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Virtual Influencers / Real Connections

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Virtual Influencers /
Real Connections
Associate Professor Tama Leaver,
Internet Studies &
Curtin Centre for Culture and T...

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Overview
1. Precedents and Frames
2. Meet the “Virtual Influencers”
3. ‘Real’ Connections?

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1. Precedents and Frames

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Virtual Influencers / Real Connections

Lil Miquela with 1.5 million Instagram followers, and Shudu Gram with more than 150,000, have become
cause célèbre in the last two years, gracing a range of high profile websites and publications such as Vogue
magazine. The site was initially enigmatic as their ‘true’ origins and identities were unclear, but more
recently, it has been revealed that both are ‘virtual’ influencers – not ‘real’ people, but digital creations. Lil
Miquela is created and managed by the secretive Brud Inc., whose website alludes to the start-up as a
collection of transmedia storytellers. Lil Miquela and her fellow Brud entities Blawko and Bermuda appear on
Instagram and elsewhere with their own ‘voice’, their own stories, their own narratives. Provocatively, Brud’s
minimal website answers the question ‘Is Miquela real?’ with ‘As real as Rihanna’. Shudu Gram, by contrast,
is the creation of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson. Shudu’s posts initially used hashtags such
as #blackisbeautiful, but when it was revealed that a black model was in fact the CGI creation of a white
photographer, there was a significant backlash. As a result, posts of Shudu’s were resituated as an artistic
work of Wilson’s. In gauging how these virtual influencers might be considered – as art, as agents, as
celebrities or as (in)authentic – this talk argues that real connections on Instagram and elsewhere are not
driven by whether the influencer is ‘real’, but how well their interactions with others are perceived. Lil
Miquela’s ‘voice’ is consistent, meaningful and believable, as are her interactions with fans and followers.
Even though she’s created by a collective with commercial intentions, Lil Miquela is as consistent and
engaging as most successful influencers. Shudu Gram, by construct, is now ‘voiced’ by Wilson, so ‘her’
appeal is not as a voice unto herself, but as a novelty project in digital artistry. Using examples of virtual
influencers in both professional settings (i.e. ‘photoshoots’) and their approach to fan/follower interaction, I
argue that their authenticity and intimacy is a process of engagement, and while both are virtual, only Lil
Miquela has ‘real’ connections with other people.

(Keynote presented at the Fame and Fandom: Functioning On and Offline conference, The University of Western Australia, 9 December 2019.

Lil Miquela with 1.5 million Instagram followers, and Shudu Gram with more than 150,000, have become
cause célèbre in the last two years, gracing a range of high profile websites and publications such as Vogue
magazine. The site was initially enigmatic as their ‘true’ origins and identities were unclear, but more
recently, it has been revealed that both are ‘virtual’ influencers – not ‘real’ people, but digital creations. Lil
Miquela is created and managed by the secretive Brud Inc., whose website alludes to the start-up as a
collection of transmedia storytellers. Lil Miquela and her fellow Brud entities Blawko and Bermuda appear on
Instagram and elsewhere with their own ‘voice’, their own stories, their own narratives. Provocatively, Brud’s
minimal website answers the question ‘Is Miquela real?’ with ‘As real as Rihanna’. Shudu Gram, by contrast,
is the creation of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson. Shudu’s posts initially used hashtags such
as #blackisbeautiful, but when it was revealed that a black model was in fact the CGI creation of a white
photographer, there was a significant backlash. As a result, posts of Shudu’s were resituated as an artistic
work of Wilson’s. In gauging how these virtual influencers might be considered – as art, as agents, as
celebrities or as (in)authentic – this talk argues that real connections on Instagram and elsewhere are not
driven by whether the influencer is ‘real’, but how well their interactions with others are perceived. Lil
Miquela’s ‘voice’ is consistent, meaningful and believable, as are her interactions with fans and followers.
Even though she’s created by a collective with commercial intentions, Lil Miquela is as consistent and
engaging as most successful influencers. Shudu Gram, by construct, is now ‘voiced’ by Wilson, so ‘her’
appeal is not as a voice unto herself, but as a novelty project in digital artistry. Using examples of virtual
influencers in both professional settings (i.e. ‘photoshoots’) and their approach to fan/follower interaction, I
argue that their authenticity and intimacy is a process of engagement, and while both are virtual, only Lil
Miquela has ‘real’ connections with other people.

(Keynote presented at the Fame and Fandom: Functioning On and Offline conference, The University of Western Australia, 9 December 2019.

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Virtual Influencers / Real Connections

