Are Virtual Influencers Like @lilmiquela the Future of Social Media?

The (quick) backstory.

This is one of the closer realities that we have to a Black Mirror episode, and luckily it’s one that doesn’t end in something really horrible occurring (or at least hasn’t yet).

The basic premise is this — an influencer by the name of Miquela Sousa, aka @lilmiquela, started posting on Instagram about two years ago. Since then, she’s amassed over 1 million followers, but there’s something about her that’s different than the other influencers that you and I follow. Miquela is a virtual character, or more specifically, a CGI head superimposed on a model’s body. She doesn’t exist. Yet, she exists all the same on our timelines.

Glancing at her feed for a brief moment, you could be forgiven for mistaking her for a real person. Her comments sections show a very active debate as to whether or not she is real. Opinions vary, but it’s clear that she’s (mostly) computer-generated. Yet, when she’s even in photos with other influencers and pictured attending events, you tend to wonder “what is it that they saw when this was being taken?”

Her postings, generally, were the same as you would find from any other influencer. Trendy clothes, the same poses, the same locations. It was easy to wonder what the endgame of it all was. Was she just a virtual character clad in Supreme? Was she just an experiment, and just testing the waters to see how those of her kind would fare in the future?

The plot thickens.

That low-grade wonder turned into a minor rollercoaster with her latest escapades. A different virtual influencer, by the name of @bermudaisbae, “hacked” into Miquela’s account. Since this has been known to happen with actual influencers, the storyline appeared real, and the drama certainly was there. Then, however, it was revealed that Brud, the LA-based company behind Miquela and her supposed “hacker”, had actually orchestrated the entire drama and revealed themselves as the company behind these virtual influencers.

Now, in Miquela’s latest post, she says that she’s a “free agent”. The storyline is certainly progressing, but how can it be said that she’s free? The story is told by her as if she’s a real person, but in reality it’s being told by Brud. Yet, it is about Brud, and paints the company as having controlled her (which they do, but not in the way that a real-life movie studio controls a real-life young starlet).

Is this the new TV drama?

This is all an extremely new concept, and Lil Miquela and the alternate reality storylines surrounding her are blazing a trail that could lead to very interesting things. We already interact with brands and follow actual human influencers’ lives so closely that in many people’s eyes, those influencers and brands are almost like friends. People are already vicariously living through their experiences. How much of a stretch, really, would it be to have dramas, comedies, and romances play themselves out between these characters on your feed? The feed that we all hold so dear would evolve past holding tiny snippets of content, and be the stage for actual, complex storylines involving many characters. And when you see it unfold on the same timeline that your friends and family post on too, it feels all the more real. Instead of waiting for the next episode, you wait for the next post. And who doesn’t love drama?

Follow the money.

Brud, mentioned above, is not only in the news for Miquela’s drama, but also for having raised $6 million from Silicon Valley investors. Clearly, there is a lot of interest in the future of what can happen with this manufactured influence.

Brud’s extremely barebones website.

Today’s (flesh and blood) influencers are, as celebrities of all sizes have been for a long time, manufactured in their own right. They, and those that surround them, are fully aware of their commercial reach and their ability to influence. That is where the word comes from, after all. To one degree or another, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes curation going on in their lives to ultimately make you want something. That’s very lucrative.

But what if you didn’t have to deal with paying the influencer, working around their own wants and desires and personalities, but still enjoying all of the benefits and the fanbases and all of the reach and notoriety? Now that’s something that companies will pay top dollar for. Manufactured stars selling manufactured products with none of the fuss of real people to deal with. It’s a brand’s dream.

What’s next?

This brings up the question of consumer’s relationships with influencers. In the end, does anyone really care if the person is virtual or real? You’ve likely never met most (or any) of the influencers you follow. What difference does it make to you if they exist or not?

You seem them on your screen all the same. They’re not so fake that it’s off-putting (although some might beg to differ), but they fall firmly in the “uncanny valley” territory. It remains to be seen if it will continue to be a conscious decision to keep the virtual looks on this sliver of the realism spectrum, since the technology exists to make almost totally photorealistic humans. It’s just very time consuming and expensive to make it near-perfect — you need the top 3D modeling talent in the world and a lot of computing power. As the programs become more advanced and it’s easier to create extremely realistic renderings, how will you be able to tell the difference? And taking it a step further — influencers are celebrities after all — what is to stop them from being superimposed in “live” events such as the Met Gala? Or what is stopping them from then becoming movie stars? After all, Miquela has even released tracks on Spotify.

This is the beginning of a very blurred line in our consumption of social content, and as with any nascent trend, it’s impossible to tell where it will go. For now, I’ll keep following the drama around Brud and Miquela. Maybe one day I can say I was there near the beginning.