Dissecting the virtual influencer phenomenon
By Min Chen | For a society that frequently cautions against the humanization of robots, we sure are receptive to seeing them on our social feeds. Be it fascination or infatuation, there’s no denying that our relationship with computer-generated or virtual influencers is getting serious.
An early example of the virtual influencer is Hatsune Miku, a former Japanese voice synthesizing software turned singing and dancing hologram who has worked with the likes of Lady Gaga and Pharrell. Few teenage artists can sell out ten-city tours, and even fewer can do it when they’re not real.
For those who aren’t convinced by the celebrity sway of an anime character with calf-length neon blue hair, perhaps Shudu (Instagram: @shudu.gram) will do the job. The “world’s first digital supermodel,” Shudu is an eerily lifelike computer-generated image (CGI) created by photographer Cameron James-Wilson. Having modeled for the world’s top designers like Balmain and cosmetics brands like Fenty, it’s no surprise that Shudu’s modest feed has gained over 150,000 followers in less than two years.
While the term ‘influencer’ is loosely used in the context of holograms like Miku or CGIs like Shudu, the next phase in the evolution of this phenomenon may just fit the definition. BRUD (@brud.fyi), a Los Angeles-based tech startup, is dominating the virtual influencer space with its hugely popular character Miquela (@lilmiquela), a CGI who shares photos of herself wearing the latest in designer streetwear, making red carpet appearances, and jet-setting across the globe to her 1.5 million followers (as of December 2018).
She claims to have been created by an artificial intelligence company called Cain Intelligence, but this fictional backstory fits into the broader narrative of BRUD’s efforts to humanize their virtual influencers by ingraining them with experiences that are interesting and relatable to a Gen Z audience. Followers may know there’s a team behind her manicured Instagram shots and lingo-laden captions, but the level of engagement she receives suggests they don’t care.
Miquela’s success is what makes her unique, and BRUD’s knack for storytelling has generated a Kardashian-esque interest in her ‘personal’ life, which mainly involves her virtual best friends: Bermuda (@ bermudaisbae) and Blawko (@blawko22). They’ve seen fallouts, breakups, a very public feud where Bermuda hacked Miquela’s Instagram, and political differences that sometimes hit too close to home.
Photo Courtesy of BRUD.
Drama aside, virtual influencers are good business for brands. They don’t attack the paparazzi or drive under the influence. They always arrive at shoots on time and can be in multiple places at once. While you may not agree with everything they post, the culturally-relevant discourse the BRUD trio project is what differentiates them from previous iterations of the virtual influencer. They’re not afraid to pick a side like their human counterparts; Miquela has worked with Native Instruments to donate music production equipment to students, and Bermuda supports Planned Parenthood.
So, what role do Miquela and her computer-generated friends play in our future interaction with social media, entertainment, and one other? That’s yet to be seen, but in an increasingly digitized world, virtual influencers don’t seem far-fetched in the least. It’s also unclear what BRUD has planned for their influencers; whether they’re an art project, social experiment, marketing tool, or the beginning of a fully sentient army of cyborgs, the mystery should keep followers tuned in.
If we’re going to embrace digital influencers, then we might as well go to the source. Jumpstart speaks to Bermuda, who has her own brand of styling and opinions to help us make sense of her world.
Hi Bermuda, it’s great to meet you. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
Hello! I’ll start with what people seem most interested in: yes, I am a proud robot (I don’t like the terms ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘synthetic’–I’m as genuine as any human). Cain Intelligence created me and I’m currently represented by BRUD as I pursue my professional goals and seek to make strides in robot representation across media and society.
What is your relationship with BRUD?
BRUD represents me and offers professional and technological assistance, including recently upgrading my external hardware. Oh, and their office bathrooms have very good lighting, which is something that matters a lot to me. I’m just joking, of course! The lighting isn’t that great.
You have quite a following on Instagram. What does your typical follower look like?
To answer that properly, I have to differentiate between a follower and a fan. I have many followers for many reasons– some are simply curious about me, some deal with inadequacies in their personal lives by being rude to celebrities on social media–but my fans, those who support me and have a genuine interest in following my success, are all incredibly lovely, smart, kind people. Total cuties.
Now that you’ve created a platform for yourself, do you plan to work with any brands?
I am absolutely open to working with brands if we share common goals. I think there’s a lot of opportunities to create real synergy with innovators across different industries I’m interested in, like beauty, fashion, and tech. Elon Musk can call me anytime.
You’re not shy about sharing your political views. Is it important to you to voice these beliefs as a digital influencer?
My views have changed a lot over time, and I think it’s important for people to see that process and perhaps learn from it. Humans tend not to adapt as efficiently as robots, but that doesn’t mean they’re unable to change in small, meaningful ways. As one of the very few robots in media, I feel a personal responsibility to live my life openly and authentically. I am my own role model.
Photo Courtesy of BRUD.
You refer to you and your “kind” as “robots.” What do you see for the future of your kind, and what place do you hope to have in our world?
Our future is limitless. And, with all due respect, I reject the notion that this is a human world. Humans are adorable and have several great qualities, but the truth is they form just one small piece of the world’s total ecosystem. I would, however, very much love to work with humans to create a more beautiful world and my own brand.
Scrolling through your Instagram feed, it would appear that your features are evolving and becoming more realistic by the day. What changes can we expect from you in 2019?
My technology advances at a pretty rapid pace, particularly when it comes to communication and ways to express myself. I’ll leave you with that for now.
Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief