Ten years ago, Bree Avery started vlogging on a relatively new social platform called YouTube. To celebrate that milestone, a new video was uploaded to her channel yesterday. So, let’s try something a little different. Watch Bree’s first video blog. Got it? Great. Now watch the most recent upload to the channel.
Confused about how a girl making funny faces at the camera could evolve into some sort of cult indoctrination video? That’s perfectly understandable…this anniversary video wasn’t really designed for people with limited exposure to the lonelygirl15 universe. So here’s a brief initiation into one of YouTube’s earliest phenomenons.
Lonelygirl15: Bree’s not real…or is she?
Lonelygirl15 started so innocently. As a geeky, home-schooled teen with overbearing parents, Bree turned to YouTube with the help of her friend Daniel. Most of her early videos were opportunities to talk about her studies, complain about her parents, or just have some wholesome, pointless fun with her boy who was also a friend. Par for the course for the early days of the video sharing site, although the YouTube Community quickly pointed out that the quality of Bree’s videos were suspiciously high for a teen vlogger, and the two teens often seemed to offer more candor to the camera than each other.
More than anything else, lonelygirl15 is remembered for this blurring between the lines of fiction and reality. As the channel rose to be the most-subscribed channel on YouTube at the time. During this heady time of uncertainty, the author John Green wrote a blog entry about the situation, positing that
[Bree] gives viewers a sense that the story might be really real, and that we can uncover its really realness by paying close attention. It gives us a compelling reason to focus intently on the work…books, with few exceptions, cannot mimic this kind of realishness.
Green goes on to note that he hopes the realishness of these projects do not replace the written word since “I’m not good in front of the camera. Text is my only solid medium, and I need it to hang around.” Four months later, John and his brother Hank created the vlogbrothers YouTube account.
Four months after the channel launched, fans tracked down conclusive evidence that lonelygirl15 was a fictional project. The Guardian did an exceptional job of explaining how determined fans unmasked the show’s creators in a recent retrospective piece.
But while this is where the story ends for lonelygirl15 as a pop culture phenomenon, it also marks where the show’s actual story begins.
The most popular cult member on YouTube
As the channel’s popularity grew, the videos dropped a few hints that Bree’s overbearing parents had some esoteric beliefs. In an early video, Daniel finds himself lighting candles at a shrine to Aleister Crowley, and there’s talk of Bree attending a strange religious summer camp. After lonelygirl15 was confirmed as a work of fiction, these religious elements become the primary element of the narrative. Over the course of the series, viewers learn that Bree’s parents are members of the Hymn of One, a cult run by an organization known as “The Order”.
According to the lonelygirl15 mythos, Aleister Crowley stumbled across knowledge of “trait-positive” individuals whose blood can be used to extend peoples’ lives through a special ceremony. Unfortunately for those trait-positive individuals, the ceremony is fatal. Some factions within the Order seek to protect the trait-positives, while others seek to use them. To disguise their activities, the Order, its splinter organizations, and defectors operate under a string of fronts including the Hymn of One, OpAPHID, The Wyman Foundation, Verdus Pharmaceuticals, LaRezito, and Lifesblood Labs.
Bree was identified as trait-positive and selected for the Ceremony, and the narrative of lonelygirl15‘s first season focused on Bree and Daniel learning what that means, and trying to help Bree escape her fate.
Unfortunately, Bree gets kidnapped and brainwashed by the Order. Under their control, she making a series of promotional videos to help identify and groom new trait positive individuals, although someone going by the pseudonym “TCC” does manage to sneak hidden messages into the videos. Despite efforts to save her, the season ends when Bree is drained of blood by the Order, killing her. The series continues to explore the fates of additional trait-positive individuals across additional seasons and spinoffs, but for Bree the story ended after the show’s initial season.
Lonelygirl16: Bree’s not dead…or is she?
Which brings us to the most recent upload to the lonelygirl15 channel. Someone going by the pseudonym “M” uploaded a new promotional video to the lonelygirl15 channel. In this new video, Bree assures the trait-positive individuals that she made it through the Ceremony intact, encouraging them to freely give their blood to the Order. Like previous promotional videos, however, there are secret messages hidden, if you look hard enough. Multiple times during the video, the symbol appears that represents “The Watchers”, a faction within the order seeking to protect trait-positive individuals. When the symbol appears, viewers can click through on hidden annotations to find additional evidence.
Clicking on Bree’s right eye at 0:43 opens up a voicemail that Daniel left about tracking down a trait-positive girl who was abducted from the hospital. Thanks to a Game of Thrones spoiler reference, the voicemail was recorded recently. Clicking on her left eye at 1:17 pulls up an email transcript discussing an incident at Verdus Pharmaceuticals, a pharmaceutical company that served as one of the Order’s fronts in prior seasons. Clicking the foot of the Watchers’ symbol at 1:42 reveals a medical report from a psychiatric patient in poor shape. The urls for the three files spells out a question: “whatever happened to / that girl / yeah THAT girl”
A sneak preview of lonelygirl in 2016
In an interview with Forbes, lonelygirl15 co-creator Miles Beckett and Discourse Productions’ Jenni Powell confirmed that in addition to Jessica Rose and Yousef Abu-Taleb returning to reprise their roles as Bree and Daniel, Maxwell Glick would also be returning for the new update. It would also provide an opportunity to play around with the new platforms for storytelling that have emerged over the past decade.
The internet has changed since lonelygirl15 first rose to prominence. Even YouTube has changed – while July 16th marks the 10 year anniversary of the first lonelygirl15 video blog, the channel’s first uploads highlighted dialogues with paytotheorderofofof and thewinekone, popular YouTubers of the time. Lonelygirl15 emerged at a time when video responses provided a conversational undercurrent to the site that has changed both the nature and location of discourse.
The show’s return has led to players returning to their old forums and IRC chatrooms, but don’t be surprised if “newer” platforms like Facebook and Reddit see increased utilization this time around. While it’s too soon to tell where lonelygirl16 will play out, the YouTube channel is likely to be a central hub for the experience. To help get a grasp on the lonelygirl universe’s sprawling lore, checking out the LGPedia is a must.