The Rise of Virtual Influencers

New influencers are constantly emerging, creating a new pool of talent for brands to tap into. Technology has taken on an important role in finding these new creators, tracking their content performance, and much more. But what happens when that technology crosses into becoming the influencer?

Virtual influencers have been appearing on the scene since 2016. They look and act like the ones you follow on your social media feeds, but there’s one catch: they’re fake. They are digitally rendered by photographers, brands, and others to create a character that looks and acts like a real person. We discussed recently that YOOX created their own digital avatar, Daisy, that customers can use on their app to have her try on different clothes; she also takes over their Instagram, sporting pieces available on the e-commerce site. Despite not actually being real, these digital personas should not be taken lightly when it comes to creating content and influencing their followers.

Standing at the front of the new wave is Miquela Sousa, also known as @lilmiquela, with 1.5 million Instagram followers and counting. She debuted in 2017 and instantly became an internet sensation, as users quickly became curious about a robot on Instagram. Slowly, her presence transformed from a novelty into a key player in the fashion industry. Brands took notice and fled to work with Miquela. Last year, Prada tapped her for Milan Fashion Week, where she created 3D-generated GIFs featuring herself in the collection, and took over Prada’s channel. YouTube Music paired up with her for an interview series with performing artists for Coachella. She’s even been on the cover of magazines like Vogue, Wonderland, and Highsnobiety. Her influence is so prominent, TIME named Miquela one of the most influential people on the internet in 2018. This is not only due to her work with brands; she is a singer and has also used her platform to support causes such as Trans Lifeline. Miquela is everything you could expect and more as an influencer, making her a top choice for brands when executing campaigns.

Along with AI influencers, there are also CGI models being created. Shudu is a computer-generated model who has presented herself as “The World’s First Digital Supermodel.” She made headlines when she was reposted on Fenty Beauty’s Instagram page and users slowly realized that she wasn’t real. Since then, Shudu has been covered in fashion editorials in Vogue Australia and Cosmopolitan, along with being featured in campaigns for brands like Balmain, where she joined the “Virtual Balmain Army.” On top of her modeling, she has even started her own talent agency that focuses on digital models like herself. Run by photographer Cameron James-Wilson, who is well known for shooting famous models like Gigi Hadid, he hopes that Shudu’s presence will draw attention to important fashion issues, such as diversity. She doesn’t have an actual voice or clothes, but her platform will serve to speak to representation not just for models, but in all areas of fashion.

Digital influencers and models may be popular today, but that wasn’t always the case. Graphic designer Joerg Zuber, the mind behind Noonouri, says that he had trouble securing partners to invest in his vision. He and his team at Opium Effect had thought up the idea of Noonouri seven years ago, but the idea was ahead of its time for investors to want to hop on board. In 2017, he took matters into his own hands to bring her to life on the web. She debuted back in February 2018 with her doll-like appearance. This look was different from other digital influencers out there, as many look more human-like. Zuber said that he was against making her look real, as he wanted users to know right away that she’s a character. Now, she advertises for brands like Dior, Reebok, and KKW Beauty.

Even though brands are getting behind virtual influencers, users have mixed feelings about them. They will leave comments on pages for influencers like Miquela asking if they’re real and stating that robots are slowly taking over the world. Users also bring up the fact that their existence showcases that brands will replace human influencers and models with computer-rendered figures over time. Miquela has expressed that at the end of the day, she wants to spread acceptance and share her story. Experts have conveyed that the presence of virtual influencers does not indicate where the industry is heading, but rather opens it up for artistic expression in a new, technological way in this digital era.

Brands can explore endless options to utilize these new faces to position themselves on the forefront of digital advancement. As new technology develops in the years to come, social media will become a different space that will have to balance reality and fantasy to work in synergy.

Photos via @Wired and @shudu.gram