying to research where she was or figure out where she was so they could call the police or do something. When you get to that point, the lines become blurry as to whether this is still okay.
MILES: We were just writers and directors and producers who were trying to create something cool with this new media. We weren’t trying to deceive people, exactly. We never lied. Whenever anybody wrote to us and said, ‘Hey, is this real or is it not real?’, we just wouldn’t respond.
‘I WAS WORRIED PEOPLE WERE GOING TO HATE ME’
YOUSEF: One day I woke up and I saw Jess and myself and Mesh on the inside of this newspaper. Virginia Heffernan [the TV critic for the New York Times] had uncovered that week that we were actually a show.
JESS: So many things were being written about it that it was a matter of time before it got found out. So it was kind of a relief when they did find out, in my mind anyway. Then when they found out my name, and then it was all of a sudden, “Tomorrow we’re going to do a huge press conference, we’re going to talk to CNN…”.
YOUSEF: I was nervous, I couldn’t sleep and I went in early. I went in really, really early. I went in so early that nobody else was really there. One or two people were there and they thought I was a PA. So they had me bringing in bagels and setting up chairs, doing all kinds of things like that and they were like, ‘Where’re the kids, where are they going to be?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m one of them.’
By the time you do all of those interviews, it was one after the other after the other with news publications and you really lose track of time and who you’ve spoken to and what you’re talking about. By the end I could have said anything. I would have just blanked out.
JESS: I’d never done anything like that before, I’d never done an interview before, I was worried that people were going to hate me. It was hectic.
MESH: It was a relief at that point. We were so stressed out. There was so much pressure. You want this thing to lead to other opportunities, but you also don’t want to enrage your fan base, so there was a lot of pressure. I remember sleeping soundly for the first time in months after that. It was hard. It was much harder to keep people interested in the show because it was not real and it was a fictional show but it was a relief.
MILES: There was actually one video from this girl in high school who was crying and really upset that Bree wasn’t real and she had talked to her so much. Interestingly, that same girl posted a video a few days later and said, “You know, I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided I don’t really mind, I still like watching the videos so I’m going to keep watching the videos and I’m going to keep talking to Bree”.
From a viewership standpoint, we got a ton of viewers from that crazy press attention once it was revealed that it was being produced. The show was actually at its biggest in terms of viewership almost six months later because it was revealed in September 2006 and in April 2007 was actually the height of viewership on the show.
It took a while before we could make money. From when people realised it was being produced from September 2006, we didn’t make a dime until March 2007, like a 10 grand sponsorship and then we were finally able to do a big, six-figure deal with Neutrogena and that really floated the production and that really allowed us to continue.
We did a spinoff in the UK, called KateModern, which was on Bebo, which at the time was the number one social network in the UK. That ran from 2007-2008. It was a huge hit. It got tons of press coverage, it was the number one online video for like a year straight, we were actually nominated for a Bafta for that, which was pretty great. We actually licensed the show to three or four other countries, they produced a version of the show in Poland, there was a Polish lonelygirl for about a year. Korea, Japan, Italy, we licensed it to different production companies in those countries.
‘DID YOU GUYS HEAR ABOUT THIS?’
YOUSEF: I think even when we got a deal with Neutrogena, I think that sent little waves throughout the studios, like “Hey, have you guys heard about this little web series, they’re getting money from Neutrogena, they’re getting ad sponsorship, did you guys hear about this?”
And then all of sudden you hear about all of these shows popping up and then there were award shows, the Webbys and the Streamys.
MILES: It’s definitely an early example of online video and web series. Probably one of the first examples of branded content or product placement, and early use of social media as a way to tell a story.
MESH: I look at YouTube now and it’s a different world, I just don’t even recognise it. No one’s really using YouTube to tell stories anymore, so that is bizarre to me, that that’s not there.
JESS: The character was lovable and fun to watch, but at the same time those videos wouldn’t be super, super popular to watch today because there are so many other options. Then it was like, “Oh, this is a cute, fun girl doing things on YouTube and making funny science videos”. But now, yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know if it would fare the same or not.
MILES: There are a lot of YouTubers, who, as the 10 year anniversary is coming up, have been coming out of the woodwork saying they were influenced [by lonelygirl15]. Like John Green, who’s one half of the vlogbrothers and co-create of Vid-con and he wrote a bunch of books, including Paper Towns and Fault in our Stars, they both became movies. There was some interview he did a few months ago where he said that Lonelygirl was one of his three top influences of all time.
MILES: A lot of the fans have gone on to create their own things, Jenni’s a great example. She created a fan series for Lonelygirl and then we hired her as a production assistant on the show for a while and now she is an Emmy award-winning web producer, with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
JENNI: It changed my life. It literally changed my life.
*Interviews have been edited for clarity.