A Fabricated Reality

In 2010, I created a fictional web series called Sexy Nerd Girl. I had started to see some of the sexism that exists in nerd fandom and created a character that could hopefully broaden some of those horizons. The title of the series was an obvious ploy to attract organic keyword-based traffic from search engines – my target demographic were those who already objectified women within this community, by conducting web searches for “sexy nerd girl.”

I built a team of fellow creative folks to produce this web series. The goal was to put together a proposal for the Independent Production Fund, a funding body which had started providing production funds for web series. One of my team members suggested we start building our story world and the audience for it immediately by producing video blogs (vlogs), akin to what he’d seen done with the CBC sitcom Being Erica, which produced a secondary content stream of vlogs on the CBC website.

The creative team agreed this would be a quick and efficient way to get our narrative up and running and within a couple months we had launched the first episode of our vlog series, on Dec 24, 2010.

We were aware of a previous fictional vlog series called lonelygirl16, a suspense series that had generated the pretense of being real (until it was found out.) Since our show was intended to be a light comedy, not a suspense drama, we saw no need to fool the audience into thinking what they were consuming was real-world. Using the common format of professional video blogs at that time, we bookended each episode with a loud, bit-tune-themed opening credit and a closing credit that listed the URL of our website: sexynerdgirl.com.

The video description of each episode included a link to that website at the top of the description. We assumed that this small amount of production value, the obviously dramatic qualities of our episode storylines, and the URL to go read about the series would sufficiently inform any viewer that they were consuming a work of fiction, not a DIY documentary.

At the start, we released 2 episodes per week and decided to wait until the 10th episode before we’d start promoting the show, so that there would be plenty of episodes to consume once we were driving viewers to the show. Three weeks in, a YouTube user posted about the series on Reddit with a link to the crowd-funding campaign we’d run earlier in the year to build our initial budget from amongst our community. We were accused of trying to fool viewers with a fake nerd girl in order to rip money off of fandom communities. And yet, our crowd-funding campaign had clearly ended months earlier and there was no longer any means to send us any money.

Over the following 3 years, we produced 200 episodes of the show. Every 10-15 episodes, we’d have to deal with yet another swath of commentators accusing us, in the comments or in social media posts, of engaging in a fraud and cover-up to fool nerds into believing that our lead character was a real person. To us, as creators of this work of fiction, this was akin to someone standing outside a movie cinema trying to convince movie-goers that the characters in our movie they’d just seen weren’t real.

The level of contrarianism on YouTube is high, in my estimation. In one of our episodes, our lead character was snacking on some Doritos. Some commenters accused us of a being a front for a Doritos marketing campaign. Whereas in reality, we had kept the bag of Doritos out of frame for fear of any potential errors and omissions costs should we ever be in the position to sell or license the series to a distributor.

By the end of the series, our presentation had developed somewhat. We had the bookend packaging on the episodes. We had the link in the video description to the website that explained the whole show, provided character descriptions and biographies of the creative team. We directed traffic to our website with a link inside the video player itself on each video. We had actor, writer, producer, and director credits listed in the video descriptions. We had the production value of the content of the series which often veered into absurdity and obviously well-timed comedy bits. We had numerous news articles written about the show. We had tied the series in with a 12-episode, big-budget spin-off from the IPF funding we eventually got. We had a promotional video on our Sexy Nerd Girl channel in which the actors playing the characters invited viewers to go watch that spin-off. We had won and were nominated for numerous awards within the web series creator community. We had members of our team replying directly to comments in the comments sections directly below the video player to explain the nature of the series. And still, many years after the show ended, we continued to receive comments on these videos from viewers who thought they were being terribly smart and savvy calling out the lead character of a fictional story as fake.

Some of this is undoubtedly the result of the sexism in these communities that I was intending to undermine when I first conceived of the series. Two years ago, we scaled back access to all but 8 Sexy Nerd Girl episodes because the most visible members of our creative team developed fears of being targeted by trolls, or worse.

In my estimation, it’s primarily the delivery mechanism that is the cause of the fabricated reality that user-generated content platforms create. For active users of these platforms, the most common consumption of any content is more than likely going to be one-on-one with a mobile device. That’s an intrinsically private experience, much more personal than any other kind of media consumption – TV, movies. This mask of privacy creates a filter bubble of trust within the consumption of the content. It can become easier to trust that one-on-one relationship than any real-world group experience. It’s media consumption within the experiential framework of a phone call to a friend.