You’ve probably heard of influencer marketing. It’s like the modern day digital equivalent of celebrity endorsements, but subtler and much better targeted.
Alongside the obvious A-list celebrities who are paid big bucks to post Instagram selfies in the latest Versace gear or drink a Heineken with the label conveniently facing the camera, there is a growing catalog of ‘micro-influencers’ – regular people that have amassed a huge following on social media due to their trend-setting aesthetics and general relatability.
Micro-influencers exist in every niche of the social media eco-system, from gaming, to food, fashion, and beyond.
These personalities are a gold mine for marketers looking to sell products relevant to a specific field of interest, and in many cases it’s a win-win, as the influencers are paid to use and promote products that they’d likely associate with regardless.
In 2016 some devious minds in Silicon Valley dreamt up a daring extension of this concept: what happens if you take the human being out of the equation?
Meet the virtual influencer. They’re much the same as a regular influencer in every regard, except for one core difference – they don’t exist in the physical world. A virtual influencer is an amalgamation of popular social trends and likeable personality traits pasted on to a CGI representation of a person, complete with (or perhaps indistinct from) a social media profile that chronicles their daily trials and tribulations.
If this is your first time hearing of this Black Mirror-esque concept and you’re having a hard time fathoming this taking place right now, don’t worry. It’s pretty weird.
The most famous western example of a virtual influencer is Miquela Sousa [below], an Instagram personality with over 1.5 million followers. She’s 20, half Brazilian, half Spanish, and based in Los Angeles. She has hopes, fears, aspirations, political opinions, and a song that hit the top 10 on Spotify. She’s also the product of a shady start-up called Brud which is currently valued at around $125 million.
Better known by her Instagram name @lilmiquela, Miquela is the poster girl for a new era of influencer marketing that’s raising a lot of eyebrows and a lot more questions. Despite not having a corporeal form she uploads content daily, featuring herself at exclusive events with other influencers or posing in the latest Chanel and Supreme outfits with her human boyfriend.
Her rapid rise to fame has sparked a conversation about the nature of authenticity in the world of social media; whether being ‘real’ really matters. As Brud state in their FAQ, Miquela is “as real as Rhianna”, which could be interpreted as saying that, human or not, a celebrity’s public image is a meticulous construction – so does it matter that she’s animated?
To many of her fans it does, as became apparent when in a ‘shocking’ reveal Miquela told her fans that she isn’t a human being. This revelation, which came as a kind of season finale of a contrived cyberspace drama in which her Instagram account was ‘hacked’ by a fellow virtual influencer (it later came out that it was orchestrated by Brud), came as a shock to many of her fans.
That might seem surprising given just a brief look at her, but in the world of face filters and virtual avatars, anything is possible. The reveal and the posts that follow are slightly dystopian given the self-awareness of Brud in using Miquela as a mouthpiece to muse about the ethical grey area that they operate in.
Miquela isn’t the first virtual celebrity on the block. Damon Albarn’s virtual super group Gorillaz [above] is a prime example of virtual personalities that garnered a mainstream following. The Japanese virtual singer Hatsune Miku has collaborated with humans such as Pharrell and Lady Gaga, and the world’s first virtual TV personality, Max Headroom [below], dates back to the 80’s. But something feels different about this new generation of virtual influencers that Miquela spearheads and it’s hard to put a finger on.
It might have to do with the assumed intimacy of social networks like Instagram, on which people share personal details of their lives to others in their social sphere. At face value, Miquela is no different. But the fact that she was constructed by a company explicitly to sell to people who genuinely believed that she was a real person might set alarm bells ringing for some.
On the other hand, that isn’t too far from what regular celebrities backed by PR companies do, it’s just that the artifice is plain to see when the public figure is a virtual avatar. Whatever your take, it’s definitely a work of marketing genius – virtual influencers have no chance of getting caught up in scandals that might affect the company paying them to advertise; virtual influencers carry very little marketing risk at all.
Some worry that the influx of virtual influencers could impact human-to-human relationships or even replace the need for real life personalities, but it’s more likely that human and virtual influencers continue to exist in symbiosis. The advent of animated film didn’t kill live-action cinema, it created mutually distinct approaches to the same medium. If you consider the construction of a social media identity as a form of non-linear storytelling, in which plot and character development are one and the same, built upon incrementally in no single direction, then the same thing is likely to happen.
Expect Instagram and Snap avatar spinoffs of your favourite TV show characters in the near future, the format of which companies like Brud are already testing the waters for.
So, should we embrace our new robot peers? That is up to you; they’re here to stay either way. As strange a concept as it may be, for now virtual influencers are about as harmless as a newsfeed ad with a face pasted on. Brands will begin to see their usefulness and adopt them, which will in turn naturalise consumers to seeing virtual faces in their social feeds as regularly as they do fellow humans. And as social media users all we’re after is interesting and consistent content, so does it really matter who creates it?