Down The Rabbit Hole: The Hunt For Bree
In the summer of 2006, as the Lonelygirl15 video series gained popularity on YouTube, a growing collection of fans became obsessed with cracking the mystery of lonelygirl15. The Hunt for Bree became a major internet phenomenon that captured the attention of many YouTubers and was heavily covered in the mainstream media.
By the time the first lonelygirl15 vlog appeared on YouTube on June 16, Bree had already developed a large fan base. Two videos had been posted to her account, YouTubers Secret Language and Paytotheorderofofof vs. Dinosaur, which included references to many popular YouTubers at the time. By friending popular users, such as Paytotheorderofofof and The Wine Kone, and subscribing to hundreds of channels, Bree quickly attracted fans.
Suspicions that Bree was something other than a 16-year-old homeschooler began almost immediately. In the comments of Bree's first video, some users already questioned whether she was really 16.
More suspicions quickly arose around lonelygirl15. The editing in her videos was distinctive. While most vloggers would record one long take and post it without much editing, Bree's videos consisted of dozens of short takes. While not outside the technical capabilities of a smart high schooler, the process seemed unnecessarily time consuming.
Others noted that Bree's video blog was unusually well-lit. It appeared that Bree employed a technique called fill lighting to provide illumination on the part of her face that was in shadows. Still others cited Bree's striking good looks, flawless complexion and distinctive eyebrows as suspicious.
Is That a... Story Arc?
As the series developed, many fans noted that lonelygirl15's videos appeared to have a plot. This alleged storyboarding suggested that lonelygirl15 was working off a script. The videos were more episodic and on-point than most vloggers at the time.
- School Work in Summer... -- establishes Bree's protective parents
- The Danielbeast -- introduces Bree's geeky editor, Daniel.
- Grillz -- shows the two having fun together.
- My Parents Suck... -- introduces the conflict between parents and Daniel.
- Daniel Responds -- a soliloquy from Daniel.
- Daniel Returns -- the story arc resolves.
Throughout the series, similar sequences of events have unfolded. The technique was described by Brian Flemming as a video adaptation of the Epistolary Novel.
Enter Bukanator: An Over-Eager Fan
Amid the comments of Bree's very first video, a YouTube user named Bukanator commented, "This is wonderful." Bukanator responded favorably to every early video Bree posted, at times defending Bree from critical comments. Bukanator was supposedly a 38-year-old software engineer from San Francisco.
After less than a month of videos, on July 16th, Bukanator announced in the comments of YouTube that he had created a fan site for Bree at lonelygirl15.com. As Bukanator was supposedly a 38-year-old man, this struck many people as very strange and inappropriate behavior. The site contained a blog of all the videos as well as a forum for discussion, which seemed unnecessary since lonelygirl15 had posted relatively few videos at this point. On July 19, the blog Liquid Generation reported that YouTube users looked up the site registration of lonelygirl15.com.
A search in a WHOIS directory revealed that the site had been registered on May 12th, 2006, along with lonelygirl15.org and lonelygirl15.net. Since Bree had not posted her first video until May 24 and her first vlog until June 16, it was impossible for a random fan to have registered the site that early. The site had been registered through DomainsByProxy, the default proxy registration site of GoDaddy.com.
When confronted about this discrepancy, Bukanator claimed that Daniel had registered the site. Daniel then claimed in YouTube comments that he had been teasing Bree about how she was going to be a famous vlogger, and he registered the site as a joke. He further claimed that Bukanator had e-mailed him about starting a fan site and so he let him use lonelygirl15.com.
Virtually nobody believed the story. On July 20th, YouTube user gohepcat became the first to post a video listing arguments that lonelygirl15 was fake, citing the fan site registration, the story arc, the use of fill-lighting and the odd fact that Daniel is allowed in Bree's bedroom with the door closed.
Crowley: An Unlikely Icon
In the video, What Did Daniel and Dad Talk About?, posted on YouTube on August 6, 2006, Daniel begins lighting candles around Bree's room. When he walks to Bree's bookshelf, the image above the candles is briefly, but clearly shown on camera. Bree scolds Daniel when he attempts to light the candles. Viewers of the video on YouTube quickly identified the image as Aleister Crowley.
Bree had mentioned in previous videos that her parent's were strictly religious. In the comments to her videos on YouTube she went so far as to identify her religion as non-Christian, but claimed reluctance to share more information as she suspected viewers would not be kind. Only a very small number of viewers had seen the YouTube comment that Bree was not Christian, so the Crowley picture was extremely surprising.
Within days, a video called Lonelygirl15 is a Satanist appeared on YouTube inaccurately linking Crowley to Satanism and Adolf Hitler. The video went on to claim that lonelygirl15 was a promotion for museumofhoaxes.com, the first of many wildly inaccurate theories on the production.
A thread on Bree's religion became the first active thread at lonelygirl15.com's forum. Over the course of the next few weeks hundreds of fans registered at the forum and the frenzied posting and media storm which eventually led to Bree's outing began.
In the Eye of the Media Storm
With the appearance of Aleister Crowley, the suspicion about the Web site, and the growing amount of media attention, beginning with Virginia Heffernan's late July blog, the search for lonelygirl reached a frenzy in mid-August. Beginning with HyeMew on Aug. 7, first dozens and soon hundreds of fans registered at the phorum and began attempts to solve the mystery.
Fans were led astray by a number of red-herring theories. For a long-period of time, many believed that film-maker Brian Flemming who had written about LG in his blog was the main suspect, and that the videos were part of an upcoming movie. Many suspected that the project was viral-marketing for a Hollywood film, such as an upcoming film Pattern Recognition based on a novel that has similarities to the lonelygirl15 production. Upcoming horror movies were also suspects, such as The Grudge II.
As new theories surfaced, journalists like Jon Fine, Richard Rushfield and Virginia Heffernan raced to get denials from accused parties. A number of actresses were falsely identified as Bree, despite sometimes bearing only the vaguest resemblance, including several actresses known to Brian Flemming, several small-time actresses on MySpace, and even the well-known British actress Jodi Albert. Users such as T and Bree's top on MySpace, also caused diversions.
Despite the abundance of false theories, information about the videos was slowly discovered:
- On August 28, poster Flwright, an architect, opined from the appearance of the rooms that the videos were filmed in apartment buildings instead of detached single family housing, suggesting that the videos were an amateur production.
- On August 29 a report of a botanist that the Hiking video had likely taken place in central to southern California was posted. This was the first concrete evidentiary link to California.
- On August 30, a mysterious poster known as Curious Botanist also linked the flora in the new Swimming video to southern California.
- On September 1, poster scdgoofy uncovered that Kenneth Goodfried, an attorney in Encino, California, had filed to register lonelygirl15 as a trademark on August 21st, 2006.
Users also discovered that in several videos Daniel was holding contemporary magazines, and that the calendar in Bree's room, which was widely available at Target, displayed the correct month, establishing that the videos were likely filmed in real time. Purple Monkey, Owen, and many of the items in Bree's room were also found to be available at Target.
Journalists and bloggers wrote about each discovery, and as the phenomenon grew, the phorum became increasingly unreadable. Members of the phorum and the media, many who were spending their entire days trying to unearth clues became increasingly frustrated.
The Rise of the Phorum 3
Toward the end of August, a group of users decided that the phorum was compromised and that further attempts to discover Bree's identity would require plotting outside of the phorum. A group of 6 phorum members exchanged Instant Messenger contacts and developed a plot to capture Bree's IP address. The group eventually became known as the Phorum 3 as their numbers dwindled.
One member of the original 6 immediately notified Bree and Daniel of the trap, which he felt went too far on the off-chance that these were real teenagers. Another member refused to participate, feeling that the IP trapping crossed a line. The Phorum 3, led by a poster named Jessica nevertheless acquired an IP address they believed to be Bree's. By utilizing SharpDressedMan's trace-route software from various parts of the world, the Phorum 3 believed they had located Bree. But the IP they had caught was resolved to AOL, and the actual location of the internet user posing as Bree could have been anywhere in California, with root servers in Mountain View.
On an Aug. 31 post, Jessica said that the IP address pointed to Mountain View, California, which she incorrectly believed was the same as San Mateo. Jessica suggested that the most likely explanation for Bree's videos was that they were created by YouTube itself, which is based in San Mateo.
Although her theory was completely incorrect, it was cited in several media outlets as likely. Also on Aug. 31, Jon Fine of Business Week, published his theory that lonelygirl15 was "created by a small coterie of creative types." Fine's article used only anonymous sources, and it is unknown how much he actually knew. The noise generated from the Phorum 3's false theory, nevertheless drowned out Fine's correct theory.
The phorum descended into chaos as users argued about the accusations made against YouTube. Starting on Sept. 4, posters began to abandon the phorum and relocated to a new fan site known as Alissa's Lonelygirl phorum. Within a few days, the phorum was empty, and was soon replaced by a new PHPbb supported forum.
