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@lil_wavi flexes his digital self on Instagram.
@lil_wavi flexes his digital self on Instagram.

Image: @lil_wavi / Instagram & oxygen / Getty images

By Harry Hill

Human influencers like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner might want to secure their positions in the influencer realm before they get ousted by glorified Sims.

That’s right: There are now computer generated images that do exactly what human influencers do. There’s a human behind each one — coming up with captions and manually generating the content — though it can be unclear who exactly that person is. The financial threads are equally hazy, but you can be sure that someone is making money off of these “people.”

According to CBS, the digital influencer market is set to reach $2 billion in the next two years. The scariest thing is just how convincing these artificial influencers really are: 42 percent of people who were following a digital Instagrammer didn’t realize it wasn’t a real person, according to a recent study by the media company Fullscreen.

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I set out to understand who exactly these new influencers are, and why they exist. That involved interacting with them — or at least trying to. The feeling of being left on read by people who don’t exist is a unique one. It also made me feel like they’re hiding something. But here’s what we know … so far. 

Rest assured, they’ll either save us from the digital malaise we’ve all scrolled ourselves into, or destroy us further. 

Lil Miquela, 1.5 million followers

Lil Miquela, or Miquela Sousa, is a perpetually 19-year-old girl from Downey, California. She has all the necessary ingredients for Insta-success: good looks, flashy clothing, a nonexistent yet bottomless bank account, and a passion for activism. It’s easy to forget you’re looking at a bot when reading her captions, which are sprinkled with witty remarks and relatable musings. “No lie, I wish I’d been assembled in the ’90s …” she quips, echoing the very human desire to be from another time. It’s part of what makes her so popular — and so uncanny. 

The algorithmic babe was named one of the 25 most influential people on the internet by Time last year, alongside Busy Philips and Logan Paul. (She was the only non-human to make the cut.) It’s safe to say the integration of bot personalities into the mainstream has begun. 

In addition to being an influencer, she’s also a singer and merch seller. Miquela has around 52,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Not bad for someone who doesn’t exist in the physical realm. 

And the merch? Socks from Club 404, Lil Miquela’s overpriced swag brand, will run you $30 for two pairs.

But wait a second, why CGI influencers?

Before we introduce more of these new age avatars, it’s important to understand how they came to be. Cue Brud. And Cain Intelligence. 

Brud is the LA-based tech startup credited with Miquela’s existence. It’s described as a  “transmedia studio that creates digital character driven story worlds,” whatever that means. Other than that, it’s pretty much a mystery. We do know that it was founded by two people: Sara DeCou and Trevor McFedries, neither of whom could be reached for comment. 

Cain Intelligence is even more of a mystery. Founded by Daniel Cain, who may or may not be real, the company is another startup. It describes itself as “the industry leader in Conscious Language Intelligence (CLI), a type of Artificial Intelligence that allows for humans to engage with our specialized robots in free-format, natural language.” The website feels bleak and dark, something a villain in a spy movie would create. (It’s also pro-Trump.) 

If you’re reading this and you’re confused, that’s sort of the point. Lil Miquela and Blawko, another CGI influencer, are characters created by Brud. Bermuda, also a CGI influencer, was made by Cain Intelligence. Allegedly. But wait: Bermuda now has Brud’s Instagram page tagged in her own bio, followed by the message “Look closer”; likewise, Brud’s bio identifies Bermuda as a client. Seems like Cain was a marketing hoax to launch Bermuda and her right-wing agenda? As a scheme to get attention for the entire CGI universe Brud has created, it seems to have worked. 

The only person I was able to get in contact with about these three CGI influencers was Jemma Litchfield from Huxley, the creative agency that represents Miquela, Bermuda, and Blawko. In an email, she said she “looked after Miquela.” She said they weren’t doing interviews, but she’d fact check for me, if I’d like. She didn’t offer any clarification about Brud or Cain Intelligence, but instead shifted some sentences around and corrected my first-draft grammar. 

Perhaps the enigmatic nature of Brud and Cain is the reason their influential prototypes have become so successful and so followed. Curiosity today usually leads to a Google search. But when there’s no information available beyond what you already know, it can prompt a fascination. Or frustration. 

Anyway, meet Miquela’s digital squad: Bermuda and Blawko. 

Bermuda, 133k followers

Bermuda is a controversial blonde known for stirring the digital pot. She’s pro-Trump and describes herself as a “robot supremacist.” She also once hacked Miquela’s page, which gained followers for both of them, pushing Miquela past the 1 million mark, a milestone that opens up a lot of doors in influencer world, including lucrative brand deals with prominent designers. 

Now Bermuda and Miquela are friends who hang out, go to lunch, and put makeup on each other— digitally.

Blawko, 135k followers 

Miquela and Bermuda are joined by another Brud-born character, Blawko, whom they both seem smitten with. Just like Miquela and Bermuda, he offers an eerily authentic personality. He plays video games, goes on dates, and doesn’t clean his room. As for the bizarre love triangle between him, Miquela, and Bermuda … Are we supposed to imagine them in compromising positions? Is this a clear representation of CGI flirtation by default? We’re not really sure! 

