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Influencer Ex Machina

As virtual influencers such as Shudu and Lil Miquela start to build significant followings, the questions surrounding their potential impact are very real indeed.

There’s a new crop of influencers in town and, spoiler alert, they’re not real people.

Virtual influencers — influencers who are not human, but rather are digital creations or robots — are the latest to surface on social media, with Miquela Sousa, Shudu, Sophia the Robot, Bermuda and Blawko leading the pack. Sophia the Robot is, as her name suggests, an artificially intelligent robot who in October 2017, became the first robot in the world to be recognized as a citizen in Saudi Arabia. Shudu, who recently made her fashion editorial debut on the cover of WWD’s Digital Daily, is a digital avatar. Little is known about the nature of Miquela, Blawko and Bermuda, though they are thought to be avatars with anonymous creators.

The distinction between these influencers is important. Sophia and Shudu, for example, are completely different. As an artificially intelligent robot, Sophia can automate, learn and synthesize information, thus taking on a life of her own. She has interacted with real-life celebrities like Will Smith, Cristiano Ronaldo and Chrissy Teigen, and has posed for the covers of Cosmopolitan India and Elle Brazil. She currently has 69,000 followers on Instagram.

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Shudu, on the other hand, isn’t artificially intelligent. Like a video game character, she’s an avatar, a 3-D work of art and an extension of her creator, Cameron-James Wilson. With 122,000 followers on Instagram, Shudu exists solely in the digital sphere and can only interact with other avatars — so far, she’s posed with the 3-D versions of real-life models Ajur and Nfon Obong. Shudu does look so real, she’s often confused for a living, breathing, feeling woman. It’s debatable whether Rihanna’s viral Fenty Beauty brand knew Shudu wasn’t human when it reposted an image of her wearing its “Saw-C” plush matte lipstick. Fenty Beauty has since deleted its repost and the brand declined to offer comment on it.

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The most popular virtual influencer on the Internet right now is Miquela Sousa. With 1.1 million Instagram followers, Miquela has appeared on the covers of Highsnobiety and Berlin-based publication 032c. She re-created an iconic Lil’ Kim shoot for Paper Magazine earlier this year and in February, Pat McGrath Labs named her as its newest muse.

On Instagram, Miquela often poses in designer clothing, sometimes with real-life influencers and other times with fellow virtual beings Blawko — 43,000 followers — and Bermuda — 66,000 followers. Miquela became a topic of conversation in April, when Bermuda allegedly “hacked” her Instagram account. The incident, a rumored publicity stunt, sparked many a headline, and the two have since reconciled.

The world of virtual influencers is in its early stages, and as each continues to grow a following — and attract the attention of brands — the implications for the beauty and fashion industries will be increasingly pertinent. What are some of the pros and cons of working with an influencer who isn’t human? What effect will virtual influencers have on the existing influencer landscape? What are the cultural ramifications?

But first, what makes them so interesting, anyway?

“There’s very much a culture of creating avatars that either look like you or look like somebody that you want to be,” says Conor Begley, cofounder of Tribe Dynamics, citing Sims as the most basic version and SecondLife, where users basically live online as an avatar, as another example. “There’s a novelty factor. If you were to quickly glance at some of the photos, you might not be able to tell immediately, which is pretty remarkable in and of itself,” he continues. “If you look at Miquela, the link is to Black Girls Code. People are fascinated with the concept of creating what looks a lot like a human using computers.”

Part of the appeal of the influencer movement is that influencers are real, everyday people, not celebrities. Virtual influencers are, in some ways, anti-influencers, as they go against the current shift in the beauty industry toward authenticity. “A virtual influencer, they’re the opposite of authentic,” says Larissa Jensen of NPD Group. “They’re completely fake.

“From a consumer perspective, there’s confusion on whether these virtual influencers are real or not,” continues Jensen. “The artwork is unbelievable. Shudu is ridiculously gorgeous and looks real. With Lil Miquela, you can see in some pictures that she’s not real. But Shudu, like, wow.”

Jensen doesn’t believe that a virtual influencer will ever accrue the clout of a real, live person. But not everyone agrees. Alessio Rossi, global chief digital officer of Shiseido Group, calls virtual influencers “a new form of art” who are potentially equally as engaging as human influencers.

“I find it artistically extremely fascinating — not just technically,” he says. “The level of rendering you can achieve and the ability to learn from real influencers with a pulse and content, that is truly engaging.”

Rossi notes that while virtual influencers exist on the opposite end of the “authentic” spectrum, the level of perfection that can be achieved with them is equally as engaging. “Brands may come up with their own virtual influencers as long as they can tell a story,” he says, noting the brand story has to stay authentic, no matter who is telling it.

For Rossi, the rise of the virtual influencer also points to the expanding definition of the category itself. “Alexa and Google Home are influencers because you talk to them and they respond to you with recommendations that are very rational,” he says. “We are getting very used to talking to machines and not just to humans. We’re learning to trust the machines, forgetting at times that always humans are behind machines.”

Virtual influencers, most of whom have follower counts in the tens of thousands rather than millions, are also indicative of the increasing sway of micro-influencers. “It brings the importance of micro-influencers to the fold because you can have all these micro-niches of different influencers who target different needs and trends,” says Andrew Dunst, vice president of Sage Group, who covers the e-commerce, beauty and apparel sectors. “If it’s a real influencer or a virtual influencer, people are always going to be looking for the next voice or authority to express what they feel is fresh and interesting in the market. It just shows the power of influencers and the power that it has over consumers.”

