Researching culture, cyberpsychology and social behavior. Director of Strategy at Sparks & Honey
Just as robots replaced the factory workers, and the drive-through workers were outsourced to India, those employed to yacht the world, drink fat-burning smoothies and just be attractive are getting furloughed too. Stars—they’re just like us.
Influencers are being upended by Virtual Influencers, and these CGI avatars may be disrupting something even more integral: truth.
We’ve already been mystified by their soft edges and been made uncomfortable with their attractiveness. There’s Shudu, the world’s first digital supermodel, Blawko, the digital tattooed “fuccboi,” and Miquela Sousa AKA Lil Miquela, the Princess Leia-bunned poster child of the movement. They now come in an array of options. Human or alien. Political or apolitical. White or BIPOC. Lean or plus-sized. Choose your player.
Insecure by your own success? These names have been sponsored by the likes of Chanel, made out with Bella Hadid, and graced the covers of Esquire. This year, Lil Miquela signed with CAA and is projected to earn over $10M. Someone who doesn’t exist is more successful than you. Let that sink in.
Virtual Influencers’ success thus far is clear from the business POV. Brands are attracted to the novel like bugs to a light. Virtual Influencers are controllable and pose no risk—Miquela doesn’t have seven-year-old racist tweets to blow her film prospects. Further, it’s proclaimed that Virtual Influencers command three times higher engagement than a human Influencer. And most apparently, they’re nice to look at. So why not shell out for a sponsored post or invest tens of millions in their animators?
As these fictitious personas begin to thrive in the uncanny valley and spin off business implications left and right, what’s just as noteworthy is what they silently scream about today’s cultural climate. As the headlines mount, their prices climb, and more brands test drive the concept, we should take a beat.
Virtual Influencers are not that original of a concept. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have been successfully animating their virtual band Gorillaz for over 20 years, snagging Grammy noms and even appearing on MTV’s Cribs. But this was only after Alvin and the Chipmunks cleared the way back in 1958. Making them sexy isn’t new either—check out Jessica Rabbit. And brands playing in this space is old hat. GEICO has been pulling the strings of their own virtual influencer, Martin the accented gecko, for over 15 years now.
What Tony the Tiger is to cable, Miquela is to Instagram. The only difference is that today’s animated characters now have a life worth following. Miquela also isn’t owned by the man... and she supports #BLM. It’s only fitting that in 2020 our mascots are progressive free-agents hustling in the gig economy.
Christopher Travers, founder of VirtualHumans.org, the database for all things Virtual Influencers, says they “represent the ongoing merger of humanity and the internet.” He believes, “Virtual influencers enhance and humanize the world's relationship with digital experiences.” But what we’re humanizing—our online convergence—may be unfit for personification. Perhaps it’s a step too far.
In a 2018 interview with the publication Business of Fashion, Miquela shared, “I definitely wouldn't say my identity is crowdsourced. I'm an artist and have expressed opinions that are unpopular and as a result have cost me fans.” Her literally crowdsourced answer is the work of Brud, the transmedia studio which is valued upwards of $125M. And it’s this untruth—“I’m not crowdsourced”—a thread of deceptiveness, that when pulled, doesn’t seem to end. When media literacy costs elections, we need more truth, not deception.
Miquela claims she’s an AI robot. A fictitious entity, acting as a human, manifested as a life-like robot. “I'm a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude.” Of her millions of young followers, how many of them are fully conscious of her misrepresentation? Truth in Advertising, the industry watchdog, is calling for FTC reform. Scroll by fast and you can’t spot the difference. And that’s the very draw of Miquela, over the cartoonish Seraphine. Miquela attempts to pass. It’s this effort that’s critical. Any less realistic, it’s try-hard. Any more realistic, it’s nefarious. But while the majority notice the fakery, they’re still left confused.
“There needs to be internet literacies for young people if Virtual Influencers are going to become more common,” advises Dr. Jamie Cohen, an expert on digital culture. “The internet did not come with an instruction manual and we accept certain unique things to occur in that space, but knowledge of how Virtual Influencers operate, who operates them, why they operate them, and who they are for, is crucially important to a consumer culture.”
Beyond transparency, another popular demerit of Virtual Influencers is their bar of unrealistic beauty. As Kaitlyn Tiffany for Vox puts it, “They are physically perfect women made of pixels, standing in for women who have long been pressured to become physically perfect, without the advantage of that even being possible.” On a photo of Miquela posing with an actual model, one Lil Miquela fan account comments, “the robot more pretty.” Miquela’s handlers at Brud rush in to disagree with the commenter, perhaps recognizing “we went too hot.”
Miquela isn’t just competing with models, but real underrepresented talent. The fact that, “a glorified sticker”, as writer Rob Horning puts it, is now competing with actually marginalized people is sinister. CGI-diversity is mistaken with real diversity. One online commenter asks, “Why rep a real woman of color when you can have a fake one that you can totally control everything about them?” To those leaning in, this is insincerity without awareness—a score against Team Human. And we’re doing this to ourselves. It’s self-deception at its worst.
