IN late March, a striking young blondish woman going by the nom-de-Tube of "GreenTeaGirlie" posted a 10-second video on YouTube.
"Hey YouTube viewers!" said the hopeful ingenue, "I'm new. I hope you welcome me. I'm actually going to be making some videos, and I hope they're going to be really neat, so I hope you check 'em out."
Before anyone knew what was going on, "I'm New" had rocketed to the front page of YouTube's daily Most Viewed section, where it raked in more than 170,000 hits on its first day -- an extraordinary showing for a maiden video blog.
Indeed, within 48 hours of its debut, "I'm New" was one of the most talked-about YouTube videos of the week.
Ten seconds long ... a pretty girl ... saying hello?
YouTubers smell a rat
Every YouTube video page has a "links" section -- pages on the Web where the video can be played, together with a count of how many times it's been played on each one. Skeptics noticed that the links on "I'm New" -- each of which had resulted in thousands of hits -- were all MySpace profiles that had quickly been deactivated. They believed the bogus profiles had been set up as a way to "game" YouTube, or artificially boost a video's view count. Then when MySpace caught on, the logic went, the fake profiles were shut down.
In the meantime, GreenTeaGirlie had posted a second video called "Kallie Is My Name," in which she expressed surprise at all the negative attention. "But I don't take it to heart," she said gamely. "Bring it on, if this is the YouTube experience."
This video shot to the top of the charts too. Now GreenTeaGirlie was more than a one-hit wonder -- she was a legitimate sensation. Dozens of response videos popped up, some expressing support, others derision, as well as a slew of copycats and parodies.
By this point, hype was gathering like a storm, and YouTube's conspiracy theorists had elevated Kallie from run-of-the-mill YouTube cheat to industry-backed marketing shill. No one had forgotten Lonelygirl15, YouTube's biggest phenomenon to date, and its biggest phony.
"Lonelygirl15, is that your younger sister?" one commenter wrote of GreenTeaGirlie. "What the ... are you trying to sell?" demanded another.
The brew thickens
Around this time, someone bought the rights to the GreenTeaGirlie.com domain name. When entered into a browser, the name brought users to the site of Seattle's Dragonwater Tea Co. The mystery had a new prime suspect.
But Gary Gause, Dragonwater's founder and president, quickly posted a blog thanking viewers for visiting but disavowing any connection to what he termed "the green tea girlie you tube video madness."
"As for me being the culprit of this elaborate and partly ingenious marketing ploy," he wrote, "Well, I'm just not that good."
Soon afterward, GreenTeaGirlie.com stopped pointing to Dragonwater and briefly pointed to a site called Vidstars.net. It was an amateur-looking Web page of a viral marketing service that claimed it could "advertise your website to 4,000,000 youtubers a day." The homepage listed several YouTube stars that Vidstars claimed it has set up with companies to promote their products: boh3m3 touting Dr Pepper, Paul "Renetto" Robinett playing a Waterstone acoustic guitar and GreenTeaGirlie's affiliation with Dragonwater Tea.
"Get the idea?" read the teaser. "We're here to promote your products. Right now."
(Reached by phone, Robinett, one of YouTube's biggest stars, angrily denied any connection to Vidstars, saying they had used his name without permission.)
The Vidstars homepage also featured a video starring a well-known YouTube loudmouth named Cody Smith. Smith first gained note for his association with Matt Foremski -- the Santa Rosa kid famous for first identifying Jessica Rose, the actress who played Lonelygirl15.
Complicating things further, GreenTeaGirlie's personal YouTube profile added a link to yet another page: Kallieannie.com, a slightly more sophisticated site that featured a discussion board, a slideshow of photos of Kallie and a bio ("I'm 20 years old," "I work full time selling Green Tea in a shopping mall," "I do not wear extensions this is all my real hair"). Kallieannie.com also had a cryptic "games" section, where it told users to pay close attention to clues that would be included in future videos.
Soon after, GreenTeaGirlie.com did another quick change, transforming itself into a mid-1990s-looking personal Web page complete with a bright green background, a large photo of Kallie and an altogether different biography. This version of Kallie -- or Kalinda, as she called herself -- was a 22-year-old senior at UC Santa Barbara.
The intrigue was reaching critical mass: YouTube cheating. Dueling websites. Viral marketing. UC Santa Barbara? And, more curious of all, the specter of Lonelygirl15.
The Scout steps in
As Clue has taught us, the key to any mystery is figuring out who's who. Who was Kallie? Who was behind the two GreenTeaGirlie websites? And who was running Vidstars?