‘Hacks’ to learn different Indian languages, personal finance advice, and cooking recipes, Satshya Tharien’s Instagram posts cover a wide range of interests. Satshya, who “began creating short-form videos on Instagram when the Reels feature was released in 2020”, has over 290,000 followers on the platform. She has in her short stint as an influencer/content creator tried her hand at different types of posts like comedy, edutainment, cooking, and more to figure out what kind of digital content goes viral.
Just like Satshya, Kyra is a Mumbai-based influencer trying to grow her audience on Instagram. With 211,000 followers at the moment, Kyra identifies as a Meta influencer with her Instagram bio describing her as a “dream chaser, model, and traveler”. Kyra has had a busy start to the year as she partnered with Budweiser India to promote one of the world’s largest music festivals, Lollapalooza.
Interestingly, Kyra is currently 21 years old and will remain so for the next decade. This is because, unlike Satshya, Kyra is not real. She’s a virtual influencer (VI) created by Himanshu Goel, co-founder of FUTR STUDIOS. Goel and his team “created” Kyra during the second half of 2022.
“In 2021, we realized that almost every country with a high internet population had, at least one VI, barring India. So, after waiting a couple of months to see if anyone else was planning on creating one, we took the opportunity and created Kyra,” says Goel, whose team took three months to create a virtual being from scratch and deliver her to our Instagram screens.
The term influencer has many meanings. For the scope of this article, an influencer can be understood as “someone who holds social power and shapes the behavior of others through their words and actions”. A VI or virtual influencer is viewed as “an entity, humanlike or not, that is autonomously controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) and visually presented as an interactive, real-time rendered being in a digital environment”, which also holds massive social power.
VIs have gained tremendous popularity and followers in recent years owing to the rise of virtual reality (VR) technologies, Big Tech’s accelerated push toward the Metaverse, and brands expanding their focus on social media advertising.
Complexities of Virtual Diversity
The first instance of a VI was back in 2016 when an Instagram account by the name Miquela Sousa started gaining traction. Sousa’s account (or as she’s now commonly known, Lil Miquela) was shrouded in secrecy, and only when she ‘came out’ as a robot in 2018 did most people know that she’s not real. But it didn’t stop her from being listed in TIMES’ ‘most influential people on the internet’ list in 2018, endorsing products for Calvin Klein and Prada, and having a “224% higher post reach than the other influencers who have a similar number of followers”.
Today, the list of VIs is long, including Lu do Magalu from Brazil, Thalasya from Indonesia, Shudu from South Africa, Imma from Tokyo, Bermuda from Los Angeles, and Rozy from South Korea. Interestingly, most of these VIs primarily focus on fashion, including India’s Kyra. “Kyra’s interests lie in fashion, travel, and lifestyle. So, in case we publish a post in collaboration with MG Motors (to promote their cars) we will still spend a lot of resources on getting Kyra’s outfit right and presenting her in a fashionable manner. That is the chief focus of our content,” says Goel. Similarly, VI Shudu, created by fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson, is big on fashion and calls herself “the world’s first digital supermodel”. According to reports, Wilson “claimed that he wants to use Shudu to encourage diversity in the fashion industry” as Shudu is particularly hailed for her “flawless dark skin”.
The first instance of a VI was back in 2016 when an Instagram account by the name Miquela Sousa started gaining traction. Sousa’s account was shrouded in secrecy, and only when she ‘came out’ as a robot in 2018 did most people know that she’s not real.
Industry experts believe that VIs are set to take over the fashion and advertisement sector, with Juniper Research estimating that the global fashion industry’s investment in AI technology amounted to USD 3.6 billion in 2020. However, when influencers – be they real or virtual – try to ‘influence’ fashion for particular audiences, questions of representation and authenticity, already a prickly subject in the domain, acquire new complexities.
Speaking to Harper Bazaar in 2018, Wilson credited the inspiration behind Shudu to the Barbie doll, calling her his “art piece”. “There’s a big kind of movement with dark skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them…We live in such a filtered world now, where real is becoming fake. I wanted to create something that is fantasy toward becoming more real…to me, she is what the most beautiful woman in the world would look like,” Wilson said in the interview.
Wilson’s comments were met with a lot of backlash, with people accusing him of taking away opportunities from real Black models in the industry and profiting from an artificial Black entity. He has also been accused of cultural appropriation and exploiting and fetishizing Black skin through a white male gaze.