Another more operational untruth is whether Miquela is even AI. That Brud claims to be a computer software, robotics and AI company, yet according to LinkedIn exclusively employs visual effect artists and content producers is another distortion. It’s a collage of misrepresentation.
We don’t seem to mind, though. What we’re engaging in is kayfabe—Miquela and The Undertaker are one in the same. It’s all pretend. We suspend our belief, and listen to Miquela’s answers as if she was actually opinionated and freckled. VC’s are spellbound too, just by sticker companies.
There’s an irony here. Social media has become the bungalow to house our curated and filtered highlight reels, and Influencers, built up from trust, have sold out, pushing products and cashing oversized checks. Meanwhile, starlets like-for-like, and pay to inflate their metrics and procure verified checkmarks. This entire ecosystem is drenched in fiction. That GenZ is willing to engage with a flagrantly fake person should not be surprising. The illusion of “attainable beauty” is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s all fake. We love it. And we can’t get enough.
Miquela is a caricature of many users’ own Insta presence. We strive for and fawn over her exaggerated life, but ignore the warning: it’s not real.
Travers of VirtualHumans.org points out, “Virtual Influencers do not make social media fake—social media platforms predicated on celebrating fictional ideologies of life grew to create an environment now ripe for fictional characters to step in and succeed.” One ushered in the other. But what’s fascinating is that GenZ is both leaning into and rejecting this state of affairs. It’s a push and pull.
When sweatpants-wearing, high school TikTokers rise to fame in their parent’s kitchen and begin to dethrone The Kardashians, Jenners and Ratajkowski’s of the world, change is afoot. GenZ is recognizing these people are in fact nothing like them. They never were. And who even wanted that? Those objects on our screen are not as close as they appear. What is the Influencer Economy, but just the redistribution of stardom and power from legacy names? And that a Brazilian, 20-year-old Miquela can be perceived and valued as more relatable than the traditional A-listers is significant.
According to a study by social content agency, Fullscreen, nearly a fourth of GenZ and Millennials would describe a Virtual Influencer as “authentic.”
Some ask her, “Do you feel pain? Can you actually eat food? Do robots dream of electric sheep?” Others ask what her favorite song is or where she currently lives. She doesn’t reply. Whether one is playing along or feels shrewd enough to try to out her, she’s under our skin. For Dr. Cohen, the perennial question is, “Who is the one playing us, or are we the one playing the game?”
The yearning for this to all be real reveals a desperation. Miquela, unaffected by politics, debt, COVID-19 and bullies is what’s truly aspirational. She’s our best selves, stripped of our messy human shortcomings, disappointing flaws, and soft vulnerabilities—the inverse of a zombie. Being called less—or more—attractive than the real model beside her doesn’t affect her ego. She has none. Isn’t that the dream?
“We should be concerned by a Virtual Influencer’s ability to create parasocial relationships,” warns Dr. Cohen. When something is designed to take more from us than give back, we encounter trouble. When we close Instagram feeling worse, not better, after exploring Miquela’s life, we hurt ourselves. Tell Siri you love her as a joke, it doesn’t care. Not a stretch, our attraction toward Miquela hints at what’s down the pike with the future of intimacy.
According to Dr. Stacy Thayer, Professor of CyberPsychology at California Lutheran University, “[Virtual Influencers] create a fantasy, but has the potential to move us further away from acceptance of our own realities.”
Miquela is a fantasy, but she’s not to be mistaken with escapism. A sci-fi movie is escapism. Miquela captures, not frees us. Her looks and role straddles the fence between real and fake—or rather, there is no longer a fence, but just spillover. We don’t know what to make of this early mess. As a result, we just stare and yell hypnotized—contrasting our looks to CGI beauty, getting lost in their fictitious feuds, and applauding the diversity and stretch marks of the plus-sized ones.
We’re not entirely lost, though. There was proper backlash for when Miquela shared her “sexual assault encounter” in a rideshare via a vlog—one which never occurred in reality. PR at Lyft should be peeved. What’s the legal basis for slander here? Also, can this piece be considered libel as it may affect Miquela’s career prospects? In any case, slim chance law catches up this fast.
Publicity around Virtual Influencers should not be used as a proxy for their success or justification of their existence.
We’re not too far gone. “Virtual influencers are a neutral content medium,” says Travers. “Like podcasts, like short-form videos, or like selfies, Virtual Influencers can be used for whatever purpose the creator desires.”
As more Virtual Influencers are spawned and Samsung works on their virtual human project, NEON, we should focus on intent. It’s not that these characters exist, it’s what we decide to do with them. Some are already leveraging the concept to educate people about The Holocaust, memorializing victims to share their stories after they pass. Others are approaching virtual avatars as characters to confide in as they don’t judge and are more accessible and affordable than talk therapy.
Our way through is to remember what we’ve been taught. Let’s not judge Virtual Influencers because they’re different. Let’s look past appearances. Rather, let’s consider their character. Not how they look, but how they behave, and why they’re here? What is their purpose, and how do they help us?
Technology is a tool to better understand ourselves, after all. A black mirror.
Miquela isn’t real. Which begs the question, are we any better?
Also published on Forbes.
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