An introductory note from VirtualHumans.org:

"While most are unfamiliar with ‘calibrated amateurism’ as a concept, you've undoubtedly come in contact with the practice on social media. The term refers to the balance influencers strike between the grunt work of sharing images of themselves and the desired ‘simple’ or ‘candid’ influence they hope it has on viewers. Calibrated amateurism is an oxymoronic process by nature, in that influencers aim to come off as effortless and spontaneous when, in actuality, hours of tedious, strategic planning and effort went into the final media asset.

When executed well, influencers gain layers of authenticity and relatability in their online presence, despite how oxymoronic, detailed, and sometimes strenuous the root effort may be.

Certain distinct qualities in the posts of virtual influencers and human influencers, in their attempts at calibrated amateurism, differentiate them from the average Instagram user (read: non-influencers). In the case of virtual influencers, the difference is a technical one: a whole team plans and designs every inch of each post, down to seemingly inconsequential, minute details. The majority of followers of virtual influencers lack the means to recreate such carefully curated, digital posts, no matter how amateur the finished image may appear, creating an inherent disconnect if not performed artfully. As for human influencers, "calibrated amateurism" pertains to the struggle of maintaining online popularity and relevance while artfully masking their psuedo-fame to make themselves seem more relatable and, ironically, authentic.

We partner with Deya Aliaga Kuhnle on this five-part series in appreciation for her work studying virtual influencers. You can read her entire master's thesis here, from which the following article derives."

Calibrated Amateurism

Figure 1​: Calibrated amateurism from Lil Miquela, Figure 2​: Calibrated amateurism from Emma Chamberlain
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n Figure 1, Lil Miquela is shown to be eating a sandwich and appears to be in the process of taking a bite when this ‘photograph’ is snapped of her. Miquela is wearing a red jumper underneath half-undone denim overalls and is seated outside of a shop that has a neon sign that reads ‘sandwiches.’ The glass door of the store is wide open and an employee can be seen behind Miquela inside the store. There are four sandwiches on the table along with a pack of snacks, a plastic bottle of water and paper wrappings presumably from the sandwiches. Miquela’s hair is pulled into two buns on the sides of her head, her fringe cuts cleanly across her forehead, and she has two thin lines cut into her left eyebrow. Her right hand is holding an uneaten sandwich, her mouth is parted and her eyes are staring directly into the camera. 

In Figure 2, the photograph of Emma appears to be taken during nighttime as the overall image is very dark; the background is almost completely black except dark red hues in the horizon. Emma has aviator sunglasses, a white singlet, two choker necklaces and a wristband on. Her hand is outreached and her eyes are staring off to the left of the image. The photograph is not sharp as Emma is out of focus, and she looks as if she is reaching for something and unaware of the photograph being snapped.

Both images broadly appear to be photographs; though upon closer inspection, one may notice that Miquela is not actually a biological human and this is not entirely a photograph in the traditional sense of the word. Miquela’s visual seems to be a mixture of a photograph as well as a digital rendering and animation of Miquela inserted into this real-life situation. The way the glass behind Miquela reflects as well as both the objects within the photo and the person within the shop suggest that these are real elements, yet the way Miquela’s smooth facial and skin features and both the shadowing and highlights reveal her artificial quality. The amount of texture on Miquela’s face, her hair, her clothing and the objects surrounding her shows how much work went into the creation of realism in this visual.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 were selected for this cultural script because at first glance, both images imply a candid and snapshot nature. Contextually, this is a form of calibrated amateurism in the sense that while it appears to be an easy and simple photograph, it is in actuality a piece of digital art that has been planned, sculpted and created with more than just a simple “snap” from a camera.

When considering Miquela’s work, seen in Figure 1, the importance of remaining relatable is exemplified in that her creators made the conscious decision of producing images representing everyday experiences. Miquela, despite being a CGI character, still being portrayed as holding a sandwich and looking straight into the camera (Figure 1), and in the process of ‘[...] eating my feelings’, as the caption suggests, shows that the creators have deliberately aimed at a sense of relatability. The caption is not only a joke but also suggests that Miquela is a three-dimensional character with a personality and a sense of humor.

The calibrated amateurism is further supported by the choice of portraying Miquela with a slightly open mouth and an otherwise expressionless face, indicating that she has been caught off guard right before eating her food. The caption further supports this statement, showing that the artists were not only trying to re-create a random image, but rather that Miquela has just gone through a difficult moment in life and is using food as a form of comfort and support. Needless to say, the creation of the image involves a lot of strategic thought and monetary resources.

Although this image may first be seen as to aim towards relatability through calibrated amateurism, the followers are all aware that Miquela is a CGI production and that re-producing this type of content is not something that someone without adequate resources can do. In this way, Miquela’s account always has this subtle undertone with it, which is that money, time and human resources all go into producing each of these images, and this sets her, or her creators, apart as an entity with status and reach similar to that of a traditional celebrity.