Aside from the Brud crowd, there are other CGI influencers out there in the digital space.

Lil Wavi, 12.1k followers

If you squint, Instagram user @lil_wavi might seem like just another Soundcloud rapper-looking hypebeast, dressed in the latest streetwear and spattered with tattoos. Upon further inspection, you’ll see he’s a digitally-rendered avatar in human clothing. His graphics give off an edgy early-2000s Sims vibe. Since he “lives in a computer,” he can get his hands on expensive pieces of designer clothing that he describes as “the drip” and cites as his main draw. “I’m all about innovation, encouraging creativity, pushing minds to think out of the shitty boundaries,” he — or, rather, the unidentified human speaking for him — told Mashable over email. “I want my fans to be influenced in that way. It’s important to me that I am sending positive vibes out to them all.” 

Noonoouri, 279k followers

Brand deals and fashion show appearances abound for this influencer. It’s unclear how a digital avatar can attend IRL events, but a quick scroll of her page will show her doing just that. Noonoouri takes her role as influencer very seriously. When Vogue Australia asked about her favorite beauty products, she answered, “I love KKW Beauty contour and highlight — they truly work!” Since she’s done ads — on YouTube and on Instagram — for KKW Beauty before, it’s no surprise that she would plug the products. What’s surprising is that a digital persona who looks straight out of a Pixar short is using makeup and getting paid for it. 

Joerg Zuber, Noonoouri’s creator, spent several years making her before debuting the influencer on Instagram. A visit to her page suggests she was recently in Africa for a number of fashion-related appearances. And she’s from Paris, France, according to her Instagram bio. “I am who I am. If I can help or support others I am very happy. I believe in swarm intelligence. In times like these we need to share and not to hold back,” she told Mashable via email. 

“I have a real soul,” says Noonoouri.

Image: Joerg zuber

Shudu, 172k followers

Self-identified as “The World’s First Digital Supermodel,” Shudu was created by beauty photographer Cameron James Wilson as an art project. She blew up when her image was featured on Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty Instagram page. In the photo, she’s modeling one of the buzzy beauty line’s lip products and smizing for the … computer? Though she’s more model than influencer, her likeness is used to sell, too. Shudu doesn’t have a personality, per se, but it’s because Wilson hasn’t come across a human that could do her justice — yet: “Only someone similar to Shudu would be appropriate to tell her story, and really shape who she is as ‘person,’” he mused to Mashable via email. He supports the movement to create more digital supermodels like Shudu: “It doesn’t matter who you are, if you study art and learn how to use 3D programs, you too can be a 6ft tall virtual runway model!” 

Barbie, 6.2 million subscribers

Here’s a familiar face. The uber-popular icon that is Barbie has a digital counterpart, and she’s a vlogger. Her first video, in which she introduces herself, went up in 2015. In it, she talks about being from Wisconsin (who knew?) and having a sister. “I’ve always just been curious about things,” she shares earnestly, her huge animated eyes blinking like those of a human YouTuber. Since then, she’s uploaded over 75 vlogs, most of which include her sister Skipper and boyfriend Ken, to the YouTube channel owned and operated by Mattel. Barbie is the OG influencer — she’s known for doing a million different jobs and having fun while doing them. Why reinvent the wheel?

Balenciaga’s digi-models 

While you can’t follow these influencers, they’re worth mentioning. To show off their Spring 2019 collection on Instagram, Spanish fashion house Balenciaga utilized shape-shifting digital models made by artist Yilmaz Sen. In a series of short video clips on Instagram, the digital models sparked questions about the future of technology in fashion.  With cool haircuts and names like Elsa and Ruben, everything about them screams high fashion. However, unlike human models that walk down runways, these models stand in place and distort themselves like they’re made of rubber. Because all haute couture should be shown on computer-generated contortionist models! 

What’s next, then?

Tapping around on these digi-fluencer’s pages provides an exciting, if not unsettling, look at the future of technology and the part it may play in pop culture. Some question the validity, appeal, and purpose of these bots. Perhaps it’s performance art. Or maybe it’s all just an elaborate stunt to leverage consumer action? YouTuber Shane Dawson has a popular video dedicated to uncovering the identity of Lil Miquela. He even calls her on the phone — only to be met with a clearly auto-tuned voice who’s careful not to give anything away, or falter at all. 

Liz Bacelar, a tech expert, mused to Forbes that we could potentially find ourselves living in a world in which we all have a digital avatar. And with facial recognition being insidiously installed in mundane places (like gas stations) in order to advertise, secure, and identify us, this may be sooner than we think. Just imagine, we’ll be in self-driving cars, scrolling by digitized avatars trying to make us use their discount codes. Or perhaps we’ll allow our digitized selves to live for us, like we’ve seen in futuristic movies like Ready Player One and Wall-E

Think of your new CGI friends as the pixelated pioneers of a new, formulated frontier. Who knows? Maybe our human selves could be rendered virtually useless. For now, though, we can just keep an eye on Instagram.

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