Over the past week, the great resource hive that is the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list resurfaced discussions on Lonelygirl15; my Sociology of Popular Culture students discussed the Marina Joyce scandal in class as “old news” and Miranda Sings as “peak microcelebrity”; a colleague posted a Facebook link that introduced me to the world of Lil Miquela.
As an anthropologist who researches Influencers and microcelebrities, I feel like I am on the cusp of making intelligent connections among Lonelygirl15, Marina Joyce, Miranda Sings, and Lil Miquela, but I know I am not quite there yet. This is an attempt. (pls brain get me there).
Here are some thoughts on how the issues popularized by Lonelygirl16 (circa 2006) still speak back to personae curation, follower labour, and authenticity in the Influencer industry today.
16-year-old “Bree Avery”, first debuted on YouTube in June 2006 with a talking-head style vlog displaying her “dorkiness“. Her self-presentation began rather candidly, with fast-forwarded sequences of her bedroom cam recording her “homeschooling” or studying in bed, complaining about her controlling parents and “beliefs”, fast-forwarded sequences of her on the phone with her boyfriend after a fight, hidden cam conversations with her boyfriend during a fight, and quibbles over her religious beliefs such as “violating her purity” – typical teenage drama.
In September 2006, avid followers exposed Lonelygirl15 as fiction, primarily through investigative labour such as corroborating timestamps, starting social media accounts to “fish” or chat with her, and a detailed media archaeology into the actress’ old (and deleted) social media sites. Detailed histories were catalogued during that time by knowyourmeme.com, nytimes.com, latimes.com, and wired.com among others.
After the “exposé”, Lonelygirl15 was popularly remembered as “an interactive web series” which later grew into an extensive digital empire based on the plot of a young teenager experiencing the occult and the supernatural.
But what I really want to focus on are present day reactions to Lonelygirl15.
In 2015, present day YouTubers reacted to Lonelygirl15’s first video, Fine Brothers style. Those in the know could quote her vlog ad verbatim, acknowledged her for being the “first super popular vlogger on YouTube”, for being “one of the first internet hoaxes”, for being “the first YouTube scandal”, for being “the first real YouTube drama”, for inspiring them to begin vlogging. Others seemed confused over her authenticity, but when given a brief background, recognized Lonelygirl 15 as an “urban myth” they have heard of that “trolled the world”.
Most of their sentiments focused on:
1) How Lonelygirl15 opened up a space for vloggers to be transparent and honest about their “crazy” and “self-centered” content.
2) How Lonelygirl15’s “reciprocal intimacies” gave the impression of her authenticity – other vloggers sent her personal email to which she responded.
3) How Lonelygirl15 reminded everyone to be skeptical and questioning about internet content since “everything can be staged” – or more specifically, “She taught young men the most valuable lesson of all, and it’s that you shouldn’t trust the pretty girl on the webcam because it’s probably a company behind it that just wants your money.”
4) How traditional media were trying to move into digital media after learning about the “production value” of such user-made content.
5) How traditional media tend to brand YouTube Influencers as a “new creature” when all these “pioneers” have an obscured legacy and history, a ten-year history, to be precise.
6) How followers are “curious” and drawn to “shock” value regardless of whether content is staged.
7) How followers who bemoaned the artificiality of Lonelygirly15 were still hooked onto her narratives out of interest or for hate-watching, since “haters are like obsessed fan girls gone wrong”.
8) How followers had already developed a relationship with and attraction to the persona of Lonelygirl15, and continue to be invested in her narrative regardless of whether the content is staged.
In June this year, several interviews, reviews, and throwbacks proliferated during the tenth anniversary of Lonelygirl15. Digital media outlets reported that “The show’s popularity actually increased after it was revealed to be a scripted series, thanks in part to intense media coverage”.
This renewed interest was also due to an allusion to a sequel posted on Lonelygirl15’s YouTube account in June 2016, in the aesthetic of an occultist technocratic dystopia – her boyfriend “Danielbeast” also uploaded a video in July 2016 after a long break, displaying great discomfort while speaking about “The Order” and mothers whose babies were “taken” from them. Interestingly, the banal conversation was remixed with updated popular culture references such as “Pokémon Go”, as if to situate the continuation of the plot in real time.
theverge.com ponders if this “reincarnation” will gain any traction amidst a saturated internet-video community. mashable.com compared the Lonelygirl15 persona revival to celebrity-scandals such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Becky, and to reality TV shows such as The Hills. theguardian.com reminded us that boundaries of the “real” and the “fake” are increasingly collapsing. forbes.com reported that a fan of the original series is now at the helm of its sequel as executive producer.
