The recent outing of popular YouTube personality "lonelygirl15" as an out-of-work New Zealander - who lists “American and British accents” as acting skills on her resume - has prompted many to ask why we are still so trusting of what we find on the Internet.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone these days willing to respond to a Nigerian widow’s email asking for help with a bank transfer, let alone purchase medications or stock options on the cheap from a random website. So how did lonelygirl15 fool people?
Going by the name of Bree, she seemed to be a disaffected teenager with strictly religious parents, posting short video clips detailing the unfolding dramas of her life - sneaking out to a party, getting caught by her father, battling her parents for independence. Her vlogs (video web-logs) were extraordinary only in their ordinariness, and this is what captured people’s attention; Bree’s videos topped YouTube’s "most watched" lists for almost four months. When it was revealed that lonelygirl15 was the work of a Hollywood talent agency, ostensibly promoting a “new form of storytelling”, many of her fans were disappointed.
The burgeoning YouTube community - non-existent in 2004, and so popular now that Viacom, MTV’s parent company, blames it for a decline in MTV audiences worldwide - has been revolutionary. The sense of community - real or imagined - that YouTube has created is significant. The exposure of Lonelygirl15’s creators was perhaps the moment that this community lost its innocence, yet it was only a matter of time before Hollywood creatives started on the YouTube medium.
The response has been telling, in that it reveals the extent to which people are willing to trust in what they find online. Some were not surprised at the deception, not least because of the sophisticated editing techniques of Bree’s videos. Yet some comments on "her" profile point to a real disappointment in the actress’ decision to carry the storyline beyond the vlogs and into reality, by interacting with her fans "off-screen" via messaging. One commentator argued that by answering YouTubers’ messages posted on her profile, she was pretending to be a real person and therefore taking advantage of her viewers’ trust: “that’s where she crossed the line.”
The question of whether Internet users can expect a level of honesty from the people they interact with is a difficult one. The ethics of creating a persona on YouTube are slippery. Forums like YouTube and MySpace are the new soda fountain, the new shopping mall - a place where kids hang out, chat and learn to be adults, away from the prying eyes of their parents. The difference between YouTube and the mall is that young people can project a carefully crafted image to the online world, create an identity that fits comfortably. The question emerging is whether these identities are more, or less, representative of the individual’s true self. The answer, confusingly, seems to be both - yet what is now being lost is the self; why be just one person, when many personas are available?
Jason Fortuny, an unscrupulous blogger, sets a fine example of the depths some will descend to on the Internet. In his "Craigslist Experiment", he posted a fake advertisement for a woman looking for rough male sex partners in an online marketplace. After receiving over 200 responses, Fortuny published all of them, including extremely personal photos and contact details, on the pages of his website. Some men begged him to take down the details: Fortuny refused their requests, and published these letters on his website too.
While one may think that these men deserve what they got, the case raises some difficult questions. Arguably, the men who replied to Fortuny’s ad were revealing their true identity - yet on the other hand, were they only doing so because of the supposed anonymity of the Internet? Fortuny was, technically, not playing outside the rules when he misrepresented himself on Craigslist. But how clear are the rules?
There is no simple solution to the quest for honesty in representation on the Net. We can take some relief in the thought that even the most tech-savvy among us aren’t safe from virtual fraudsters. In another corner of the web, a player in the massive role-playing game Eve Online, "Cally", set up an in-game corporation called the "Eve Intergalactic Bank". Cally collected hundreds of other players as customers, and his bank offered interest, loans and insurance, just like in the real world.
The problem was that Cally absconded with his customers deposits, by virtually flying off into space, as the game allows any player to do - earning himself a cool 790 billion "inter stellar kredits" (equivalent to AU$225,650) and effectively bankrupting hundreds of players in the game. In true criminal mastermind style, Cally even thought to record a fairly long confessional video in which he details his crimes, mocks the online gaming community and reveals, rather obviously, that he is a pirate.
Certainly, as users of the Internet we must all be aware of the fractured (un)reality it can create. The sense of community the Net can provide is meaningful, and contributes to the ever-increasing sense of this planet being a "global village". Unfortunately, this virtual community also affords pranksters, pirates and PR people fertile ground for deception.