Virtual influencers are reshaping social media — for real, this time

But when brands get involved, is there an ethical way for them to ride this wave?
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Virtual influencers are reshaping social media — for real, this time

When Lil Miquela first graced our screens, she sparked a wave of intrigue around virtual influencers and what they could mean for the future of social media. Brands quickly jumped on her fame train, and with an estimated fee of about $8,500 per sponsored post, Lil Miquela reportedly made about $11.7 million for her creators just in 2020 alone. But regardless of her commercial success, the timing of her arrival on our feeds was just a little bit off to really make a significant impact on the mainstream. The following years in the world of social media were all about bringing back authenticity to our hyper-curated, Facetuned feeds. The trends that followed — such as the sudden rise of BeReal — saw people craving raw, unedited, unfiltered content. Lil Miquela’s polished CGI look, though fascinating, didn’t kick-start a mass takeover of social media by virtual influencers.It just wasn’t what people wanted from their feeds.

So what changed?

01_We grew tired of the raw and unfiltered

As the relentless stream of ‘candid moments’ has saturated our digital feeds, our digital landscapes are now seeing quite a significant change. The quest for ‘real’ reached its end, especially after this past year of world-changing advancements in AI happening on what felt like the daily basis. The line between real and fake has never been this blurry, inevitably impacting the influencer landscape. In the recent months, TikTokers have brought about a bizarre trend of acting like video game characters — most impressively executed by @dem_bruddaz and his reenactment of GTA, which collected a total of 150 million views. Perhaps the most extreme version of this is the NPC livestream trend, which flooded everyone’s TikTok FYP with creators repeating robotic phrases each time they receive a gift from their audience (gifts come in the shape of an emoji like a rose, or a chilli pepper). It’s an odd time: while AI is trying to behave like humans, humans are trying to behave like AI.

02_Gen Alpha started developing its own internet culture

The Roblox kids - whose first introduction to social networking took the shape of a 3D world navigated with an avatar representation of themselves - are growing up and pouring onto platforms like TikTok and Instagram. And they are creating a stir. Skibidi Toilet - dubbed “Gen Alpha’s first meme” - has the online population freaking out over Gen Alpha entering their internet culture era. And what is Skibidi Toilet you may be asking yourself? It’s essentially a YouTube animation series which depicts toilet people taking over the world. It promptly became the iPad generation’s first-ever meme material, with some even making their own edits, inserting new characters, such as the YouTuber MrBeast, into the clips. Sure, Skibidi Toilet is most likely not a representation of what all of Gen Alpha social media activity will look like, but one thing is sure — their innate favorability of everything 3D and co-created is likely to transfer over to their wider online behaviours.

03_It’s become much easier to make your own virtual alter ego

Platforms such as Zepeto, Ready Player Me, or Genies have made the creation of our virtual alter egos an extremely user-friendly process, and even an enjoyable pastime. Next to this, advancements in real-time rendering have made it easier than ever for creators to actually embody their digital selves — the internet is flooded with tools and tutorials on how to make videos and livestream using avatars. What was once reserved for CGI wizards is now at the fingertips of aspiring creators.

This new digital landscape has made for a perfect breeding ground for virtual influencers to finally get their spotlight, and establish themselves as permanent figures in our ecosystems of digital influence. And it’s already happening — YouTube’s 2023 Culture & Trends Report reports that more than half of people surveyed watched a VTuber (virtual YouTuber or influencer) over the past 12 months. Engagement with virtual influencers is also starting to expand beyond our screens, as VTuber fans have begun attending physical events, like concerts or meet-ups — something that’s been usually reserved only to actually living and breathing influencers.

In an era where receiving hate on a regular basis (especially about your looks) comes as part of the ‘being an influencer’ package, a career as a virtual influencer is a wonderful tool for creators to be able to express themselves online whilst staying protected from some of the harm — all while still giving fans a face and an identity to relate to. “Face-less” online creators have already proven that to be the case. Popular Minecraft YouTuber, Dream, amassed an audience of 30 million followers without ever revealing his identity, and sadly suffered from the internet’s hateful nature when he decided to reveal his face, with the Twitter hashtag #PutTheMaskBackOn trending in response to the reveal.