The actress behind Lonelygirl15, Jessica Rose, reflected on the origins of her persona in a recent interview:
“… my heart just dropped. When they told me what it was I was like, this is one of those scams, this is probably porn or something really dodgy.”
“They had us watch a few channels. I found that really strange and like, voyeuristic, just watching another person’s life?”
“When the cover was officially blown it was about three days, I think, before my name was released? They found a old version of my Photo Bucket account and my MySpace account that I deleted, then my picture was out there. Then like, okay, they know your name, tomorrow we’re doing a press conference.”
While Lonelygirl15 in the mid-2000s displayed early attempts to obscure the artifice of her persona, some Influencers today not only embrace this staging but even master personae curation as a satirical performance in itself.
Miranda Sings is a fictional microcelebrity portrayed by actual microcelebrity Colleen Ballinger/Evans, whose digital estates were first branded under the pseudonym “PsychoSoprano”. 29-year-old Colleen debut her character Miranda on YouTube in February 2009. However, she has been posting skits, sketches, reviews, tutorials and talking head videos as PsychoSoprano since November 2006, and miscellaneous talking head vlogs on as Colleen Ballinger/Evans since December 2014.
While the persona of PsychoSoprano and Colleen Ballinger/Evans are close to those of the usual YouTube Influencer, Miranda Sings is a satirical take on young people on the internet who are pursuing fame. The character is a talentless, eccentric singer wannabe who is not self-aware, who produces tutorials that lead other wannabes astray with bad advice (i.e. How to be famous, Tips for a first date), and who comments on social issues with highly inaccurate facts. Like the YouTube Influencers she parodies, Miranda Sings also regularly addresses her (imaginary) haters and critics.
Most interesting about Colleen Ballinger/Evans is her intense engagement with Miranda Sings as a standalone microcelebrity, often visibilizing her transition into the character or creating inter-microcelebrity interactions requiring savvy camera editing work. For instance, in one video Colleen shows us how she “becomes” Miranda Sings through attire and makeup. In another video, Colleen dialogues with Miranda Sings in a Q&A video including tightly timed back-and-forth banter and rehearsed facial reactions.
This streamlined personae curation also extends to other digital estates, as Colleen/Miranda perform distinct characters – the satire and the self – on Instagram (Colleen/Miranda) and on Twitter (Colleen/Miranda). Even their official websites hawk distinct merchandize in the vein of each persona (Colleen/Miranda).
Unlike the Lonelygirl15 follower-led exposé, followers do not seem to have an issue with Colleen/Miranda performing more than one version of her self, clearly because it is an “open secret” or “public joke” and critical but softeningly humourous take on artifice in the Influencer industry. Like the Lonelygirl15 exposé, however, some digital platforms have themselves deconstructed the authenticity of Colleen/Miranda, inciting satirical “conspiracy theories” – while themselves satirizing gossip websites – that Colleen and Miranda are actually “the same person“.
What Colleen Ballinger/Evans and Miranda Sings continue to do in 2016 is not too dissimilar to that of Lonelygirl15 in 2006: All personae are necessarily performances, whether the transition is effortless or laborious, whether the portrayal is more natural or more constructed, whether these take place in physical or digital spaces – how you “casually” choose to dress for work, how you “subconsciously” speak more politely to authority, how you “naturally” control your gestural actions less among loved ones in physical spaces (i.e. “not online”, “not on the internet”, “in real life”) is all part of personae curation. However, the awareness and salience of all personae as extents of performance is perhaps more pronounced on digital platforms where one has to intentionally posture and position the self to be audienced by an imagined following.
Lonelygirl15 in the mid-2000s baited concern and affection from followers via her earliest vlog references to the occult, but it was this very same investment from followers that culminated to her exposé. Present day, followers still seem equally if not even more invested in the “off-screen”, “off-persona”, “offline”, “private”, or “personal” lives of Influencers.
Marina Joyce is a 19-year-old beauty YouTuber whose concerned followers began churning out a flurry of conspiracy theories regarding her apparent domestic abuse, drug problem, and involvement with the occult in July 2016. Followers began the hashtag #savemarinajoyce when they noted that her body language, verbal tone, and overall persona suddenly changed in one particular advertorial video. Various digital media (i.e. ibtimes.com, news.com) compiled these conspiracy theories, piecing together observation from followers such as a change in the way she captions her videos, an unidentified person and script visible in some of her newer videos, suspicious bruises on her body, and a whisper-like “save me” apparently muttered in one video. Other Influencers also jumped on the bandwagon, publishing talking head videos discussing conspiracy theories of their own such as her “serious drug problem” and reporting summaries from hearsay. Her following surged during this period as more users joined the effort to “save” the teenager from “harm”.