Shudu’s rising popularity has also brought the concept of ‘digital blackface’ to the fore. Digital blackface, is defined as, “an online phenomenon where white and other non-Black people make claims to Black identities and Blackness through profile pictures and the reaction GIFs they share. Often, the images projected perpetuate Black stereotypes, thereby solidifying the views of those who hold anti-Black perspectives.” Many also argue that digital blackface perpetuates a contemporary form of racism by facilitating non-Black audiences to “indulge their intense fascination with blackness without having to interact with actual Black people”, and Wilson’s decision to create a fictitious Black entity instead of collaborating with a human Black model, as well as Shudu’s instantaneous rise to fame among Instagram users across the globe seems to be a case in point.
Virtual rapper FN Meka is another example of digital blackface. In 2022, Capitol Records signed FN Meka, making him the first VI to be signed onto a major label. However, Meka’s debut, ‘Florida Water’, received immense criticism for the use of the N-word since his creators were Asian and white. The very caricature of the rapper has gained massive flak for being offensive and promoting harmful stereotypes of Black people.
Meanwhile, fashion VIs have also been criticized for promoting unrealistic beauty standards. Apart from having an unparalleled ‘glass’ skin, which numerous skincare brands base their USP upon, VI Rozy’s slender figure, perfect jawline, and long, lustrous hair make her appear ‘flawless’. On the other hand, VI Shudu’s blemish-free, porcelain-like skin, captivating eyes that go perfectly with any shade of eyeshadow, and model-perfect figure have led her followers to excessively idolize her. In fact, unaware of Shudu’s AI origins, a skincare professional in the US wanted the VI to “try” and review her products since she felt Shudu has the “perfect” texture. Furthermore, excessive admiration for these traits by VIs’ followers ensures that such unrealistic and non-human beauty standards progress toward becoming the accepted norms, which many women and girls aspire towards. For instance, the comments by Lil Miquela’s Instagram followers on her pictures are eerily similar to the kind of comments one commonly finds under the posts uploaded by well-known celebrities and models. “U r soo cute and i like your outfit too much ..! Can u reply me if ur not busy..,” asks one Instagram user in response to a picture posted by Lil Miquela, showing her surrounded by a pile of clothes. Comments under her pictures range from her followers calling her beautiful, gorgeous, and queen, among other compliments. Time and again Instagram has come under fire for promoting unrealistic beauty standards, resulting in severe body image issues among teen girls. With the rise of VIs, it looks like this trend is only set to worsen.
Unaware of Shudu’s AI origins, a skincare professional in the US wanted the VI to “try” and review her products since she felt Shudu has the “perfect” texture.
In discussing this issue with Kyra’s creator, Goel, who, while admitting that this is a problem with some VIs, put forth an interesting counter point and highlighted how his team went out of its way to design Kyra based on ‘real’ Indian complexions.
“For Kyra we have taken reference of India models and Indian skin types, so her skin emulates actual skin: her skin reacts to light, it has pores, etc. Kyra’s complexion is not unrealistic or something that we don’t come across in real life. It has been of utmost importance for my team to portray something based on reality and we also aim to create a diverse set of VIs with diverse skin types and body standards in the future. In fact, we recently created Srvya, who has a different body and skin tone when compared to Kyra. As we create more characters, we will represent the diversity of the country. On the flip side, one can also argue that professional human models set unrealistic beauty standards as they use numerous products and undergo many procedures to have a flawless body,” Goel argues.
The Authenticity Question
A prized quality of an influencer is ‘authenticity’. As opposed to mainstream celebrities, influencers gain traction by putting their ‘real’ lives out there for everyone to see. Ironically, this is done through carefully curated and edited posts and videos which adhere to the signature aesthetic of the influencer. The ‘connection’ that social media users feel towards the influencers they follow mainly depends on how much they can relate with the influencer’s day-to-day experiences and emotions. Influencers also attempt to create intimate bonds with their followers by acknowledging their presence and responding to their comments, praise, and at times, even criticism. Most influencers post daily to stay relevant, and with Instagram pushing for video content of late, most of them make Reels on a daily basis to get picked up by the algorithm.
How does a virtual being post something that’s ‘authentic’? What does authenticity and originality mean when many view your very existence as ‘fake’ or manufactured?
When asked about what kind of content she thinks performs best, Satshya stressed on originality. “Given that now there are so many creators on multiple platforms, followers like to see originality and variety in the content they consume. So, seeing 10 people do the same trend would be boring, but if you’re able to put your own twist to it, then you are both getting discovered because of the trend, as well as being appreciated for your creativity,” she says.
While human influencers put so much thought to be viewed as ‘authentic’, it’s interesting to examine how this factor plays out with VIs. How does a virtual being post something that’s ‘authentic’? What does authenticity and originality mean when many view your very existence as ‘fake’ or manufactured?
On 13 October 2022, Lil Miquela started publishing a series of posts telling “her” story, beginning with how she “met Brud”, the company that designed her, to the moment fellow VI Bermuda revealed to her that she isn’t “real” and how Brud had initially planned on programming Lil Miquela as a sex robot, to finally, her coming to terms with her robotic existence.