  1. 1. Virtual Influencers / Real Connections Associate Professor Tama Leaver, Internet Studies & Curtin Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) Curtin University @tamaleaver Fame and Fandom: Functioning On and Offline Conference, The University of Western Australia, 9-10 December 2019 #FPRC2019
  2. 2. Overview 1. Precedents and Frames 2. Meet the “Virtual Influencers” 3. ‘Real’ Connections?
  3. 3. 1. Precedents and Frames
  4. 4. Virtual Idol Singers & Idoru • Kyoko Date (Virtual Idol Singer, 1996) • William Gibson’s Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)  Rei Toei (“Ray Toy”) – AI virtual idol singer who longs to ‘become real’.
  5. 5. Hatsune Miku, Virtual Idol
  6. 6. Synthespians A digitized film star is a studio’s dream: capable of performing any task, continuously available, cost effective – and no scandals, unless, of course, the digital star is given an offscreen life in order to keep alive other areas of the industry such as fan magazines, merchandising and promotions. The possibility of digital stars playing the roles of main characters in feature films may sound like nonsense, but the signs are there. - Barbara Creed, “The Cyberstar: Digital Pleasures and the End of the Unconscious,” Screen, 41, 1, 2000, p. 80.
  7. 7. Via BBC Click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObdIio3U3vM 22 March 2019 Virtual YouTubers or VTubers バーチャルユーチューバー
  8. 8. Synthespians / Digital Replacements as Film Fantasy … Looker (dir Michael Crichton, 1981) S1m0ne (dir. Andrew Nicol, 2002)
  9. 9. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/afm-james-dean-reborn-cgi-vietnam-war-action-drama-1252703 11 November 2019
  10. 10. LonelyGirl15 (2006) • ‘LonelyGirl15’ 2006 – initially appeared to be an ‘everyday girl’ vlogger. • Actual ‘identity’ revealed by forensic sleuthing online. • Revealed to be a paid actress in a serialized narrative. • LG15 is described as YouTube’s ‘coming of age’ where the authenticity of vernacular content started to dissolve (see Wired, December 2006).
  11. 11. Louis Vuitton, Series 4 (2016)
  12. 12. 2. Meet the “Virtual Influencers”
  13. 13. Virtual Influencers “… the most intriguing new Instagram stars are not just a different species, but a different form altogether: virtual Influencers are CGI or virtual celebrities who do not have a physical form at all, but are created, crafted, narrated and managed to promote or sell a particular message or brand. Sometimes dubbed avatars, CGI influencers, or animated models, virtual Influencers first emerged in 2016, becoming popular across the next few years.” (Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020, p. 200)
  14. 14. Lil Miquela, Blawko & Bermuda (& Brud, Inc.) Images by photographer and artist Maggie West, part of the STAND 2018 series for Planned Parenthood (November 2018).
  15. 15. Brud Inc.
  16. 16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zE1J9JxqhFo Miquela, Automatic
  17. 17. ShuduGram “The World’s First Digital Supermodel” Cameron-James Wilson and The Digitals (Agency)
  18. 18. Noonoouri
  19. 19. Baklanov, N. (2019, November 14). The Top Instagram Virtual Influencers in 2019. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from HypeAuditor Blog website: https://hypeauditor.com/blog/the-top- instagram-virtual-influencers-in-2019/
  20. 20. 3. ‘Real’ Connections?
  21. 21. https://qz.com/quartzy/1232293/photograph-cameron-james-wilson-created-a-fake-black-supermodel/
  22. 22. https://twitter.com/hodayum/status/968567361921052674
  23. 23. Virtual Supermodel Stars in a Real Fashion Photoshoot: The Making of Shudu’s First-Ever Shoot | WWD, 13 June 2018 https://youtu.be/Dyhp8E4WcLM Also: https://www.thediigitals.com/models
  24. 24. New York Magazine, The Cut, 13 May 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEXjFjwq3uU (Presumes, like ShuduGram, that Lil Miquela is primarily a visual artifact, a surface.)
  25. 25. @lilmiquela IG 29 November 2018
  26. 26. [In & Via] @lilmiquela IG Stories, Halloween 2018 Methodological Aside: Stories as spaces of conversation, experimentation and ephemerality. Data gathering challenge, but arguably best IG space to look for ‘authenticity’.
  27. 27. @shudu.gram IG Story (25 November 2018)
  28. 28. Noonoorui “I feel that I have proved that Noonoouri is not just another influencer – she has become a character and is on the way to transforming herself into a personality. The fear of the digital has been eliminated and aside from her beauty and quality-driven content, there is also a lot of in- depth information (especially about social topics such as feminism, children, animals, and nature) and a clear point of view of who she is.” - Joerg Zuber, Noonoouri’s Creator (Cohen, 2019)
  29. 29. Baklanov, N. (2019, November 14). The Top Instagram Virtual Influencers in 2019. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from HypeAuditor Blog website: https://hypeauditor.com/blog/the-top-instagram-virtual-influencers-in-2019/
  30. 30. “The real reason Lil Miquela has such wide appeal, like other successful Influencers – digital or otherwise – is that she engages meaningfully, regularly and strategically with her followers. She shares widely on the daily drama with Blawko and Bermuda, she celebrates partnerships with fashion brands but also, like many Influencers, uses her Stories feed as a daily train-of thought, posting images, ideas and happenings that firmly place Lil Miquela as ‘existing’ in the vernacular of everyday life. Lil Miquela – and the team that manage ‘her’ at Brud FYI – maximize opportunities to engage with fans and followers.” (Leaver, Highfield, & Abidin, 2020, p. 204)
  31. 31. Conclusions / Provocations? • Instagram is having an authenticity crisis (‘Like’ removal!) and the responses to Virtual Influencers are icons of this crisis. • Shudu Gram may well be a digital model, but is not an authentic influencer as ‘she’ doesn’t engage or have a voice. (She is a puppet and Cameron-James Wilson is a talented puppeteer.) • Lil Miquela performs the same authenticity as other influencers (“as real as Rhianna”). It’s the connection(s) with audiences and fans that create this sense of authenticity, and ‘reality’. • Real bodies are not currently required on Instagram, but real connections are.
  32. 32. But wait, there’s more …

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