INFLUENCE: VIRTUAL REALITY? THE RISE OF THE DIGITAL INFLUENCER
“Lightning is the perfect avatar for a global, heroic woman, and for a world where social networks and communications are now seamlessly woven into our life”, said Louis Vuitton Creative Director Nicolas Ghesquière in 2016, having put the Final Fantasy character into the fashion spotlight. “She is also the symbol of new pictorial processes. How can you create an image that goes beyond the classic principles of photography and design? Lightning heralds a new era of expression.”
Fast-forward two years and one of the hottest properties in fashion is every bit as real as the sci-fi fantasy character that Ghesquière put in a global campaign for the French fashion house. The lines between virtual and reality are more blurred than ever. With 1.2 million Instagram followers, @lilmiquela has already landed a Prada campaign and graced magazine covers; she dresses in the hottest haute-couture lines; hangs out at the coolest spots; has ink from one of the world’s leading tattoo artists; and hangs out with celebrities like Nile Rodgers. She is also 100-per-cent fake.
A product of technological advancements, Brazilian-American Miquela Sousa holds a mirror up to society – influencer culture, in particular. However, with the assistance of lighting, contouring, expensive surgeons, Photoshop, and bag loads of money, the Kardashians have already been blurring the lines of reality over the course of the last decade. With 112 million followers, Kim is the ultimate influencer, and epitomises what Nicolas Ghesquière describes as “a world where social networks and communications are now seamlessly woven into our life.”
From the filters pioneered by Snapchat to the style-over-substance Instagram food culture, the world has shifted in such a way that leave aesthetics to reign supreme. Composed simply of CGI and talent, Miquela only expands on a culture of virtual identity that was already well underway.
Billed as the ‘world’s first digital supermodel’, Shudu (123k) has already been the face of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty; whilst Miquela’s pal BLAWKO (50.6k) and her Trump-supporting nemesis Bermuda (73.7k) are joining in on the fake fashionista’s rise to digital fame. Perhaps the most cynical of the virtual influencers, though, is the creation of a Creative Director whose own Instagram account – @joergzuber (182k) – sees him hanging out with the likes of Anna Wintour, Huda Kattan (25.7m), Georgia May Jagger, and a certain K.K. Having already collaborated with Dior and the latter’s KKW Beauty brand, @noonoouri (70.8k) is a virtual influencer for the next generation, a fusion of Barbie and Japanese pop culture that rejects Miquela’s hyperreality in favour of cartoon-esque surrealism.
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The march of virtual influencers is seemingly without pause, and the virtual realities of living influencers continue to distort our perception of the real world. “I think most of the celebrities in popular culture are virtual”, Miquela ‘told’ the BBC. “It’s been disheartening to watch misinformation and memes warp our democracy, but I think that speaks to the power of ‘virtual’. Eventually ‘virtual’ shapes our reality and I think that’s why I’m so passionate about using virtual spaces like Instagram to push for positive change.”
In an age where those virtual spaces have overtaken our daily lives, Miquela Sousa is the poster girl for our virtual now. And in the world of fashion, the self as image-only has long been a notion held high. The rise of the virtual influencers looks set to continue, as the ‘real’ influencers progress into an increasingly virtual space. Largely contained to the surreal world of fashion at present, what happens when these influential avatars break into the mainstream? Will hotels start offering complimentary stays to CGI creations?
Operating in much the same way as real-life influencers – brands recognise their online stock and lavish them with freebies and endorsement deals – what would stop the likes of Lil Miquela from promoting destinations or hospitality brands? After all, even in the world of bots and fake followers, you can be sure that a decent percentage of those 1.2 million followers are real people, with real money to spend. Wasn’t the idea behind influencers always about reaching a new audience and gaining exposure?
A potential problem could lie behind the scenes: nobody knows who’s behind Miquela, and they might not like what they see if they did. ‘Supermodel’ Shudu has already been hit with cries of cultural appropriation after Harper’s Bazaar revealed her creator as a young white man, British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, who had this cringe-inducing nugget to divulge: “There’s a big kind of movement with dark-skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them.” Even if ‘real’ influencers can sometimes be shady (a study recently revealed that, out of those who follow Ritz-Carlton’s influencers, a shocking 78 per cent are fake), at least their motivations are usually more clearly defined.
With the Financial Times speculating that an influencer with 100,000 followers on Instagram can charge around £2,000 per picture, though, a brand could look to farm their own wholesome influencers – especially when New York Magazine‘s The Cut did so in just 48 hours, having used their in-house motion designer, with no prior experience in character design, to construct a virtual model with the same look as Miquela. Could brands look to create their own digital avatars? Creations that embody their brand values; behave exactly how they want them to; say exactly what they want them to say? You have to think it would be a consideration of value for forward-thinking hotel chains with locations around the world. Your very own Miquela would sure save on travel costs.
Whilst the authenticity-obsessed travel industry might reject the illusory world of virtual influencers, it’s worth remembering that – even in the seemingly real-world – not all can be what it seems. A 2017 study by Mediakix saw the influencer marketing agency creating two fake Instagram accounts using purchased followers and engagement – one using a hired model, and the other comprising entirely of stock photography. With 80,000 bought followers between them in just two months, each secured four paid brand deals.
“What once used to be about content and originality is now reduced to some meaningless algorithm dynamics, and whoever has the time and the cash to trick this system wins the game”, said travel influencer Sara Melotti last year as she revealed all on the dirty tactics behind influencer culture. “People are blinded by the mirage of Insta-fame. They want it now and they want the benefits that come from it, but they don’t want to put in the work – the real work that takes time and sweat and tears to do.”
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As technology intertwines more and more with our culture and society, and the rise of artificial intelligence looms around the corner, expect to see more of virtual avatars; but understand that even our own online presence is closer to Miquela et al. than we think. “If you think about social media, Instagram isn’t you”, says Justin Rezvani, founder of influencer agency TheAmplify. “It’s just a digital version of you – one who shows photographs, sometimes videos, and comments on specific things. We’re going to have AIs that are influencers and that have a ton of followers that are not real people. The way I define influence is how someone (or something) trades the currency of attention for a specific audience at a specific time.”
Whether the inauthenticity of purely digital avatars will remain a stretch too far for some travel brands, it’s surely only a matter of time until a contemporary name from the industry ‘collaborates’ with a virtual influencer. But let’s also remember that every online presence is only a series of zeros and ones, and not everything is as it seems. Even if it looks that way.