Has it all gotten a bit sick?
Miquela Sousa is a 19-year old Brazilian model, singer and influencer who lives in Los Angeles. Her Instagram boasts 2,8 million followers, she has almost 700,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, she counts Prada and Chanel among her clients and Millie Bobby Brown to her best friends. She seems to have it all. The only thing she lacks is a body and a mind of her own, since she is not actually real.
In recent years, Instagram, and social media generally, has witnessed the birth of a new type of influencer – one whose entire being is, unbeknownst to their human followers, created and controlled by individuals hidden in the shadows of the internet, who quietly pull the strings behind-the-scenes.
Already this type of influencer is more common than people may realise. A recent study by Fullscreen shows that a staggering 42% of Gen Z and Millennials have followed an influencer on social media that they didn’t know was only an avatar. It is unsurprising, really, that virtual influencers blend so seamlessly into our feeds, since Instagram is crawling with fake looking real women who, with the help of Apps like Facetune, can easily make themselves look more CGI than human. “I like to think of myself as being as real as anything else on social media. Is Kylie [Jenner] ‘real’?”, Miquela said in an interview with Ladygun. She continued, “We live in a world where a good majority of the things we see have been polished, pinched, reframed, recropped, recontextualized. I think real is whatever you believe in”.
Miquela, the OG-virtual influencer, is the brainchild of Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, co-founders of Brud, an LA-based tech start-up focusing on robotics, artificial intelligence and their applications to media businesses. Their bizarre “website” is nothing more than an open access, one-page Google Doc, on which Brud is cryptically described as “a transmedia studio that creates digital character driven story worlds, (that) have the power to introduce marginalized ideas wrapped in the familiarity of entertainment”.
Their novel approach to storytelling turns out to be a lucrative business. In 2018, Brud secured a $6 million in venture capital funding in response to its success with Lil Miquela on her various social media and music streaming platforms and is now said to be worth over $125 million in total.
Miquela started out as a digital project on Instagram in 2016. For two years she let her loyal followers, her “Miquelians”, believe she was a real person, until she was “hacked” by Bermuda, a bot created by Cain Intelligence, as part of a masterfully executed meta PR stunt. Bermuda, a Trump supporter and self-proclaimed “robot supremacist”, accused Miquela of being a “fake ass person” and demanded she tell her followers “the truth” about who she really was. What followed was a full-blown robot meltdown, culminating in her stating the obvious – “Guys, I’m not a human being”. Bizarrely, her followers met her with genuine sympathy. “You’re real to me” one said in the comments, “I’ll support you all the way” adds another. Her following exploded since then and is continuing to grow steadily.
Miquela muses on her success in an interview, saying, “At its core, the digital space is about connection. Younger generations seem way more open to the idea of virtual artists and influencers because they’ve been forming these deep connections with people over the Internet their entire lives. They’re less sceptical about suspending belief and engaging with us and our stories”.
However, when real human influencers are asked what their key to success is, they consistently emphasise the importance of authenticity and “keeping it real”. At the same time, it seems that Miquela’s blatant inauthenticity is integral to her appeal.
“She is an Insta-cyborg of ethnically ambiguous, woke, idealised, young womanhood, a puppet whose strings are pulled to respond to the demands of the market, creating maximum appeal and profit”, Pandora Sykes writes in her essay “The Authentic Lie”. By definition Miquela cannot be authentic, for she is not an autonomic being.
Authenticity in the digital age is problematic, since it calls for “an impossible consistency no human can provide”, Sykes argues. Nowadays an influencer’s every word and every move are monitored, captured and discussed online at rapid fire pace. As humans they are bound to slip up at some point, and until this happens, the public patiently lies in waiting, salivating at the thought of impeding drama. And then – breaking news – a supposedly “ultra-sustainable” influencer is caught in a brand deal with Amazon, a vegan influencer is caught sipping a cow milk cappuccino and a “body positive” influencer is caught buying shapewear. All hell breaks loose: Twitter explodes and malicious memes flood Instagram as bored bloggers are overwrought by the unexpected gossipy fodder, while their loyal followers feel betrayed (“I can’t believe this, I thought you were authentic!”). With cancel culture firmly established, such a simple “mistake” can cost an influencer their career or at least profoundly harm it.
Miquela, on the other hand, with her impeccably coded manners would never mess up her brand like that. She is programmed for consistency and maximum relatability. Frank Mulhern, Northwestern University professor of integrated marketing communications is convinced that this gives CGI influencers a key advantage over their human competitors. In an interview with USA Today he says robots and virtual characters aren’t affected by human error and thus will never get caught in a scandal. “They can be programmed to say things and do things in online environments in ways that the brand marketers want them to”, he says.
This is true, to an extent. However, what Mulhern seems to forget is that, Miquela and her emerging posse of CGI influencers aren’t fully AI powered (yet), meaning the content they put out on the internet is still, somewhere, controlled by a human. She is currently nothing more than a middle-man – or rather – a pretty face for someone else’s (Brud’s) opinion.
The fallibility of even fake robo influencers was made painfully apparent in a tone-deaf video, in which Miquela recounts her experience of being sexually harassed by a Lyft driver. A shit storm ensued as people were, understandably, irritated that a fake avatar was trying to use real women’s traumatic experiences to her own benefit in order to increase follower trust and engagement. She had previously garnered similar critique for her alleged struggles with depression – and that’s not all. Her 2019 brand deal with Calvin Klein, in which she is pictured kissing heterosexual supermodel Bella Hadid was torn apart for “queerbaiting” and for depicting queerness as “surreal”.
“The stats speak for themselves”
Despite the backlash – Miquela and her CGI pals remain profitable. People continue to engage with their content, be it out of mere curiosity, it doesn’t really matter. The stats speak for themselves. Fullscreen report that, of the followers of CGI influencers, 55% were led to make a purchase or attend an event, 53% started following an endorsed brand, 52% were motivated to research a brand or product via affiliate links. Whether we like it or not, virtual influencers are changing the landscape of digital marketing – and they aren’t likely to be disappearing any time soon.
It is easy to see why brands may be tempted to shift their focus on virtual influencers in the future. They are much easier and cheaper to work with than a real person. Think about it, they will never throw a diva-style hissy fit, will never turn up to a photo shoot hungover, with a face full of acne, in a bad mood or sick. In fact, a they will never show up at all. Plus, there is no need to spend a fortune on make-up artists, hair stylists, transportation or hotels – the virtual influencer needs nothing more than a system update once in a while and a power connection. Plus, conveniently, no real-life event, like a global pandemic, affects their availability in any way.
So, will robo influencers like Miquela slowly overtake their human peers, brainwash young impressionable children and teens, take control over social media and eventually achieve world domination? Who knows! Maybe one day. However, as of right now “Project Virtual Influencer” is still in its infancy. They are not anywhere near becoming self-controlled sentient beings operating on their own terms – which is the underlying fear of many. Nonetheless, with their growing number and advancing technical sophistication, full transparency regarding who controls a virtual influencer’s content will become more important than ever, in order to remain moral and ethical.
The bottom line is, the whole world of influencers is really about marketing, which has been around for a long time. As long as people are aware of the ways in which they may be deceived, they will be able to retain a critical perspective of their feeds, and humans and robots will be able to co-exist peacefully – I hope.
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