In 2006, YouTube users had never seen the name “Logan Paul.” There was no TanaCon. Vlogging was still relatively unheard of as a hobby, let alone a career. In the first year or so since the platform’s launch, YouTube was mostly a place for cat videos and personal archives. Those who did venture to post what were initially called “video blogs” were the first of their kind, but none were as revolutionary as LonelyGirl15.
On 16th June 2006, someone claiming to be a 16-year-old named Bree posted a video titled “First Blog / Dorkiness Prevails” on her channel Lonelygirl15. It’s just one and half minutes long, with Bree briefly introducing herself before making some faces. As she posted more videos, we learned about her friends (or, friend, Daniel, who became a familiar face in Bree’s videos and had a YouTube channel of his own), her education (she was homeschooled), and her religion (something mysterious that her parents were involved in). The videos began innocuously, but took a slow, dark turn, with Bree mentioning fights with her parents and Band-Aids appearing on her arm.
Through Bree’s videos, Daniel’s videos, and information they found on social media, viewers figured out Bree was in a religious cult called Hymn of One, which turned out to be a front for an organisation called The Order that Bree never fully explained — she was always very active in the comments, but refused to answer questions about her religion.
People were hooked. The initial videos averaged between 50,000 and 100,000 views, later climbing to half a million, according to The Guardian. While this isn’t the same level as the 2005 Saturday Night Live digital short “Lazy Sunday,” considered to be the first viral YouTube video with its five million views, the consistency of Lonelygirl15’s views made her one of the first staples of the platform.
“We were very invested in the story line,” 22-year-old Annie Bonello told Refinery29 about her and her sister’s obsession with the videos. “It was for sure the first time I had ever seen a YouTube video that was filmed in vlog form. Up until then I had only seen funny videos, bloopers, music vids...etc.”
“I was pretty into it, I liked that there was kind of a ‘I want to piece this together’ component of it,” 25-year-old Megan Shaw explained. “They did a good job of revealing enough information about certain things to make you want to figure out what was going to happen.”
What happened was more than anyone had expected. On 3rd September 2006, Bree revealed she had been chosen to participate in a mysterious “ceremony,” fuelling the viewer speculation that Bree was in a cult. But on 8th September, the LA Times published an article confirming another prominent theory: Bree isn’t real at all. The entire story, including Hymn of One and The Order, was fiction.
As fans flocked to forums to discuss their suspicions, pointing out inconsistencies in videos and the timing of certain LonelyGirl15-related websites being registered, LA Times reporters Richard Rushfield and Claire Hoffman were doing some digging of their own.
“No one has publicly come forward to lay claim to her work, but she is starting to look as connected in Hollywood as any starlet,” the first piece by the outlet read. “Three Lonelygirl15-obsessed amateur web sleuths set up a sting using tracking software that appears to show that e-mails sent from a Lonelygirl15 account came from inside the offices of the Beverly Hills-based talent agency Creative Artists Agency.”
Specifically, it came from former CAA employee Amanda Goodfried, wife of then-27-year-old lawyer Greg Goodfried who, along with 28-year-old Miles Beckett, 26-year-old Mesh Flinders, and 19-year-old New Zealand actress Jessica Lee Rose, brought LonelyGirl15 to life. Beckett, who was a doctor when this first began in 2006, told The Guardian in 2016 that this whole idea started after “Lazy Sunday” went viral, giving him the crazy idea to tell a story on YouTube just as you would on a TV show. It wasn’t until he met Flinders at a karaoke bar in LA that year that he found another person as excited about the idea as he was.
"Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story,” the creators said in a MySpace statement following the outing. “A story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the internet. A story that is interactive and constantly evolving with the audience."
This realisation created a new wave of fervour that seduced even The New York Times, drawing in another wave of fans — and dividing old ones. While Bonello said she stopped watching after the reveal because it “ruined all the drama,” 27-year-old Sarah Morgan Cohen-Smith “was too invested to stop at that point.”
Despite being outed as fiction, the web series continued until August 2008, exploring the web of characters affected by the fictional religious cult that it was later revealed performed “ceremonies” on those who were considered “trait positive,” or those whose DNA was believed to hold secrets to curing diseases like cancer. What the ceremony ultimately entailed was the transfer of blood from a trait positive member to an Elder. This is a fate Bree eventually suffered, resulting in her season 1 death. Her story continued in subsequent videos with the original characters, including Daniel (played by Yousef Abu-Taleb), as well as new characters who became tangled in this web.
While the style and mystery clearly took inspiration from the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project, LonelyGirl15 was a precursor of its own. Ten years after the show’s finale, vlogging and cults are dominating the zeitgeist. YouTube personality Poppy has drawn LonelyGirl15 comparisons in the sense that she’s playing the character of YouTuber and comes with a seemingly sinister past. It could also be argued that even regular, genuine vloggers owe some of their success to the web series, as it was the first YouTube channel to use product integration.
As for cults, they’ve been the recent subject of extremely popular shows like docuseries Wild Wild Country, American Horror Story, and The Path, not to mention movies like Holy Hell and podcasts like Heaven’s Gate. They still manage to plague YouTube.
"I'm not in a cult," YouTuber Kevin Wu, known in the early days of YouTube as KevJumba, clarified to The Hollywood Reporter in an interview about his retreat from the platform. It sounds silly, but it’s worth pointing out when YouTubers like Marina Joyce tried to pivot to cult leader, and gaming YouTuber Athene lives with 25 of his followers. YouTube is also a platform that has become a tool for recruiting digital cult members, and has acted as a microphone for people like Teal Swan to espouse their controversial spiritual guidance.
It’s easy to laugh at how much has changed since LonelyGirl15 logged off 2008 but it’s more remarkable to notice what’s stayed the same. She wasn’t just telling her story, but a version of a story audiences would continue both to replicate and seek for the next decade. However, the creators admitted to The Guardian that nothing like LonelyGirl15 could ever be pulled off again — not on YouTube, at least.
“I think it would be really hard to do something that feels real but isn’t real, and have people be fooled anymore,” said Beckett told the outlet 2016. “There have been tons of hoaxes and other things since Lonelygirl, and I think they’ve been figured out pretty damn fast because people are skeptical.”
And it’s this skepticism that fuels our interest in cults, anyways. It’s why we binge watch TV series, devour podcasts, and get lost in Wikipedia. It’s almost too crazy to be true — and in the case of Lonelygirl15, it was.