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CGI influencers are taking over social media

#UnrealInfluence

It is 2018 and influencers need no introduction. Odds are, you already interact with one on a daily basis in one form or another on social media. Just in case, influencers are the people who have a significant impact on a niche audience due to their credibility, knowledge, appeal or uniqueness. At least they used to be ‘people’. In recent times, you might have come across influencers on social media and found that something seems to be a bit off about them, especially their appearance. You might have encountered what is commonly known as a CGI Influencer.

What is a CGI Influencer

If the name wasn’t explanatory enough for you, a CGI influencer isn’t a real person. It is a virtual entity created and managed by an individual or a team whose identity is in no way connected to real-life counterparts. They exist entirely on the digital realm and often accept the fact boldly. In other aspects, they are exactly like human influencers – they have a significant following, are regular contributors to whichever platform they are on and actually react to real-world actions. To be honest, being animated tends to work in their favour.

What works

The story of Miquela Sousa has all the benefits and pitfalls – she started off on Instagram as LilMiquela in 2016 and currently stands as the poster girl of CGI influencers at 1.2mil followers on the platform. Her journey features a healthy dose of controversy as well. Back in April 2018, another CGI personality on Instagram, Bermuda, hacked the account to force Miquela into admitting her fake identity – something that has remained foggy from day one. This forced an LA-based startup, Brud, to issue a pretty dubious statement on Miquela’s behalf, claiming that she, along with another person on the platform is AI that they have created.

Lil Miquela, the poster girl of CGI influencers

Putting dubious claims and controversy aside, what was evident from this entire situation is that people were, and are, invested enough in the affairs of artificial influencers. To the point that Miquela has worked with brands like Giphy, Prada and has also sported clothing from Diesel and Moncler. Although she has claimed that none of that content was sponsored, that doesn’t mean a demand doesn’t exist. Take another example – that of Shudu Gram, created by fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson. With her shot to fame coming from a report by Fenty Beauty, Rihanna’s cosmetics brand, she’s reportedly received tons of offers for brand-sponsored content.

If you are starting to feel that this CGI/virtual influencer madness is restricted to Instagram, let us quickly dispose of that notion. If you’ve played EA Sports’ Fifa 18, you know Alex Hunter from the Journey mode. You probably also know about the brand endorsement deal that Alex, a virtual footballer on a meteoric rise to fame, signs with Coca-Cola. In fact, Alex signs a similar deal with Adidas as well in the same franchise. Even in video games, this phenomenon transcends genres. Luxury brand Louis Vuitton featured Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII as the ambassador for their Spring/Summer 2016 collection.

Alex Hunter could be the first in-game virtual ambassador for a real brand

Why does it work

These influencers are distinct from mascots that brands sport. Far from being cartoony, they sport distinct personalities and take interest in real-world issues. Lil Miquela, in the past, has raised her voice for issues like Black Lives matter and Transgender rights. There’s more to their popularity than that.

First off, these influencers are crafted with an ideal image of beauty in mind. Take a look at Lil Miquela and Shudu Gram’s Instagram profiles and you’ll know what we’re talking about. That itself is a popular reason for both brands and followers to flock to these lifelike personas online. On top of that, being controlled by a team that engineers each and every aspect of their existence make them predictable – a factor favoured a lot by brands in comparison to real life influencers who can be prone to controversy and errors (remember the Logan Paul controversy?).

Shudu Gram has been even criticized for being something similar to blackface minstrels of the mid-1800s, which allowed people to interact with black people without actually doing it

Also, social media today has reached a pretty high degree of falsehood in terms of appearance and standards. Smartphones today launch with camera APIs that boast of powerful ‘beautification’ features. Real life influencers like Kylie Jenner have evolved over time, through cosmetic surgery, to reach an unprecedented degree of artificial appearance. In such an environment, it isn’t a surprise that these virtual influencers garnered popularity. Most celebrity and popular social media handles are managed by entire teams already, so even that aspect of a virtual influencers existence doesn’t really become a roadblock to their popularity.

The problems with CGI influencers

Aside from the obvious implications on pushing unreal standards of beauty and good looks to a whole new, engineered level, the rise of CGI influencers comes with its own set of problems that must be dealt with soon.

To start off, there is the question of accountability. In the current state of technology, it is impossible for a virtual influencer to actually try the products they are endorsing. It is too easy for Miquela to tell you that the Prada jacket fits like magic and feels good on the skin. Which brings us to the next problem – the difference between sponsored and non-sponsored content. Real life influencers are required by the platform or the community to declare sponsored content in some form – in the text, through hashtags or more. Do CGI influencers adhere to the same standards? Should they?

A still from Le Congrès, the Robin Wright starrer that explores the idea of celebrities selling the rights to their virtual avatars

While it is good to applaud the efforts of personas like Miquela standing behind important causes and influencing their followers to do the same, is it entirely impossible to think of a situation where a similar influencer is used to push an undesirable, hateful agenda onto unsuspecting masses? Remember, we’re people who get influenced by targeted advertising and we’re talking about entire targeted and custom engineered persona here.
In the future, celebrities and influencers might sell the rights to their CGI avatars and personas, much akin to what happens in the 2013 feature film The Congress (starring Robin Wright as Robin Wright). The existing popularity of a celebrity couple with near-lifelike avatars can provide a high level of power into the hands of whoever is wielding it. That future isn’t too far away.

The future of CGI influencers

Do not worry about a horde of virtual avatars and bots controlling the thoughts of the general populace, what is likely to happen is that brands are likely to craft their own influencers. These influencers are likely to be lifelike and created along the lines of the brand’s existing image. Quantum Capture is a startup working in that area. Founded in 2015, they’ve already worked on impressive facial scan projects such as Death Stranding and Far Cry primal. Their primary offering is photorealistic virtual human representation for chatbots.

Remember The Congress? Shushila Takao has already modelled for the Autodesk Virtual Assistant (AVA). Although it is not modelled after her real-life persona and a publicly accessible demo is still far away, the results are pretty impressive. So, if John Legend can soon voice your Google Assistant, maybe David Beckham, almost in person, can welcome you to a 5-star in the UK?

AVA (Autodesk Virtual Assistant) created by Soul Machines in the likeliness of Shushila Takao

We live in a world where we are increasingly relying on the opinion of machines, generated based on massive data banks on one side and corporate interests on another. It may soon become difficult to tell the real people from the created one. As of today, the difference between the CGI influencers and real-life influencers remains very little. The question is, does it really matter if an influencer is also in meatspace or not? Do let us know by writing in to editor@digit.in.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.