The CAA Connection
As the YouTube theory unraveled, Phorum 3 member Shaina Wedmedyk secretly set-up a new trap, using a newly created MySpace page. This was the tactic that had been used before, but undisclosed on the forums so as to not alert Bree et al. to their ways. On the MySpace page she laid a tracker which would record the IP address of anyone who visited. Claiming to be a 17-year-old boy named Seth, she sent a message to Bree's MySpace account enticing her to visit the profile. Within a couple days, Bree sent a message in reply. The only person who had visited the page within hours of that message being sent had an IP address tracing to the Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills, one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood. It was later confirmed that Amanda Goodfried, the online voice of Bree, worked in the Business Affairs department at CAA and had been sending messages while at work.
The Phorum 3, having previously spoken with Richard Rushfield because of their findings of Mountain View, went to him again with their discovery. Shaina Wedmedyk reportedly spent the early morning hours of Sept. 3rd explaining her clear-cut findings to Rushfield during her first week of college. Rushfield presumably e-mailed lonelygirl15 for comment. Nobody replied to Rushfield, but on the evening of Sept. 7, A Message From The Creators appeared on the now-abandoned lonelygirl15.com Web site. The message included little information, beyond saying that lonelygirl15 was a small production. Presumably the Creators had been tipped off that the story was ready to break, and decided to come clean. A few hours later, Rushfield's story appeared on the LA Times Web site, linking the production to the Creative Artists Agency. The story was quickly spread by other media outlets, many fans were unhappy with the Creators message, and some early fans lost interest. But the uproar attracted a new generation of fans to the series, and the hunt for Bree, who remained unidentified, continued.
The Final Nail
The Message From The Creators, which was supposed to have drawn fans away from their hunt for Bree's true identity, only intensified the search. Pictures of Bree appeared in newspapers and blogs across the world. The final nail in the coffin, came from a Sept. 9 post on the blog TMZ.com, lonelygirl15 aint so lonely anymore. TMZ claimed to know the hilarious secret behind the series, but never explained what that secret was.
The celebrity-obsessed crowd at TMZ was not interested in anything except drunken actors like Mel Gibson or Paris Hilton. On Sept. 10, at approximately 1:30 a.m., a user named Jeremy made the following post on TMZ.com:
31. wow i cant believe tmz would put this on the front page, thats PUKE!.. i think ive seen this chick before on myspace through a friend heres her link http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=21355632 although its set on private... AH YEAH! = ( Posted at 1:31AM on Sep 10th 2006 by Jeremy
The link provided linked to the MySpace profile of "Jess Rose", but the profile was set on private, and the profile picture was only of someone's mouth.
At 1:16 a.m. Eastern Time, on Sept. 12, a poster at The Children of Anchor Cove fan site known only as Ennovi, used Google Cache to find an old version of the MySpace profile which included the information that Jessica Rose was a 19-year-old aspiring actress from New Zealand, who had set her profile private shortly before the lonelygirl15 series began. Throughout the day, more pictures of Jessica Rose were discovered.
Later that day the Silicon Valley Watcher blog discovered pictures of Jess Rose on Google that linked to the Clyne Management agency in New Zealand. YouTube user mgpapas, discovered a cached version of Jess Rose's photobucket account and quickly posted a montage of the pictures on YouTube. Both mgpapas and Silicon Valley Watcher claimed full-credit for discovering Bree's identity, even though what they really found were simply additional pictures.
By the evening of Sept. 12, Virginia Heffernan had published photos of Bree, and fleshed out details of the story received from an interview with Grant Steinfeld. Richard Rushfield at the Los Angeles Times, also published the first interview with the Creators where they revealed themselves as Miles Beckett, Mesh Flinders, and Greg Goodfried. For the next several days, the cast and crew appeared in numerous television interviews.
By Sept. 13, Yousef Abu-Taleb was also identified and appeared in a number of television interviews.
While some fans who only cared about the mystery behind the series lost interest, a new generation of fans found the lonelygirl15 story and fell for Bree, became entangled in the mysteries, obsessed over fans twists, such as Cassieiswatching, and joined the community at the lonelygirl15.com Web site.
Throughout the hunt, the Breeniverse was relatively undisturbed by the developing news. Later in the day on Sept. 13 the video In The Park appeared. The secret was out. The hunt for Bree was over, but the story of Bree continued.
|The Hunt For Bree|
|Early Cast and Crew||Yousef Abu-Taleb · Miles Beckett · Mesh Flinders · Greg Goodfried · Amanda Goodfried · Jessica Lee Rose|
|Associated Peoples||Jon Fine · Brian Flemming · Kenneth Goodfried · Lisa Goodfried · Virginia Heffernan · Richard Rushfield · Grant Steinfeld|
|The Fans||Flwright · Gohepcat · HyeMew · Jessica · Shaina Wedmedyk · SharpDressedMan · t · Terryfic|