YouTube’s first viral scandal took place in what we believed was a 16-year-old girl’s bedroom.
In 2006, homeschooled teenager Bree Avery vlogged about her life under the username Lonelygirl15, chronicling her supposedly boring life. But as the videos got more and more outlandish — her parents turned out to be part of a blood-harvesting cult? — fans uncovered the truth that the whole vlog was fake; the Los Angeles-based creators of the channel were experimenting with a new form of storytelling, almost like a “Blair Witch Project” for the early aughts. Even after it was revealed that Bree was a paid actor named Jessica Lee Rose, fans still obsessed over her vlogs, which (in the beginning) are all told to us from the privacy of her bedroom.
Though it was actually a carefully constructed set, the background of Bree’s videos — a pink quilted bedspread with a plush monkey, a small wooden bookcase topped with candlesticks, some moody posters pasted to the walls — are emblematic of this formative YouTube era.
Almost twenty years later, we watch microvlogs on TikTok, which are recorded on smartphones that we keep attached to our bodies like we’re cyborgs. But in this era, creators’ childhood bedrooms have been replaced with generic car interiors. It doesn’t really matter the make or model of the car, so long as it is a car.
“I just thought it was weird — so weird! — to see so many TikToks in cars: make-up reviews, little jokey skits, singing, eating Indian food, whatever,” Nathan Ma, a cultural critic and lecturer, told TechCrunch. Ma noted the transition from bedroom vlogs to parked car TikToks in a post on X after watching a food vlogger eat Indian food in his car.
When comedian James Corden hosted “The Late Late Show,” he amplified this video style with his carpool karaoke series, which featured artists like Paul McCartney and Adele. Almost a decade later, Vocal coach Cheryl Porter, who has 18.6 million TikTok followers, makes videos doing singing exercises with her clients while in the car.
Keith Lee, a TikTok creator with 15.4 million followers, can make or break a restaurant with his food reviews, many of which are filmed in his car. This brand of video – the in-car, parking lot food review – originated on YouTube, since it’s a way for reviewers to try food while it’s fresh, even if eating a spread of Ethiopian food and injera without a table seems less than ideal.
Our familiarity with seeing people make content from their cars has greased the wheel for us to accept parked car microvlogging without question.
“I think there’s a lot of social commentary TikTok videos where the social capital for the TikToker is, ‘I just know this, I’m just that smart, I just thought about this while I was getting out of my car,’” said temi lasade-anderson, a PhD candidate at King’s College London researching Black women’s digital intimacy and confessional vlogging. In contrast with YouTube bedroom vlogs, she told TechCrunch, car TikToks are “a lot more quick and dirty. It’s on the fly and on the cuff.”
Though cars are more transient settings than bedrooms, both afford the creator privacy. For TikTokers with spouses, roommates or children, it’s possible that their car is the easiest place to record a TikTok without being interrupted. Plus, the lighting in cars is generally good. But these settings communicate different things to the viewer – a bedroom confessional vlog inherently imparts a sense of intimacy or secrecy. A car TikTok can give off the same vibe, depending on the subject matter the creator is talking about, but more often, it implies casualness. It’s much easier to record a TikTok than film and edit a whole YouTube video, but TikToks often aren’t as spontaneous as they seem.
It’s the aesthetic ideal of the format to appear as though you’re creating something so casually that you’re just filming it while running errands. But even these nonchalant TikToks can be rehearsed, scripted or filmed in several takes. It’s the visual equivalent of ending an email with “no worries if not.” And if a car TikTok sparks backlash, the creator can easily walk back their commentary by pointing out that it was just something they thought of while going about their day-to-day life. But if the TikTok is successful, then the creator reaps the “social capital,” as lasade-anderson put it, of appearing so smart that they can come up with something brilliant without really trying.
The transition from YouTube vlog to car TikTok also shows a movement from private to public space.
“Back then, being a vlogger or doing vlogs was weird,” lasade-anderson told TechCrunch. “It wasn’t a thing that was socially and culturally accepted as a form of content creation, or a thing you’d do, so the bedroom was a private haven.”
Bedroom vlogs often took the form of confessionals, wherein a YouTuber will speak directly to the camera about personal experiences and struggles. The genre is almost like an online version of the religious confession, or even a reality TV confessional, lasade-anderson points out. And like the religious confession, some of these vlogs can take the form of apologies – think about the unforgettable Colleen Ballinger apology via ukulele.
“The confessional vlog as a format was almost like therapy in a sense, where people are talking about what’s going on and how they’re feeling about it,” lasade-anderson said.
For early lifestyle influencers, it was a strategy to build a following by seeming “authentic,” though now, the idea of “authenticity” is so overplayed that it’s the Merriam-Webster word of the year. At the time, it was refreshing that social media allowed anyone to voice their seemingly unfiltered thoughts, and we all got to be voyeurs to random people’s lives.
But as we learned as early as lonelygirl15, nothing on social media is exactly as real as it seems – whether it’s a bedroom confessional or a short TikTok filmed in an Arby’s parking lot.