Digital Age Storytelling: SKAM, Lil Miquela, and lonelygirl15

Lonelygirl15, a cult classic webseries from the early days of YouTube, started modestly. In the first episodes, it looked like just a vlog from a girl named Bree, who was homeschooled, sheltered, and often bored. It was similar to a lot of the other vlog channels on the platform, where young people made grainy videos on their webcams. There was nothing to indicate it was particularly unique. But as time went on, and more episodes were uploaded, strange things started happening in the videos. “Bree” kept making references to her religion, and the restrictions it imposed on her. Weird objects would pop up in the background of her videos, just lying around in her room. She made references to a ritual that she was going to participate in soon. Viewers began to speculate about what was happening — what was this religion she kept mentioning? She never gave the name. And what was this ritual, which seemed more and more insidious with every episode? Eventually, when “Bree” was discovered to be an actress from New Zealand named Jessica Lee Rose, it became clear that lonelygirl15 was not simply an ordinary vlog made by an ordinary teenager, but a webseries about a fictional cult. With the ruse unveiled three months after the first episode was posted, the show was able to push into more fantastical territory — the religion was revealed as group called “The Order” looking to use the main character as a human sacrifice because of her “trait positive” blood.

Lonelygirl15 started with seeming truth and pushed it as far as it could go, testing to see how far reality could stretch before it burst at the seams and collapsed into obvious fiction. Is this seemingly ordinary teenage girl with a vlog actually involved in a sacrificial death cult? Or is this fiction? This was in line with other works that had come before — movies like “Fargo” and “The Blair Witch Project,” both of which implied that they were real stories before unveiling a narrative nearly too impossible to be believed. These stories cozied up to the line between truth and fiction, testing how much you could make an audience believe simply by telling them that what they were watching was an account of true events.

Now, of course, we live in a different world. We know too well that people often will believe falsehoods, that fake news is abundant. The existence of the website snopes.com is a testament to the fact that it’s often very difficult to tell what’s true and what’s not. In this new environment, we’re drawn to stories that blur truth and fiction in different ways than “lonelygirl15,” “Fargo,” and “The Blair Witch Project” did. Take the Instagram account for Miquela Sousa (@LilMiquela), and Bermuda (@bermudaisbae), two CGI Instagram influencers. Despite quite clearly being computer generated avatars, the two accounts have amassed impressive numbers of followers. Lil Miquela is photographed wearing real clothes which were loaned by designers to be photographed on her computer-generated body. And much like lonelygirl15 did, the people who run the accounts seem to be constructing a fantastical sci-fi style narrative, centering around a company called Cain Industries, which is supposed to have created Bermuda and Lil Miquela, and a company called Brud, which allegedly “stole” Lil Miquela from her creator. Cain Industries doesn’t seem to exist, but Brud has a website and a functioning social media presence that talks about Lil Miquela as though she is a real person. (The Cut has an excellent rundown on Brud, Cain Industries, and the online feud that recently went down between the two girls.)

If lonelygirl15 was an experiment in suspension in disbelief, Lil Miquela is the inverse. Lil Miquela’s creators start with an obvious fiction and attempt to build up a semblance of reality from that clear falsehood. Similarly, the web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “SKAM” create social media presences for their characters to great effect; you can follow along with the characters in real time, as their stories unfold, and see the way those characters interact with each other on social media. Although it’s clear to the viewers that they are watching a scripted social media presence, it creates a feeling of false authenticity. The Instagram profiles for the teenage characters on “SKAM” aren’t populated by glossy promo pics or show posters, they’re filled with exactly the same kind of pictures any teenager might post — filtered but not retouched, not professionally lit, staged, or photographed. In fact, if you weren’t familiar with the show, there’s nothing in the profiles that would indicate that these weren’t actual teenagers, but of course, the profiles wouldn’t be of any interest if you didn’t watch the show.

Perhaps what’s compelling about these fictional characters masquerading as real people is that they’re immediately legible as falsehoods. We don’t have to puzzle out or linger over whether what we’re seeing is real — we know that it’s not. It gives the sense that we’re investing in them with full knowledge, and with our own free will. Sure, we’re treating lies as though they’re reality, but we know what they are. We’re in on the joke. This kind of legibility is soothing, something to moor yourself to and to count on. In these contexts, we know what to believe.

It’s worth noting that Lil Miquela’s account, although filled with fictional posts and devised narratives, is really no different from the social media presence of any other famous person, or really of any other regular person. Lil Miquela’s image is constructed in just the same way as anyone else’s is — it’s curated and scripted and tells a narrative that the creators want the viewer to believe. But that’s just what most of us do on social media platforms anyway. And yet people take these social media posts as indications of how the users are as people. Psychologist Jennifer Goldbeck discusses the way our relationships with celebrities feel like friendships, even though we know logically that they aren’t, and that can reasonably be extended to people we follow on Instagram. We emotionally invest in one-sided relationships with celebrities and even fictional characters that we engage with regularly because they still feel real.

The setup for Lil Miquela works because social media creates a liminal space where users can be both ordinary people and constructed images at the same time. If, like I do, you graduate from college and move away from a lot of your friends, or lose contact, it’s easy to engage with those people in exactly the same way you’d engage with celebrities or fictional characters, by following them on social media. Is the girl you follow on Instagram your best friend or is she a fictional creation? In a lot of ways, she’s both. She may be really making the posts you see, but are those posts indicative of an objective reality? They sort of are, and they sort of aren’t. They’re both real and not real, authentic and inauthentic. If we’re all telling each other stories on social media anyway, then these fake accounts are really no different than our accounts. They’re just being more up front about it.