On a recent Saturday morning as I was about to take a sip of coffee, my 13-year old daughter poked her phone in between my cup and face.
“Dad, do you think hairstyle would look good on me?” she asked.
I pulled my head back and glanced at this image:
“Huh, kinda Pippi Longstocking meets Princess Leia,” I smirked. “Ya, you could make that happen. Who is that?”
“Just a kinda a fashion person I follow on Instagram,” she said.
I’m aware that my daughter follows a number of these “influencers” who offer fashion and makeup tips. I didn’t think much of it.
Then today, I caught something in the news. It was “Leia Longstocking”. CNN had a video and article on this social media influencer whose actual name is Lil Miquela.
The article startled me by revealing that Lil Miquela isn’t a living person. She’s a computer-generated image (CGI).
My daughter wants to copy the hairstyle of a robot.
An Amazing Life?
Lil Miquela has over 1.2 million followers, most of whom are young Millennials and Gen Zers.
She goes places. She eats. She hangs out with friends.
She’s also into social activism. She comments on issues like immigration and transgender rights:
She’s writing letters to Congress in support of this cause. The person to her left is (I believe) real. I’m not sure who signed for Lil Miquela. I don’t know how influential her letters could be.
I don’t know how influential her life should be. Do I want my daughter imitating her style? Liking her opinions?
Do I want my daughter to emulate a fake person?
Is Miquela fake? Consider the post in which she admits she’s not human:
Think about it. Her hands can’t be literally shaking. Her fans make her life amazing…except she’s not alive.
But her Instagram life seems so real, so human. It is, apparently, real enough to fulfill Miquela’s purpose for being.
The Social Media Influencer
With her platform, Miquela qualifies as a social media influencer, which is a person who has a big enough following that it can be used for brand advertising.
In other words, if Lil Miquela wears a certain brand of shirt and my daughter decides she must have that shirt, Miquela’s Instagram post functioned as an advertisement.
The CNN report goes into how brands are responding to CGI as social media influencers.
Suddenly the plan starts to reveal itself. They’re creating an ideal social media influencer for a certain target audience.
It’s an ad imitating life so it’s a more effective ad…if you’re feeling a little confused, you’re not alone.
Some people see credibility issues rising. The idea of the social influencer is that they recommend products…but how can they recommend what they haven’t tried?
Jennifer Grygiel, a social media professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, comments in the CNN video:
“When I was growing up, at least we knew Barbie was a doll,” she said. “For over two years now, there could be people, teenagers especially, who thought [Miquela] maybe was a person,” she said. “We need the brands to disclose. We also need these companies to help so they’re not facilitating and participating in this mass deception.”
On the other hand, advocates of this type of media personality note how judging any Instagram posts as “real” is problematic. After all, people alter images, contrive situations, and – given they’re functioning as paid advertisers – exaggerate their enthusiasm for products they represent.
In the article, one advocate compares CGI to department store mannequins:
“Mannequins have been around for the last 100 years, and those are things in the store to sell beauty and to sell an ideal. So I think it’s not much different than that.”
However, it’s clear that CGI social influencers are much more about selling an “idea” than a mannequin ever could be.
This goes beyond a typical advertisement. We all know the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” is just a character. The idea that his life could be real is ludicrous.
However, with Lil Miquela they’re trying to win trust and build authenticity by feigning a real life. Indeed, her life on Instagram is completely plausible, but that doesn’t change the fact that they want people to trust a person who is only ostensibly real.
They’re creating a human life that’s more human than any real life can be. Miquela is a perfect blend of fashion taste, opinion, and lifestyle to connect with her audience. She even blurs the lines of racial identity.
It’s an audacious advertising ploy. At this time, the novelty of Miquela or CGI supermodel Shudu (whose digital artistry is stunning) is enough to draw attention because of the medium itself.
But you have to wonder, will people start interacting with these personifications in the way they would a real person? Since it’s all happening through digital, does it matter that one person is actually digital?
Since announcing that she’s a robot, Miquela’s story involves what it’s like to live in that state. She comments back about people’s reactions to her being a robot, speaks of relationships with other CGI “people”, and wonders if the memories she has of her parents were implanted by the company that designed her:
This is right out of science fiction stories like Blade Runner. Here the replicant character Rachelle is being tested, and we learn that she’s unaware that she isn’t a real human:
Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto.
These digital personifications are still so new people are trying to get their head around them (comments on Miquela’s posts show how disoriented many people still are with this).
As I looked again at Miquela’s Instagram, I realized that her CGI origins were visible. I was surprised I didn’t notice it when my daughter first showed me the picture, but at that moment it didn’t occur to me this was anything other than a real person.
I went back to my daughter today and asked if she knew Lil Miquela was CGI.
“Ya,” she said. “I suspected it almost right away after I started following her.”
I scratched my brow. “Why didn’t you tell me that when you asked me about her hairstyle?”
She shrugged and stared at me with an expression so blank it gave me pause. “I don’t know. I guess I thought it might kind of freak you out”.
Then she broke out in giggles. “That’s my CGI face, Dad!” Good one, kid.
Like many, I do find CGI personifications on social media a bit freaky. As a high-tech mannequin used to model clothing and hairstyles, I can see it. But as something meant to emulate a human personality and lifestyle? I’m not ready for that paradigm yet.
But maybe Miquela’s fans are.
Lil Miquela is not a living, breathing person. But like she says, her fans “make my life amazing.”
Perhaps it’s through them that she indeed lives.
And brands know something else.
It’s definitely through the fans that she’ll make money.