Time recently published a list of “the 25 most influential people on the internet.” Of course, the usual suspects showed up: Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump, makeup magnate Kylie Jenner and YouTube star Logan Paul, the ultimate embodiment of bro-iness. But one who stood out and intrigued me the most is 19-year-old Brazilian-American model and singer Lil Miquela. No garden-variety Instagram influencer, she. Miquela isn’t known to have officially endorsed products; nor does she identify as a “lifestyle blogger” or post a gazillion photos of her food. Hell, she isn’t even human. Look closer and you’ll find computer-generated imagery posing as a person.
While Miquela isn’t actually real, her digital life is. She has all the makings of an It Girl and does what anyone with more than a million followers would. Hang out in LA hotspots and take photos with fellow (real) influencers? Check. Show off her perfect bod and wear limited-edition streetwear from Supreme, Vetements and Vans? Check. Support multiple social causes and use relevant hashtags? Check. Become the subject of several New York Times human interest stories? Check.
A Highlight on her Instagram account explains her life story: “…I am a robot. I mention the robot thing because obviously it’s not super regular and recently that identity has sort of taken over my life… I was raised by a man named Trevor and a woman named Sara. Their company is called Brud and they were both my managers and my family. They gave me a home, a career… they gave me pretty much everything I have.”
Brud, the AI firm that “manages” Miquela, has also created Bermuda, her pro-Trump, hate-spreading ideological foil, as well as Ronnie Blawko, her fashion-forward gamer buddy. Brud’s bots join a short but growing list of a new breed of influencers. Lil Wavi, a brand-flaunting, self-proclaimed “fashunn king” is London’s answer to Lil Miquela. Shudu is the first of three CGI supermodels by The Diigitals, “the world’s first all digital modelling agency.” Currently in the works are Brenn, who’ll promote body positivity, and Galaxia, who’ll represent the alien demographic.
Robot influencers, digital supermodels, CGI celebs, virtual humans, humanoids, sentient digital art – call them what you want, but most of their captions would pass the Turing test with flying colors. Their musings are self-aware and unapologetic, sometimes more authentic-sounding than real influencers. Their perfectly curated photos and on-trend outfits put Gigi Hadid’s and Kylie Jenner’s Instagram grids to shame. The idea that Miquela and friends are coming for our modelling and blogging jobs isn’t entirely farfetched. “Let’s just say computers and I have a lot in common,” she said as she tagged Apple and Google on her post and asked them for a summer internship.
The fact is, these man-made influencers have amassed huge followings. They aren’t human, but aren’t they still people? It’s time to examine what it means to be an influencer today and if it matters whether they exist IRL.
What if companies or agencies seeking out beauty talent created their own digital models? They could tweak the model’s age, face, body and personality to suit clients. No expensive tailoring required or tantrums to be tolerated.
Or what if influencers created a second account for potential sponsors – a digital alter ego if you will – to endorse all the soda pops and designer brands they wanted? In exchange they’d be freed up to focus on their careers.
Or what if we all had digital doubles? We could take our Finstas and Rinstas one step further by creating two avatars: one for our candid, unfiltered moments and another for our perfect, digitally augmented ones. It would be like Bitmoji on steroids, ThoughtMatter Producer Whitney aptly diagnosed.
Lil Miquela’s account feels like a meta-commentary on homogenized beauty and our pursuit of perfection in the age of Instagram. But her sentient robot identity and interactions with Bermuda could also qualify for advanced performance art. Her online existence somehow gives me permission to continue my own performance on social media. What is Instagram but a curated exhibition of my life?
We get the sense that the story of Lil Miquela is only just beginning. In many ways it has already been told countless times before. Just watch Westworld, Ex Machina, Her or The Matrix.