Will computer generated influencers be the end of the real ones?
They wear clothes of the most exclusive brands, such as Chanel or Prada, they are friends with real actors and singers, and also support social movements including «Black lives matter». Lil Miquela stands out among the growing group of digital influencers. In 2016, Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou created Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela in social media, as an artistic project. Much of its impact, she has over 1.4 million followers, was caused by the conspiracy theories that circulated on the Internet about whether it was truly human or a robot.
Although, the new computer generated characters do not only upload photos to social networks. They are much more than that. Back to the previous example, Lil Miquela is also a singer. Like a real pop star, her music is uploaded in the main streaming music platforms for instance Spotify, Apple Music or even YouTube where she uploads music videos in which she appears moving.
In the case of Lil Miquela, the performer was created by Brud, a somewhat mysterious Los Angeles company. The startup defines itself as «a small group of artists, engineers, roboticists and activists». The leader of the group is Trevor McFedries, who coincidentally was part of a rap group called Shwayze so it could be related to the entry of Lil Miquela in music.
One of the most well known controversies of Lil Miquela has been when her account was hacked by another virtual influencer at the beginning of this year. Bermuda, the pro-Trump character who got her account temporarily, claimed that she was real and that Miquela was a lie. Apparently, Bermuda belonged to another company, called Cain Intelligence, that’s why he wanted to get rid of his rival by deleting all of Miquela’s posts. After the scandal in social networks, it was discovered that Bermuda was also a creation of Brud, since Cain Intelligence does not exist, and that the fight had been an experiment.
However these nonexistent character profiles are not just an experiment for fun, their millions of followers are a great resource to make money. Rates vary and they depend on the number of followers and the platform. In the case of Instagram, according to the newspaper El Periódico, if the account has more than half a million followers, then it would be charged from 2,500 euros for a photo of advertising. Lil Miquela has more than 1,400,000 followers so therefore the figure per publication would rise over the 7,000 euros.
For the brands, the most attractive aspect about digital influencers is that they are artificial and their personalities are generated. In addition, the audience increasingly demands more content from the social media stars. This is an advantage over real people, since several designers can generate the same virtual character at the same time. They are much easier to control. On the one hand, the public is fascinated and curious about the new influencers generated by a computer but nevertheless distrust them because since they are not real people their opinions are not either.
The Federal Trade Commission regulated its guidelines to avoid covert publicity in the posts of the influencers, so that each time they publish a paid photo, the publication must include the hashtag #ad or #sponsored. But the regulation is doubtful when it comes to virtual influencers because they are not real people selling a real product.
In any case, the mistrust in the artificial avatars is not the only negative aspect about them. If the use of photography manipulative programs such as Photoshop were harmful to society because it creates non-real beauty standards, what would happen if the models with which people were compared were inhuman?
Renee Engeln, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, is an expert in cultural obsession with appearance and beauty and how it affects girls and women. At CNN, the professor affirmed how damaging the normalization of the use of digital models could exacerbate the tendency to impose unrealistic expectations on the public.
The future of social networks, and therefore avatars too, is uncertain. Instagram is only 8 years old and already has more than 800 active users, who knows what will happen if they keep up. If the digital influencers finally take control of the platforms and earn tons of money just for being pretty no one should be surprised, the Kardashian clan has done it for years.