MDIA2003_19 Wed11.30 (2019)

Robots are Telling our Kids what to Think

Virtual influencers have taken over fashion online, now they’re getting political.

By Alex Molchanoff

Lil Miquela, Noonoouri and Shudu may seem like names of rappers or artists but they are part of the new, virtual wave of influencers advertising to social media audiences.

Invitations to events for Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and Vogue used to be reserved for exclusive, well-paid members of high society costing the companies millions as their prestige was cemented through the combination of expensive platters and household names captured with their branding in the background. A new Instagram trend is cutting costs for these companies who are beginning to advertise their brands with names like Lil Miquela, Noonoouri and Shudu. Although not the household names of Miranda Kerr or Jennifer Hawkins these Instagram influencers are having the same success with one key difference. They’re virtual. Created by someone behind a computer, skilfully crafting a virtual character, designed to appeal to the newest generation of social media user.

The rise of the virtual influencer has saved companies kitting out models in their new season of dresses, jackets and boots instead paying the companies behind these virtual sensations to place their characters in the latest Maison de Mode jacket or Nike sneakers. The most successful of these, Lil Miquela, has attracted 1.5 million Instagram followers and posts daily about her life in the fictionalised version of Los Angeles that her digital design company has produced for her character. Miquela is regularly featured in Doc Martin’s shoes with a Samsung mobile phone in her hand whilst attending various “events” conceived by her creators.

So, is this trend dangerous?

“It’s pretty creepy but she’s doing what another completely average influencer could do.”

From a marketer’s perspective CEO of Digital Marketing Company Kubb&Co Chris Kubbernus is positive about the effect virtual influencers can have on their target audience, predominantly consisting of teenage and pre-teen girls. Speaking on his recent podcast his says he can see a constructive way forward.

“The thing I like about virtual influencers is that you get a gap…you’re not thinking of them as your peers”

Chris Kubbernus – CEO Kubb&Co

“From a society standpoint it feels right…there’s been a large amount of incidences or increase in young girls with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self-harm issues which some people are attributing this to social media…the thing I like about virtual influencers is that you get a gap…you’re not thinking of them as your peers”

For Maddison-Clare Sloane, an influencer with a broader public profile as a news presenter alongside her Instagram fame, the trend could have a more direct effect.

“For girls that have completely based their profiles and wealth on social media the pool will shrink and companies will be less likely to hand out products to advertise… if it gets off the ground properly yeah I think it’ll definitely shrink the opportunities for real people. “

More than that though Ms Sloane is worried this is returning to a trend that society was beginning to steer away from.

“I think young girls particularly and more and more young guys now see all these perfect people, we were starting to move away from that with more accurate representation of human bodies and how people look and I think the virtual side of that completely destroys that move for me. I think it’s hard to properly represent people without using people.”

Perhaps the most confronting development has been the rise of virtual influencers as promoters of social movements as large as Black Lives Matter and in the case of ‘Blawko’ ridiculing American President Donald Trump in a post late last year.

For social activist and influencer Marlee Silva this is the most worrying trend. Silva, along with her sister Keely set up the Instagram account ‘Tiddas4Tiddas’ in 2018 to connect Indigenous women around Australia and have amassed a following of nearly 10,000 in less than 12 months. For Silva humans need to drive this change on social media.

 “If these characters are built in the hands of the wrong people with hidden agendas and they actually grow their influence to global heights…I don’t know why they need to exist.”

If they’re white developers why do they want to build a person of colour?

Marlee Silva

These issues become even more complex in the case of Shudu advertised on her profile as the “World’s first digital supermodel,” she is also of African background. Although she has nothing like the reach of Lil Miquela with a comparatively measly 159,000 followers on Instagram, her racial portrayal has drawn criticism for various sources, perceived to be an attempt to not pay darker supermodels in an industry which has often been accused of underrepresenting minorities.

“If they are white developers why do they want to build a person of colour?” asks Silva.

“I’d take a stab at assuming it’s to contribute to the trend of diversifying we see in just about every industry and pop-culture now – it’s like it’s cool to be black or brown at the moment, like we’re the flavour of the month” she says.

Indeed, Shudu’s creator Cameron-James Wilson told last year that “There’s a big kind of movement with dark skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them.”

Silva says this is offensive and that having people who do not understand the cultures behind the characters they are portraying it broadens the potential for stereotyping.

“If it’s not people of colour controlling her moves and motives it’d be so easy to see how bias and stereotypes are being programmed into her image.”

For Kubbernus this is the strength of the idea is in the simple reason that virtual influencers aren’t real. He believes that audiences will be able to discern that there is a gap between the influencers’ reality and the real world.

“The thing I like about virtual influencers is that you get a gap. Everybody has been very clear about it this is not a real person. As more and more virtual influencers come up we are creating that gap this is a different person this isn’t someone you should compare yourself to because it doesn’t exist.”

The question now is whether the benefit of virtuality in a physical sense can be translated to larger ideas and as Silva tells us not everyone is seeing that “gap” described by Kubbernus.

“One fault of technologically developed humanoids like this though, is that while real humans are inherently flawed and victims to the human condition – which we accept – digital ones made of pixels rather than flesh and bone, can be viewed as flawless or without bias.”

Kubbernus is optimistic about virtuality in the hands of the right people. In the hands of the wrong people Silva says,

“That is terrifying.”