There’s also potential for brands to create their own virtual influencers — to interact with the customer, be the face of campaigns and release “collaborations.” But whether or not brands adopt this model ultimately depends on the brand.

“The question is if it’s going to become more than just a PR play. Does it become something that people subscribe to and find interesting,” says Begley. “When you get into beauty, so much of it has to do with demonstration and seeing how it looks on their skin. There’s certainly some AR that people are doing to help apply a blush to their face, but it’s just not there yet. It’s not good enough. I would imagine it would impact the fashion industry before it would impact the beauty industry. It’s easy to demonstrate what an outfit looks like on.”

In addition to the novelty factor that attracts followers, virtual influencers have an important differentiator from their real-life counterparts when it comes to a brand point of view: The message can be directly programmed into the medium.

“With a virtual influencer, so much more thought has to be put into the message,” says Debra Davis, founder of NKLS, a company that researches, advises on and invests in virtual and augmented reality. “It’s not just someone with a Twitter stream. It’s more carefully constructed and thought through, and therefore can be controlled.”

The potential for controversy is also conceivably lessened. Not for this crowd a wardrobe malfunction or Logan Paul-type fail, where the famous You Tuber posted a graphic video on his platform that alienated viewers and caused Google to drop him from its Google Preferred program, which sells advertising to the top 5 percent content creators on YouTube. “One of the attractive elements is that you remove some of the PR risks from influencers who may do something that could impact their base of customers, given that everything this virtual influencer does is in a controlled setting by the people who are managing that account,” says Dunst.

In other words, “You’re not going to have Lil Miquela at a nightclub getting stupid with somebody,” says Davis.

Virtual influencers’ looks are more controllable, too — though they are ultimately dependent on their creators’ design capabilities — which could be both a pro and a con. “They’re perfect because they don’t age, but that’s also a weakness,” says Davis. “There’s a point when it’s going to become obvious that Lil Miquela isn’t aging and people who are looking at her go, ‘That’s not authentic and that’s not my personal experience anymore.’”

The power to create your own avatar could also impact the celebrity influencer sphere. Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Miranda Kerr could all create digital versions of themselves, for example, to interact online for them. Ceo and cofounder of HYPR Brands Gil Eyal, believes this could be a potential model as long as the avatars exist within a tightly controlled system.

“Celebrities are religiously married to controlling the content that appears around their name,” he says. “They might do something like this, but I don’t think it’s going to get to the point where every celebrity has a twin who’s a virtual celebrity. If they are, they’re going to be very tightly controlled.”

The socio-cultural mores of virtual influencers is also interesting. For starters, Blawko is the only known male virtual influencer—and he has the smallest following. This cultural fixation on fembots is nothing new — Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and the 2013 film “Her” are just a few examples—and it’s highlighted even more by this incoming class of influencers.

“Initial industrial engineering studies looked at why voices in elevators are always women,” says Davis. “It’s because people don’t like being told what to do and they view male voices as much more authoritative than female voices. People listen to their mothers — they don’t feel talked down to. There’s something more nurturing and OK about a woman’s voice when people are already afraid that computers are going to take over.”

Of the known female virtual influencers, both Miquela and Shudu are women of color. “Black Lives Matter” is included in Miquela’s Instagram bio — right after her Gmail address — which is a suggestion that she stands for the movement and therefore, in some capacity, has moral values.

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Shudu in The Great Eros. Cameron-James Wilson

Shudu — rather, her creator Wilson — seems to have moral values, too. Wilson told WWD that the avatar’s message is one of representation and diversity. “I want her to support developing economies and industries and be a vessel for that,” he said.

Asked for her thoughts on the fact that Miquela and Shudu are both women of color, Davis says, “What are the implications and why did that happen? Is it because fashion and media has focused on that blonde, straight-haired, cookie-cutter image for so long? There’s a lot of mystery surrounding who created them. Is it a bunch of white men? Is it a multiverse of different people of different ethnicities and genders? That’s what I would really hope, otherwise it’s kind of like when Eminem started singing rap music,” she continues.

“Everyone was like, are you just making money on black music or is this really real for you? And he stood the test of time, while many others haven’t, aka Vanilla Ice. So are we going to have an Eminem moment or are we going to have a Vanilla Ice moment?”

Wilson is a 28-year-old photographer from Weymouth, England. Sophia’s creator is Dr. David Hanson, who hails from Dallas, Texas. It’s unclear who Miquela, Bermuda and Blawko’s creators are, though all three seem to be operated by the same person or group of people.

What’s most interesting about these virtual influencers is that, like real-life influencers, they all seem to have distinct brands. Bermuda formerly presented herself as an avid supporter of President Donald Trump, but, according to her most recent Instagram posts, has since changed her mind about him. Blawko’s posts generally seem to be about video games, rappers and streetwear, and Sophia’s are often pop culture-oriented.

As people grow and change, their interests often do, too. Will this be case for virtual influencers? How will their followers — and brands — react to their evolution?

It may seem ludicrous to talk about beings that aren’t real in this manner, but ultimately, virtual influencers prove a major point about digital that for so long has been denied: What happens on the Internet doesn’t just stay on the Internet — there are real-life implications, too.

And like a virtual influencer, you no longer have to be real to resonate with real people. You just have to be online.

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