January 22, 2007

Citizen sleuthing: The unmasking of Lonelygirl15

matt_foremski

 

16-year-old offers tips on research methods used to uncover her true identity

Matt Foremski, pictured above, tells how he did some citizen sleuthing to discover the true identity of YouTube’s Lonelygirl15. She was not a home-schooled 16-year-old girl named Bree but rather an actress named Jessica Rose, who had recently moved from New Zealand to Burbank, Calif. I caught up with Foremski in an AIM chat to learn the details of how he broke one of the biggest Internet stories of 2006.

Q: First off, what’s your age and what do you do?

A: I’m 19 now and do some busy work for my dad’s sites, like Silicon Valley Watcher. I was 18 and was taking off a semester of college to play around on the Internet when all this happened. Now i’m at the santa rosa junior college.

Q: Your father, Tom Foremski, got you interested in blogging and then videoblogging?

A: Yes,  he always likes to talk to me about emerging tech stuff, which i like as well. I got into vlogging from spending time at YouTube.

lonelygirl

Q: When did you first begin following the saga of lonelygirl15 on youtube? what intrigued you about her?

A: I caught it at the end of june – i thought she was pretty and spunky. I feel she turned me on to a new area of youtube, that of videoblogging. before, I just went on youtube to watch the funny cats.

Q: Were you caught up in the storyline, or did you suspect she was spinning fiction from the start?

A: I think it took me a few weeks to catch on, as i read some of the comments attached to her videos. it was happenstance that made me dig around: i had a domain, lg15.com, and I kept getting emails asking if she was a fake or what the actor’s name was.

Q: What did you find out? How did you uncover her identity?

A: I had read through an article about the outing of the lonelygirl15 production on the hollywood site tmz.com and found in the article’s comments a link to a myspace page someone believed to be that of the lg15 actress.  whoever it was had closed up shop – made their profile private – which made it seem like a dead end.  i had remembered a little trick about google’s search engine cache, as people have used it for evidence gathering before, so I took a look at the page with that tool.

The cache was from late spring, and it had all the person’s salient details – full name, date of birth, home town and such. I then did another google search around that person’s name and came up with two headshots that were undoubtedly of lonelygirl – once again saved in google’s cache, which i rushed over to my dad, and we ended up publishing that on svw early that morning.
Q: You mean Silicon Valley Watcher’s scoop,  The identity of LonelyGirl15.

A: Right.  initially, just the first two—I added in the latter ones to round it out later that morning.
jessica1 jessica2

jessica_smile jessica-redneck

Q: You also did some digging around about her background in new zealand?

A: Yes, all those details of her background I found on her myspace page. She was an actress from a small city in New Zealand who moved to Burbank to act. The name on the profile was “Jessica Rose.” when i searched her myspace user name,  “jeessss426,” on Yahoo, it turned up a bunch of pictures from her probably forgotten ImageShack account.

Then,  someone else found a whole load of her online photos, which really gave the story some pop. :~)

“I think the collaborative construct allows for a lot of people to put in little tidbits of info and half thoughts that when combined properly can be the fabric of great stories.”

Q: OK, what happened next?

A: That morning my friend Cody and I put together a video to feature on youtube.

When my dad published the story it got picked up rather quickly and was sourced for a ny times article and a few others that ran later that morning.

Q: They found out the identity of the filmmakers behind the project, right?

A: Yes, I believe they were sitting on a big article that they then decided to publish after our part of the story broke

Q: This sounds like an effort where users acting as citizen journalists in effect teamed with mainstream reporters to contributed to a piece of investigative reporting. What does this episode say about the power of “online wiki-style investigations and manhunts,” as the NY Times put it?

Q: I think there is a lot to be said to that effect. I think the collaborative construct allows for a lot of people to put in little tidbits of info and half thoughts that when combined properly can be the fabric of great stories. :~)

It’s really comes down to how you can put all those varying sources of information together and pull a story out of it.

A: OK, thanks, Matt, great job.

Q: Sure, thanks!

This post originally appeared as part of the Knight Citizen News Network’s Principles of Citizen Journalism project.


Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 UnportedThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

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