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The Three White Girls from YouTube: A Modern Day Fable

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What is real online? Does it matter? Author Mark Stephen Meadows explores the role of the avatar using the stories of three white girls from YouTube and the debate that resulted from their collective fame.
This chapter is from the book

What It Is, Part Two: The Three White Girls from YouTube

  • An avatar is a social creature, dancing on the border between fiction and fact.

Social interaction between online users is what creates avatars, shapes their personalities, and gives them a reason to exist. They don’t need to be little 3-D puppets, either.

In 2006 and 2007, on YouTube, LittleLoca, an independent filmmaker and young, attractive woman, began to post videos thanking her fans, doing little dances, and talking about her interests, her family, and the occasional crime of which she’d been a victim with a candor that seemed directed at conveying confidence, pride, and street-savvy sensitivity. Her main message was that she was “keeping it real.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, LisaNova, another independent filmmaker, was also busy documenting herself as a young, attractive woman, and she too began to post videos of herself of about ten minutes each. LisaNova appeared to have something of an act to grind, usually against Hollywood stars, and had been gathering a fan base, whom she fed a steady diet of sarcastic impersonations and wry media commentary. LisaNova was interested in impersonations, not in “keeping it real.”

Gossip and bickering in any community mean that people are paying attention to one another, but eventually things went sour between these two. LisaNova was Caucasian, blonde, wealthy, and lived on the West Coast. LittleLoca was Latina, brunette, poor, and lived, possibly, in New York. In a welterweight match made for Las Vegas, LisaNova threw the first punch on June 15, 2006, when she posted a fictional impersonation of LittleLoca that parodied LittleLoca’s style, dress, behavior, and speech. She even used some of the same filming techniques.

Though LisaNova’s impersonation was clear, her intent wasn’t, and fans of the two women jumped into the fray. Laughter, insults, and flame wars abounded. LittleLoca’s only response was “DONT BE FOOLED!! THERE IS A FAKE ACTING LIKE ME!” The situation was complicated by a LisaNova impersonator named LlsaNova, who posted in LittleLoca’s forums, and by a LittleLoca impersonator named LlittleLoca, who posted in LisaNova’s forums. Things quickly went from catfight to barroom brawl.

Meanwhile, in another part of the YouTube community, a third woman was posting videos of herself as well. Another young, attractive, independent, American filmmaker, she also began to post videos of about ten well-edited minutes each. Bree, or Lonelygirl15, posted videos of herself in her bedroom discussing her thoughts on marriage, boys, parents, and school. She had a secret she was slowly revealing and evidently it had something to do with her parents being part of a religion or cult of some sort.

Her secret was deeper than most people suspected. Eventually, after a great deal of popularity, Richard Rushfield of the Los Angeles Times followed up on some rumors fans had been mumbling about. It was discovered that Lonelygirl15 was not American after at all—nor was she a student, nor was she named Bree. She was an actress from New Zealand named Jessica Rose performing a fictional role as a paid professional. The episodic works of fiction she starred in were the brainchild of several fellows from Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a firm run by Los Angeles entertainment executives. They had invented Lonelygirl15 as a media personality, specifically brewed to attract the YouTube audience. After all, LittleLoca and LisaNova had already tested the waters for them, so they knew where to navigate and which rocks to avoid. CAA—very advanced users of the system—set up Lonelygirl15 as an interactive, social representation of a person who didn’t exist. She was an avatar in video format.

Viewers, many of them fans of both LittleLoca and LisaNova, were outraged that Lonelygirl15 was actually a concocted scheme rather than a sincere teenager. They weren’t angry with the fiction; they were angry with those who created it. Is it ethical to post videos, they asked, that represent someone who doesn’t exist? Is it fair to show fiction as fact—or next to fact? And what does this mean for the community? Around this time LisaNova did another impersonation. This time her target was Lonelygirl15 and CAA. The YouTube mob continued to chant slogans, egging on a frenzy involving someone who didn’t exist, someone doing impersonations, and someone who was still “keeping it real.”

But in reality all three were avatars, and all three were fictional.

LittleLoca wasn’t Latina at all but a character played by Stevie Ryan, a white actress from Victorville, California. Ms. Ryan had other avatars, too, named Ooolalaa and TheRealParis, both of which are linked to her ”default” avatar, stevieryan.

LisaNova was the avatar of Lisa Donovan, an L.A. actress and filmmaker. Ms. Donovan built an avatar named LisaNova and used her to drive other avatars—Ms. Donovan created fictional renditions of real actors doing renditions of fictional people.

Lonelygirl15 was the avatar of “Bree,” but Bree herself was created by professionals as a fictional character. Because CAA were users of the system, Lonelygirl15 was, technically, CAA’s avatar’s avatar. Lonelygirl15 was an interactive representation of a user specifically designed for the social world of YouTube. This is why users were not angry with the avatar of Lonelygirl15, nor at “Bree, but at CAA.

And as for LlttleLoca and LlsaNova, the random impersonators? They may have been driven by the same person.

The story of the three white girls from YouTube is a collaborative fable played out in a contemporary theater, a social interaction that experimented with fiction and fact as the buttress of the narrative.

  • An avatar is a narrative device for collaborative fictions.

The three avatars of YouTube shared a social fable. They interacted within the YouTube community, each taking her time onstage and making specific offerings to an admiring public. It was a three-ring circus presenting three different versions of reality from three different perspectives. Fundamentally, it was about the social interaction. Fiction was used to spark debate, create attention, generate interest, and, paradoxically, to “keep it real.”

As with reality television, we are finding new narrative formulas of episodic content combining multiple perspectives in a story involving many people. Just as movie actors, celebrities, or rock stars can be both fictional and factual, so can avatars.

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