Given that virtual influencers do have a face, things can get a little more complicated when their real-world identity is entirely anonymous, or when the virtual persona is a creation of a team of people. What identity markers is a virtual influencer allowed to take on? What sexual orientation, what disability status, what skin colour? Avatars are meant to be an expression of our fantasy selves, not necessarily in alignment with the physical world, but where do we draw the line?

As an actual real-world lesbian, it pissed me off when Lil Miquela appeared in a Calvin Klein ad kissing with Bella Hadid back in 2019. An act which has the potential of putting me in danger in the physical world, frivolously executed by a heterosexual model and a “robot” girl created by a male inventor. Queer baiting at its peak. In more recent terms, earlier this year, the world of fashion saw another instance of virtual humans being used for diversity, when brands including Levi’s had custom AI models created to ‘supplement’ representation in size, skin tone and age — instead of hiring and paying actual models who are underrepresented. Perhaps the most scandalous of all virtual influencer mishaps so far was when the virtual rapper FN Mekka - who was given the appearance of a Black male cyborg, used racial slurs in his songs, and shared posts where he is shown being beaten by the police - was signed by Capitol Records and then found out to have been created by co-founders of Factory New, Anthony Martini and Brandon Le, neither of whom are Black.

As cultural analyst Tiffany Ferg has eloquently put it in her video essay about virtual influencers, speaking to the case study of another virtual influencer, and self-proclaimed activist, Noonoouri: “it’s such a weird neo-liberal nightmare to see a character’s account ran by a brand trying to include Black Lives Matter as part of its image. On the surface this seems of course like a good thing, it’s promoting important information, trying to raise awareness. But this is all carefully orchestrated and part of branding an image of an avatar that does not exist.”

Which begs the question: is there even an ethical way for virtual influencers to exist, and for brands to get involved? 

If we’ve learned anything at all, it’s that digital influencers should certainly not be used by brands to make up for their lack of real-world diversity efforts. The rise of the creator economy has provided people with opportunities to make a living by doing what they love and sharing that with others. Every time a commercially-generated virtual influencer is getting a brand deal, it is directly taking away from human creators — and especially those who occupy marginalised identities and are already underpaid.

After my investigation into the topic, if I were to provide brands with a couple of pointers, they would be to:

01_Collaborate with virtual influencers controlled by traceable, well-intended creators

Kami is the world’s first virtual influencer with Down syndrome, who is (plot twist!!!!) actually created by women with Down syndrome. Her appearance was based on portraits of 100+ women that were aligned, then added to a face-averaging programme that ultimately delivered a single image. She has also become somewhat of a platform for the work of 3D artists with Down syndrome, welcoming their submissions for makeup looks and outfits. If there was ever a right way to leverage a virtual influencer to support a brand’s diversity efforts, it would be to work with one who’s actually managed by the underrepresented group or individual.

02_Create a virtual ambassador that represents your expertise, not social and political views

Another way brands can leverage virtual influencers in a culturally relevant manner is by staying in their lane and focusing on providing brand education, instead of promoting a lifestyle or values a digital character can’t represent or relate to as non-human. Dermalogica created virtual human ‘Natalia’ specifically to train skincare professionals, following its new peptide eye gel launch in January 2022. Natalia comes to life through internal platforms in videos or VR simulations through which she teaches skin therapists about different skin conditions by simulating the ageing process and how the new product treats tired eyes.

As we embark on this journey into a reimagined, ‘avatar-ised’ influencer landscape in the coming years, one thing is certain — brands should steer away from knee-jerk reactions, and instead adopt a highly-considered approach that carefully assesses the reasons and intentions behind including virtual influencers in their marketing. Done right, they can be an incredible tool for interactive brand storytelling and education, all while helping brands maintain cultural relevance as they adapt their communications to meet the evolving preferences, expectations and cravings of their audience.