published at 12:09am on 09/20/06

something intended to deceive or defraud
(Dictionary.com Unabridged v1.0.1)

That seems right, but when I think of the word “hoax” I tend to think of something more malicious, less simply fooling someone, or playing a trick on them, but deceiving with intent to do harm.

something intended to deceive; deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage
(WordNet 2.0)

That seems closer.

I’ve been thinking about hoaxes lately, ever since the collective Internet started wetting itself over the outing of the video diaries of lonelygirl15 as the project of three (male – has anyone else even started ranting about the fact that the filmmakers were all male?) filmmakers and not a teenaged home-schooled girl named Bree who was making and posting videos on the web under her parents’ noses.

People on YouTube seem particularly distressed about this realization, even though most of those who have posted response videos expressing their shock, outrage and disappointment all seem to have an inkling that the videos weren’t real in the first place. Or rather, let’s be clear on the terminology here. “Real,” in this case, means “actually made by a teenager with the help of her more tech savvy, but still teenaged, friend.” The thing that is so striking about a number of the videos that I’ve watched is that their biggest complaint is not that the videos were scripted, or that they were just a film production (though that complaint is certainly present), but that there was no longer any mystery to them. The outing of the project as simply a project, as opposed to someone’s actual life, meant that there was no more room for speculation – no more opportunity for people to convince themselves that what they were watching was actually a real life unfolding before their eyes, as opposed to the created story of a real life unfolding before their eyes.

As the great equalizer, the Internet/web has finally done its job, allowing everyone to produce the content that they all want to consume, and along with that comes the implicit (though mistaken) understanding (or perhaps merely hope) that living in isolation, physically, people are still able to reach out across the wire and actually connect with someone. That’s the crux of the matter – people that connected with lonelygirl15 felt like they made an actual connection to an actual person, not some kind of virtual connection, and that given the nature of the internet, that connection had the potential to be reciprocated.

Recently, I was talking to Kara about wanting to start experimenting with video. I noted that when using different media to document a particular moment in time, writing and photography can only ever be representations of the artist’s perception of the world, completely open to interpretation by the viewer. A page of written text can be visualized a million ways when read, and a photograph represents only a split second of the world, completely ignoring the moments immediately prior and following the image captured on film.

But video. Video, I said, was somewhere else, somewhere closer to the Truth. Video seems to capture so much more – more emotion, more feeling, more depth – in the form of movement, that watching a video is as close to Reality as you can have without actually participating in the artist’s world with him. Because our lives operate on a continuum, watching a video over time feels more real that looking at a photograph, and it is that much easier to be drawn into the assumption that we are already closely connected to the artists.

So are people upset because they were tricked? Or was it because they really believe that the advice they were giving was actually making an impact on someone’s life, and learning the truth rendered all of their connections moot? There was a perceived one-to-one connection between each audience member and lonelygirl15, aired in public, to be sure, but still intended to be a direct line between two human beings, and now all of that advice is all a lie, directed at filmmakers rather than a teenager. The fact that there is no girl on the other side of that computer, looking back out, looking for validation, is enough to make people feel that the energy that they invested in their time with Bree was wasted.

But let’s get back to the question of whether this was a hoax. Every time I heard this project described as a hoax, I cringed. I knew that the videos couldn’t be Real – they just felt too wrong to be what they claimed to be. But to describe the videos as a hoax, to attribute any amount of malicious behavior to the project, just seems to be dismissing it too easily.

I wonder whether it would have been considered a hoax if these were video diaries of an actual girl, but re-created by filmmakers, more like a staged reading of The Diary of a Young Girl Who Can’t Leave Her Room Because She’s Grounded. If the story was real, but the videos weren’t Real, would there still be this animosity? Or if the videos were Real, that is, produced by an actual teenager, but not actually real, instead scripted out of her own imagination? Would that have been any more palatable?

I wonder what bothered people more: the fact that the stories were made up, or the fact that they weren’t actually making the connection that they thought they were?

Filed under: Observations

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