Despite being overtly dramatic and scripted, Lil Miquela’s posts garnered tens of thousands of likes and comments, with her followers deeply engrossed in her story. This is the blueprint on which VIs function. While there’s no ‘realness’ in their fictitious origins, ‘authenticity’ for users is linked to how well VIs’ behavior, language, and experiences on social media are in sync with the storyline that has been specifically manufactured for them. This kind of authenticity also extends to advertising deals and brand promotions, two main pillars on which the influencer economy rests on.
The Workings of Influencer Marketing
One can argue that the Kardashians were one of the first celebrities to understand and capture the influencer economy. Back in 2018, Kylie Jenner reportedly made USD 1 million per sponsored Instagram post. Today, most VIs have a higher engagement rate than human influencers with the same amount of followers, and hence earn way more than their human counterparts through brand endorsements. According to reports, VI Rozy garnered more than 100 endorsements in 2021, earning USD 1 million. Meanwhile, way ahead of the competition, Lil Miquela earned about USD 8,500 per sponsored post, making USD 11 million in 2021.
Influencers usually endorse products and brands related to their field of influence. However, while choosing which brands they want to be associated with, influencers – both human and virtual – only tie up with companies whose values are in sync with their personal ones.
For instance, Indian haircare influencers, Fuzzy Curls, rarely ever advertise any haircare product that contains sulphates or silicones, since they view these as being dangerous to hair health. Fuzzy Curls have built a dedicated audience, who primarily follow them with the assumption that they are experts in the haircare field and that they would never promote any product that ‘wouldn’t work’.
Similarly for VIs, Goel says the decision to endorse or not is based on the personality traits and value sets on which the VI has been created. “Kyra cannot abruptly start acting in a manner that is not in sync with her personality that’s been displayed so far. So, when we (team) decide to have Kyra endorse a product, we first make sure that such an endorsement will not affect Kyra’s authenticity. If we don’t remain authentic to her personality traits displayed so far, then we run the risk of losing her followers, which will in turn impact our future endorsements,” says Goel.
So, when tech companies create value sets for particular VIs, by default they are also deciding which brands they will give publicity to in the future, and thereby on what factors the VI will be molded. Capitalism gains immensely by this kind of complete moldability which is lacking in human influencers, who also run the risk of becoming the victims of cancel culture, something that doesn’t quite apply to VIs, yet. Furthermore, a case in point vis-à-vis complete moldability is how many tech and luxury brands have designed their own VIs, like Prada’s Candy and Samsung’s Zero, which while having accumulated a high amount of social media capital, also function as virtual brand mascots, garnering profits for their brands.
The rise of the influencer industry can be attributed to the online manifestation of the American Dream: “that in capitalism everyone has an equal opportunity to make a career” and that by merely being “active on social media there are great opportunities for becoming wealthy and famous”. The global influencer industry was valued at more than USD 15 billion in 2022, and the evidence presented in this article clearly indicates that the sector will grow multi-fold in the coming years.
When tech companies create value sets for particular VIs, by default they are also deciding which brands they will give publicity to in the future, and thereby on what factors the VI will be molded. Capitalism gains immensely by this kind of complete moldability which is lacking in human influencers.
Interestingly, while the current advancements in AI would make one believe that VIs are a new phenomenon, history tells us that they are, in fact, old wine in a new bottle. As early as the 1870s, brands created customized mascots to advertise their products after having realized that mascots, which conveyed key brand values, greatly improved brand recognition and brand recall among audiences. The Quaker Oats mascot – conceptualized in 1877 – is one of the earliest known mascots, which has remarkably stood the test of time. Furthermore, brands have also molded real-life personalities in a manner befitting the company’s value sets, to ramp up advertising.
With the entry of VIs in the influencing sector, pertinent questions on if they will replace their human counterparts are rising, but it is still too soon to make black-and-white predictions. Regardless of whether the future of influencing is human or virtual, VIs are here to stay.
As much as diversity and inclusion are quintessential in the Metaverse, tech brands should be mindful of issues of cultural appropriation and racism while designing VIs and use the same lens of fair representation that is expected vis-à-vis human influencers. Meanwhile, as VIs and social media evolve, discourses also need to be directed towards ensuring that society’s stereotypical aesthetics of the female image, drawn heavily from the white male gaze, are not portrayed as the globally accepted beauty norms. Lastly, just as much as human influencers are expected to disclose any and all content that is produced as a result of brand collaborations, tech companies should also come clean on the intent of designing VIs and the profits they generate not just for their parent organization but also for other brands via shallow and direct advertising, so that users are not kept in the dark about their favorite VI’s capitalistic ventures.