Although Marina Joyce later came out on various social media and an interview with another YouTuber to assure followers of her safety, it was clear that “internet hysteria” had already taken over, fueling rumours of kidnap to the point of intervention from the police.
I had earlier noted that Influencers often view fans and haters (and bots!) under the general purview of “followers”. Many of them are unlikely to address followers as “fans” for fear of appearing hierarchical, too distant, and unrelatable. After all, the premise of their popularity and the effectiveness of the advertorials they market is hinged upon how emulatable they are by ordinary, everyday users. However, these intimacies, when fostered, also bring about burdens for Influencers when followers demand immediacy, constancy, exclusivity, intimacy, and quality from them, as in the case of the enthusiastic conspiracy theorist followers of Marina Joyce.
In the mid-2000s, when the authenticity of Lonelygirl15 was questioned by enthused and enraged followers alike, much commentary was centered on how “real”, “genuine”, or “sincere” she came off to followers in her earliest vlogs. The present day reiteration of this is Lil Miquela, an Instagrammer who intentionally treads between person and avatar to generate ambiguity, ambivalence, and attention through a combination of cosmetics, poses, photo-editing, and filters.
Lil Miquela has been on Instagram for under five months but has already amassed over 95k followers. One “CGI animator” feels her “feline features” and “posing” are the distinctive markers signposting her human-machine blend. Another manager of a CGI studio feels she is “combination of a 3D model and a photograph”. One blogger pointed out that Li Miquela’s photos are not always conscientiously well edited, although it is unclear if this is careless or a careful strategy to question the boundaries of natural bodies, acceptable edits, or subversive distortion.
Dubbed “one of 2016’s biggest Instagram conspiracy theories“, Lil Miquela’s presence is generating a flurry of theories, such as how she is satirizing “Instagram models”, how she is portraying “unrealistic perceptions projected” by Instagram users, how she underscores “the hazy line between social media and reality”, how she is a “calculated net art project”, or how she is just “trolling”. My personal favourite is that she is an elaborate advertisement for The Sims 5.
Physical appearance aside, Lil Miquela’s persona has also been rather incoherent and ambiguous. Despite her recent celebrity, Lil Miquela still occasionally conveys the persona of a teenage fangirl or young person, aspiring for attention and recognition from traditional celebrity a la Zayn Malik. Perhaps due to her recent celebrity, her Twitter account was reportedly hacked by an imposter in early August. In mid-September, her Instagram profile included a URL to a environmental petition. Her Tumblr of mostly reblogged scenery, fashion, pets, and foods does not yet have a curated theme to suggest any distinction from the average Tumblr user. It also appears that Lil Miquela has done advertorials like the average Instagram Influencer, although her commerce and strategies are not as obvious or pronounced on Instagram per se. As one digital journalist writes, “her cultural identity is crowdsourced, if not banal”.
But, does it even matter whether or not Lil Miquela is “authentic”, or “human”, or “real”?
The authentic? Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman ran an alter-ego persona-based Instagram account for months, achieving virality before reveaing that it was an elaborate art project, for which she was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for Art & Style in 2016.
The human? Human Barbie Valeria Lukyanova sure is tangible and fleshy and exists “IRL” – as is Human Ken Justin Jedlica – albeit enabled by numerous plastic surgeries and augmentations to achieve their doll-like appearances.
The real? Japanese virtual vocaloid idols Hatsune Miku is completely virtual and yet holds sell-out concerts in physical venues attended by fleshy, real human fans.
Maybe the draw of Lil Miquela is that followers are still awaiting “the big reveal”, “the great unveil”, or the “the money shot” from the artist/creator/producer/avatar in time to come, hopefully corresponding with one of the popular conspiracy theories. When Lonelygirl15 was exposed, her popularity did not wane but instead surged until it plateaued and died a ‘natural death’, so to speak, as most trends do.
So perhaps the allure of Lil Miquela is that she is bringing followers on yet another journey, another public disclosure to anticipate a la Lonelygirl15, another persona performance to watch a la Miranda Sings, another mystery to solve a la Marina Joyce. All this hinges upon a following with borderline obsessive skepticism, with tacit knowledge on the cultural repertoires of social media vernacular, and with the ability to volunteer hours of follower labour that ultimately fuel spectacles, scandals, and sales.
Long live Lonelygirl15. Long live Lil Miquela.
h/t to Rainer Hillrichs and Burcu Bakioglu for their Air-L links to Lonelygirl15, and to Vicki Nash for the Facebook link to Lil Miquela.