MyScam: the PR puff behind ‘internet stars’
From the new blogger-on-the-block, LonelyGirl15, to pop stars Sandi Thom and Lily Allen: the rise of online celebs is not as organic as you think.
Have you heard about the latest web phenomenon? On the surface it sounds a bit dull. A home-schooled 16-year-old American girl, calling herself Bree and operating under the blogger title ‘LonelyGirl15’, has been posting a video diary on YouTube, documenting her ‘so-called’ life in two-minute snatches since 15 June 2006. Her parents, she says, are soooo strict; she also lets us meet Daniel, her friend who has an obvious crush on her but who she doesn’t like ‘in that way’; and she has a hand-puppet called the Purple Monkey who does silly things like judge an impromptu cookie contest. Purple Monkey also recently staged a press conference admitting that the video blog is, in fact, a ‘project’ and ‘I don’t think anyone at the project expected it to evolve the way it did…..’
Yes, it seems that this latest organic phenomenon to fire imaginations all across the web and blogosphere is another fug of sham and hype. But most bloggers don’t seem to mind, because if there’s one thing a web addict likes more than a fad, it’s a conspiracy. So the impromptu love affair with sweet young Bree morphed into a detective’s mission to dig up the truth about ‘LonelyGirl15’. Certainly, Bree seems a little too professional to be true, and her video diaries are just too entertaining and well-produced. Video diaries on YouTube generally bore the pants off anyone unfortunate enough to have been sent a link to them in an email from their cousin Jeb in the Canadian wilderness. Rarely do they generate an average of 600,000 hits a day, as Bree/LonelyGirl15 did.
Some press commentators are breathless with anticipation about what’s going to happen next in the Bree/LonelyGirl saga. Is she a front for a corporation that has something to sell us? Or is her blog real and therefore the birth of ‘a new art form’ – or fake and therefore the birth of a new art form? The theory generating the most excitement is that we are witnessing the unravelling of a new Blair Witch Project, that low-budget, camcorder horror film that was promoted with pre-release rumours that it depicted real events. Perhaps Bree’s carefully crafted bulletins straight to our computer screens are a lead-up to a feature film of some kind. An article in the British online magazine The First Post asks: ‘Why is there a picture of Aleister Crowley, the old devil worshipper, above her dresser…?’ It notes that a storyline seems to be developing. Isolated and bored by her life in Hicksville, California, Bree tells us she is being groomed for a special religious ceremony for which she has been ‘chosen’ and which involves ‘learning things’ and ‘losing weight’….
Moreover, the plot thickened (or became entirely transparent) when intrepid bloggers discovered that that the screen name LonelyGirl15 had been patented by a lawyer in Encino, California, called Kenneth Goodfied, a month prior to the launch of the videos. And he refuses to comment on these findings. The bloggers then created a ‘sting’ to catch the next video release from Bree as it was uploaded, tracing it back to the source computer. Where did it come from? Why, Hollywood, of course – direct from the server at the Creative Artists Agency, ‘the superagents without whom no movie gets made’, as The First Post put it. In response to these suspicions of professional management, LonelyGirl15 has replied: ‘What can I say? Hmmm. My friend Daniel helped me set up this account and he helps me out with the videos (he’s kinda a computer genius).’
If LonelyGirl15 is a sophisticated sales device, or even if she isn’t, it was only a matter of time before the viral marketers had a crack at exploiting the ripe domain of YouTube. That’s what viral marketers are paid to do: get into our brains and encourage us to infect the brains of others with stuff we wouldn’t normally be interested in. They have already cracked MySpace, the virtual community of bloggers, aspiring musicians and young people in general, which has recently apparently launched various pop and media careers. In truth, though, the recent history of MySpace shows that apparently self-generating phenomena – beamed live from lonely, suburban bedrooms to a fairytale cast of thousands – are, like Bree/LonelyGirl15, not in the slightest bit self-generated.
Northern guitar band the Arctic Monkeys and pop starlets Lily Allen and Sandi Thom have all rocketed to the top of the charts on the back of ‘organic’ publicity ostensibly created by an uprising of youth fervour on the MySpace site. Each of them is often referred to as part of ‘the MySpace phenomenon’. MySpace geeks are, apparently, ‘early adopters’, socially precocious individuals whose word is law and whose infectious enthusiasm for a new musical outfit will infect the whole populace before long. This notion is, to put it as politely as possible, codswallop. Worthy singer-songwriter Sandi Thom, who sings that irritating song about wishing she could be a ‘punk rocker, with flowers in my hair’, was made for the Radio 2 playlist. Lily Allen – whom one blogger describes as ‘the equivalent of 😉 in an email’ – was made for Radio 1 at teatime. The Arctic Monkeys are the answer to the NME’s prayers. The story goes that these artists made it by putting their stuff on MySpace and having it spread by word-of-mouth among a mass audience. In fact, each had management and PR in place comfortably in advance of their internet launch.
The UK Independent described Sandi Thom’s rise as consisting of a £60 webcam and a self-penned announcement that she would do a run of 21 gigs from her basement in order to cut down on travel expenses. ‘The first night 70 people tuned in to watch…. [B]y the middle of next week she was performing to a peak audience of 162,000.’ Furious bloggers refute the idea, claiming that the internet interest in Thom was generated not via online buzz but through a small puff piece in the The Times (London). The ‘struggling artist’ already had a lucrative record deal and employed expensive technology specialists Streaming Tank to manage her live webcasts. Lily Allen’s rise, too, had much less to do with MySpace chatter than with a knock-out cover story in the Observer Music Monthly before she had performed a single gig. Mutterings that her dad happened to be actor/comedian Keith Allen – who happens to be mates with journalist Miranda Sawyer, contributor to Observer Music Monthly and other publications – quickly became deafening.
Everyone likes to think they’re the wildebeest in a paddock full of lambs bleating to the same tune. And today, that is the very illusion the marketers try to sell you – that you’re the one who’s on the money, who’s an innovator, who listens to bands and solo artists that no one else has yet heard of. Where pop advertisers might have tried to sell artists in the past on the basis that they were popular and therefore good, today they try to sell us artists as being ‘underground’, ‘organic’, cultish phenomena that you – as a discerning YouTube or MySpace user – managed to uncover all on your own! The truth, of course, is far more complicated. Apart from anything else, MySpace became an underground success precisely because it was a paradise field for the lonely forager – and lonely foragers, musos and geeks tend, by their nature, to keep their finds to themselves. They’re just not the sort to get enthused by Lily Allen’s winking – and even if they are, they’re not the type to pass that kind of information around.
But just as it’s cynical for the music industry to fabricate Cinderella stories for their most prized new assets, the push-button reaction of the bloggers who try to shoot down and expose these Cinderellas is also mystifying. It reinforces the same myth: that the average music consumer is deaf and needs to be told what to listen to. Anyone with ears can judge the musical merits of Sandi Thom, Lilly Allen and their ilk without the blogging nation wagging their fingers in unison, shockingly exposing another industry plot to convince us that an album made to soundtrack an elevator is actually ‘real’ and ‘integral’.
Yes, we know by now that when acres of coverage are generated by a new online phenomenon – and when a spruced-up bandwagon chugs its way through the popular consciousness – the chances are that the experience isn’t really ‘organic’ at all, and somebody somewhere’s been trundling the wheel.
Emily Hill works at spiked.