A Graphic Affair: What do CGI Influencers mean for us?

Where does the computer image end and the human begin?

Correction: The print version of this article was published with the last paragraph removed

Miquela Sousa is a model, brand ambassador, influencer, activist and musician. She has amassed over 1.5 million followers on Instagram, is a contributing arts editor for Dazed magazine, and her 2018 single “Hate Me” has upwards 3.6 million Spotify streams. She is also a Computer Generated Image (CGI) and is the creation of Los Angeles-based start-up Brud. She goes by the nickname ‘Lil Miquela’.

For a while there was debate – is Lil Miquela a human being? People were hesitant to be resolute. In April 2018, Lil Miquela was “hacked” by Bermuda, another CGI influencer. It has since been alleged this was a publicity stunt by Brud who manages both Bermuda and Miquela. This controversy resulted in Miquela finding out she was a “robot” (CGI) and she consequently fired Brud as her management. A few months later, they made amends, but this could all be elaborate story telling – Brud says they are a “transmedia studio that creates digital character-driven story worlds.” And giving CGI figures emotional narratives could be their method of forging connections between the digital and physical, so we as an audience can empathise with what are immaterial beings.

But are CGI influencers a fad, or do they signal a new phase of social media and cultural advancement? A digitally constructed figure is not held to the same standards as a human being. “You can create the Kardashians without any of the inherent issues that come with being human” said Cyan Bannister, a venture capitalist at Founders Fund which invested  $100 000 in Brud in 2017.

Here lies a question that looms in the humming, air-controlled corners of Silicon Valley server farms: Where does the creator “end” and Lil Miquela “begin”? Is there a distinction between the two? Is Miquela just a promotional vehicle – albeit a lucrative one? And ultimately, are there human beings behind the pixelated veneer, or are CGI influencers autonomous?

In January it was found that 54% of Generation Z and Millennials want to know the human behind the CGI influencer. It could be that Brud has just created a new type of influencer; another form of marketable entity that they can control in entirety. One where the producers of these CGI figures have the capacity to remain nameless and absolve themselves of a degree of responsibility for the actions of their ‘autonomous’ creation. Similar to Microsoft’s controversial Tay –  a bot that formed their lexicon by what they were exposed to online. Miquela’s posts, however, seem more carefully curated, most likely produced by a social media team at Brud.

Then there are CGI influencers created exclusively for brand promotion. Balenciaga’s Spring 2019 campaign consists of virtual models being contorted into spine-defying positions. Or Balmain’s “virtual army” composed entirely of CGI models including Shudu: the self-proclaimed “World’s First Digital Supermodel”. Vogue’s Alice Newbold wrote that these models “[represent] the technological advancements that fashion as an industry has to align with for fear of being left behind.”

The development of these CGI celebrities, however, might not be as revolutionary as they ostensibly seem. Within the realm of accessibility and the tangible nature of connection, Lil Miquela is as close to us as any red-blooded mammal online. She exists behind a screen, a space similarly occupied by the myriad of influencers we will never meet. Her lack of physical presence reduces neither her influence nor her sentience (be this programmed or pre-existing). Saccharine promises tend to radiate from sponsored posts. Influencer culture will remain a fixture as long as social media maintains its cultural hegemony. Creators of CGI celebrities appear to have capitalised on the influencer phenomenon to produce digitally malleable individuals who can be redesigned and moulded to align with brands.

Miquela maintains a palpable alacrity about who she is, but there is an underlying reticence. It’s dialectical but does that make her more human, or less? There is reluctance to placing faith in a CGI spectral being, particularly when it’s unclear as to whether they are autonomous or a vehicle for an anonymous voice. While this remains opaque, Miquela’s success is catalytic in creating space in the digital landscape for a new type of influencer to emerge.

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