In 2006, as a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, I joined in what was at that time the largest manhunt in human history: the search for lonelygirl15.
At the time, all the world knew about this shadowy underworld figure was that she claimed to be a teenage girl shooting videos of herself on a webcam from her teenage bedroom somewhere in the great sprawl of America. As the world became entranced by the beguiling and wise innocence of her two-minute films, the demand grew to a ferocious roar for the young star to step forward and accept all the honors that a celebrity-driven society could bestow on an instant sensation. And when Bree, aka lonelygirl, failed to materialize, the suspicion arose that perhaps this was some sort of fraud-that the world was being put on.
Was lonelygirl a publicity stunt for an upcoming movie, or some kind of product tie-in? The videos alluded to a strange religion to which Bree and her family belonged; could she be a tool for brainwashing to a sinister cult? Or were these tapes from beyond the grave? A child slavery ring? A high school theater project? All these possibilities seemed probable as the hunt for lonelygirl suddenly ignited and captured the attention of the world’s most accomplished detectives, including me.
For weeks, I spent nights up until dawn searching for the truth of lonelygirl. I combed message boards looking for clues, hacked into disabled MySpace accounts of alleged friends, attended concerts of bands favored by Bree, had late-night secret meetings at Hamburger Hamlets with mysterious informants. I begged Australian high schools to FedEx me copies of old yearbooks.
My office walls were covered with charts and evidence sheets, attempting to triangulate the mysterious lonelygirl. As the great newspapers and media outlets of the world turned their cannons on the hunt, it seemed impossible that no one had seen this girl ever. Was she a computer generated hologram? Was she being stowed in a safe house in darkest Tibet? The longer the hunt went on, the greater grew the sense that this was just not possible-and somewhere there was a portal behind which were stored the mysteries of the universe and we were all just walking right past it.
In the end, working with a team of heroic researchers who came together online, we cracked the case and I was able to bring lonelygirl to justice. Through a painstaking sting operation, we were able to establish a connection between lonelygirl and the world’s premiere talent agency, proving that Bree was in fact a fictional creation. After a long, grueling hunt, I found myself early one morning sitting across a conference table from Jessica Lee Rose, the brilliant young actress who portrayed Bree in the series.
At that pre-dawn meeting, followed by a round of interviews with dozens of reporters from around the world, it became very clear that what lay ahead of us all was one of the most confused, misguided-one might even say retarded-chapters of human history. The internet age had brought forth episodes of buffoonery the likes of which our forefathers could only have dreamed.
Only now, as the decade draws to a close and this new media age really just takes off, can the full lessons of The Hunt for Lonelygirl begin to be understood. Here, years later, is what we can take away:
§ Nothing will ever again be too trivial: I spent months trying to unearth the truth of a girl talking into a webcam about the guy at school who liked her but with whom she just wanted to be friends. So did the great media outlets of the world. And when the truth was uncovered, it was on the cover of every paper everywhere.
§ Hysteria will ever lay in wait: Once a few people started getting excited about this mystery online, like a flash mob, like h1n1, the frenzy spread and we were powerless not to join in. With all of us glued to the web, habitually scanning and refreshing in search of the news, diversion and novelty, there is no defense against a good ridiculous insane mystery. The road to balloon boy was very short from that point.
§ The wisdom of the web is a bunch of hooey: The lonelygirl research teams drew professionals from every discipline and field of study known to man, who pooled their talents to crowdsource the hunt. Horticulturists examined the flora dotting some videos and pronounced it native to only a very tiny part of Northern California. Crews from major Hollywood productions drew graphs proving that the lighting on the videos had to be a very expensive, complex set-up only available to professional crews. When I met Jessica and the lonelygirl team, they told me that the lighting in the video had consisted of a desk lamp, turned in different directions and also sometimes they opened a window. And they had never shot anywhere near Northern California. The Web, simply put, is a humongous moron.
§ No one is actually listening anymore: One of the great frustrations of the lonelygirl hunt was the fact that, despite having her face plastered everywhere in media, for weeks and weeks no clue about her identity emerged. How was this possible that no one had seen her? Well, it was possible because, despite everyone on earth in one way or another seeing her face (certainly everyone who used the internet), no one was actually paying attention. It was presumed by detectives on the case that if Bree was a fake, she must have been recruited in some distant land and kept locked away in a safe house. In fact, she lived near Hollywood and was an active aspiring actress, with headshots, acting classes and all kinds of industry acquaintances. She had worked in the make-up department of King Kong, for crying out loud. When I met Jessica, I asked her if, instead of doing all the charts and hacking if I had just sat at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard (the latte grounds of young Hollywood) for a couple weeks, would I have seen her there? She admitted I would have. She was right under the nose of the media but no one had put it together, or been thinking, or paying attention….
History will long remember the astonishing work my peers and I did during those historic weeks. Cracking the case of the lonelygirl remains the finest hour of post-modern journalism, and Jessica herself now belongs to history. But despite the glory that this adventure bestowed on all involved, the knowledge that it ushered in an extremely spazzy age will forever haunt all those whose lives it touched.