Jun 16 2022

Virtual Influencers

This is a relatively new phenomenon, gaining in visibility, but probably most people have not yet heard about it – virtual influencers. These are entirely digital creations, people that don’t actually exist but who have a social media presence. They may be the creation of a single individual, a team of people, a corporation, or even crowd-sourced. They have a recognizable look, personality, and set of interests. They may also be voiced. They are related to an older phenomenon of virtual pop-stars – entirely artificial digital creations that sing and perform popular music.

The most popular virtual influencer is Lu of Magalu, with over 55 million followers on various platforms. Some of these virtual characters are realistic CG creations, other are cartoons or anime, some may be non-human, and others are existing brands (like Barbie). Virtual pop stars perform live concerts where they appear as holograms. Companies hire virtual influencers to sell product, and some have appeared as models on the cover of magazines, have their own music videos, and have “virtually” walked the red carpet.

Are these virtual personas just a fad, or are they the future of advertising and entertainment? I suspect that they are here to stay and are likely to gain significantly in popularity. I will explain why I think that, and then discuss the possible good and bad aspects of this phenomenon.

Arguably the first persona-based pop stars who were entirely fictitious were Alvin and the Chipmunks, who debuted in 1950.  Obviously the chipmunks are not real, they are artistic creations, but their creators produced several popular albums and they were the stars of several cartoons. Other cartoon-based music groups include Jose and the Pussycats and The Archies. There are also persona-based music bands that include live people, such as The Monkeys, The Partridge Family, and Spinal Tap. On the influencer end of the spectrum, the antecedent to these modern virtual influencers would be brand characters, like Barbie, Micky Mouse, or Joe Camel.

From this perspective, virtual influencers and pop stars are nothing new. They are simply a technological extension of a phenomenon that is at least 70 years old. And some even blend old and new tech, such as Barbie. They are utilizing, essentially, two technologies to bring artificial personas to life – CGI and social media. Many characters are not only given a back story, but an entire life that plays out virtually on social media.

I also think this is an extension of existing phenomena in that music studios, film studios, and artists themselves have long created semi-fictional characters out of pop stars and actors. They are “studio creations” with images carefully crafted by marketing research, a public life that is strategically curated, and a personality that entirely an act. Think of music stars like the members of KISS, Marylin Manson, or Lady Gaga. All stars are, to some extent, performance art. Virtual performers just eliminate the living person from the equation, which frees up the creators.

I therefore think that virtual influencers/pop stars were an inevitable extension of a phenomenon that is long established, and there is no reason to think they are not here to stay. I imagine they will only grow in popularity. The technology will also continue to incrementally improve, with hyperrealistic CG characters eventually becoming indistinguishable from live people. AI is also already being incorporated into such personas, and that trend is likely to continue. Eventually an AI virtual persona may be almost entirely independent, with only a “handler” to monitor their performance and perhaps make tweaks. This will happen without general AI, as even sophisticated chat bots can adequately create the illusion of a real person (see my earlier post). What will all this mean for society?

First the good – from an artistic perspective, this can be an exciting media, allowing creators to craft entire personalities, looks, life stories, and brands. They are not constrained in any way, and their persona is tireless and without needs (since they don’t really exist). Anything that expands the artistic space I think is a good thing. This can also provide a lot of entertainment to people, and can allow for a new relationship between artist and fans. Some virtual pop-stars are partly crowd sources, with fans writing music and stories for them. Like social media itself, it can be a much more interaction relationship.

Virtual stars can also engage in much more fan service. An AI-driven persona can answer all e-mails and comments, engage in individual conversation with countless fans, and even make public appearances. This can be a fun experience for fans.

We can also think about applications beyond marketing and entertainment. Virtual therapists, for example, will likely soon get to the point where they can provide some basic counseling services, under the supervision of a live counselor who can monitor for red flags. Virtual assistants, companions, and journalists/communicators are also entirely feasible. How they will be received by the public likely depends largely on how they are executed. Phone trees, for example, can be a huge money savor and improve customer service, but they can also be infuriating if not well-designed.

Virtual companions of various types can also be of huge social benefit. People are intensely social creatures, and we have no problem accepting non-human agents as social companionship (like pets). Some people say they watch TV because it keeps them company. So imagine a virtual companion driven by AI. They may exist only on your computer screen, or eventually as a hologram, or even a robot. Such a system could also provide a type of “nanny” service – not where a live person is necessary, but can fill the gaps where a caretaker is not strictly necessary but could be helpful. They could at least have an algorithm for when to contact a live person.

Are there any risks or concerns for virtual people filling our world? The one that most often comes up is that some people will cross a fuzzy line into not emotionally distinguishing the virtual person from a real person, by falling in love, for example. I would argue this already happens when fans fall in love or become obsessed with the public persona created by an actor or pop star. At least in this case there is no real person at risk in terms of stalking. But this could be unhealthy for the person obsessed. As an extension of this concern is that relationships with virtual people (in every conceivable context) could start to replace relationships with actual people. I think some of this in inevitable. Virtual people will fill the gaps for lonely people or those who simply want to augment their social life. To some extent this will be healthy and good. But of course some people will take it too far, and some may prefer the ease of a virtual relationship over the complexities of dealing with living people. Will this cause us as a society to atrophy our social skills, as we are increasingly catered to by virtual beings who exist only to meet our needs?

There is also a very real concern about exacerbating body image and self-esteem problems because virtual personas can create entirely unrealistic standards of beauty, vigor, fashion, and lifestyles. There are some people who already seek plastic surgery to resemble Barbie or other unrealistic portrayals of human anatomy.

You can turn many technologies into a dystopian future. I think it’s a real risk, and will happen to some degree, but usually such technologies to not become our most extreme nightmares. Likely it will end up somewhere in the middle, with good mixed with bad. Future generations will also simply have to learn how to distinguish real people from virtual people, and keep their virtual lives under control. But ultimately I don’t think we can know what future generations will be like and how they will handle this technology. We cannot imagine ourselves in that future, because future people will not be us. What’s most likely is that anything we think about a future full of virtual people is likely to be seen as quaint.


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