Emma’s photograph is blurry and appears to have been taken at night judging by the darkness and lack of lighting on the background of the photograph. She is out of focus and does not appear to be looking at the camera. However, the contextual analysis revealed a Youtube video by Emma showing the behind the scenes of this photograph titled “GOING TO EXTREME LENGTHS FOR INSTAGRAM PHOTOS” (Chamberlain, 2017). This 11-minute video shows Emma and her friend spending the day taking photographs specifically for Instagram; Figure 2 is one of the photographs produced on this day.

This exemplifies calibrated amateurism as the photograph implies a lack of effort in its amateur quality, when in actuality, tremendous thought, planning, and execution was utilized in the creation of this visual for Instagram. It could be suggested that Miquela’s visual, in its complex creation, is similarly an attempt to portray the lack of ‘care’ and general effortlessness in the production of media content for Instagram as an influencer.

Figure 2 plays towards the relatability side, with much effort and conscious thought going into producing and selecting particular images that mimic amateur photographs. The deliberate blurriness and her stance indicating she’s unaware of the picture being taken play towards amateurism and the need for relatability. However, with the subsequent Youtube video depicting the process behind taking these types of pictures, Emma states her struggles about the painstaking process of taking the right Instagram photos. This subtlety, yet probably deliberate nature, reminds the viewer of her high social status and the pressure that falls onto her from being popular online.

The collective group of social media posts linked to the process of taking this picture is therefore trying to maintain that balance by itself, with the more obvious picture and down to earth Youtube video tipping the scales towards relatability, and the overlaid context from the Youtube video counter-balancing the overall implication by reintroducing the pressure that comes with fame.

Authenticity & Relatability

Figure 3: Relatability from Lil Miquela, Figure 4: Relatability from Emma Chamberlain

In Figure 3, Miquela is shown sitting on the countertop, cross-legged with her head resting on her hand. She is wearing a black jumper, two necklaces, shorts, and mismatching long socks. Miquela is holding a pink mug in her left hand and has her hair in two hair buns on the sides of her face. The location appears to be a kitchen setting as the space features a sink, a coffee maker, salt and pepper shaker and miscellaneous utensils. Miquela has a small smirk on her face and is looking into the camera. The lighting falls onto Miquela in a way that creates both shadows and dimensions to her character and emits a sense of realism to her otherwise smooth facial features.

Figure 4’s main subject is Emma Chamberlain, who sits on the floor in a white sports bra with ‘Tommy’ written on it and black sweatpants. Her hair is pulled into a messy top bun with many messy strands of hair falling around her face. She is in the process of biting into a slice of pepperoni pizza and is staring with an apathetic look into the camera. The background of the image is sparse with nothing in particular to note other than the laptop on the ground in the far left.

Figure 3 and 4 were selected as a show of relatability primarily because both Emma and Miquela appear relaxed in their facial features, hand placements, and overall body posture and also appear casual in nature with a lack of “production” in terms of editing, lighting or staging of the backgrounds of the visuals. Miquela’s photograph is once again a mixture of a real photograph taken of a kitchen and the digital image of Miquela being added to the setting. The way the shadows fall on Miquela and the depth of Miquela’s facial features present a hyperreal nature in which the artistic representation is exceptionally detail-oriented with the goal of depicting a real human. Yet the mismatch of the socks as well, as the way 21 she leans on her hand casually on the kitchen counter with her mug, sculpts not just an “I’m just like you” feeling, but also an intimate feeling of being a part of her private life as we are invited into her kitchen.

Similarly, Emma’s photograph appears unstaged with a bland background; Emma sits in her pajamas and is in the process of eating a slice of pizza. Her hair is unkempt, her body posture is hunched over, and she looks generally displeased at the photographs being taken of her. Contextually, this image was posted in a set of seven total images in which Emma is posing with the slice of pizza. In contrast with some of Emma’s other more staged, posed and produced Instagram photographs, this visual appears to be unplanned and relatable in the sense of eating pizza in an untidy state. These two visuals can also be connected to Abidin’s mention of the five ways that influencer enforce relatability; predominantly, these visuals exhibit the ordinary and day-to-day genre of their lifestyle.

One interesting note is despite the rather unglamorous nature of the photograph, Emma is wearing an exclusive sports bra from premium brand Tommy Hilfiger that retails for around 40 dollars; this element gives a small glimpse of luxury in an otherwise relatively lackluster photograph. Similarly, Miquela’s image comes with the accompanying caption, “Eyoo good afternoon. Your girl is in the desert thanks to @youtubemusic, ready to soak up all the @coachella goodness. Are any of you out here? Who are you excited to see? #sponsored,” which reveals that this is actually a sponsored post where Youtube has supposedly invited Miquela to the popular music festival, Coachella. This caption context can be argued to detract from the cultural script of being ‘relatable’ as ordinary followers of Miquela probably do not get sponsorships from Youtube, and may suggest that this digital rendering is less casual, authentic and unstaged as it appears.

This concludes part one in our five-part series observing the careful balance between being “insta-famous” and being relatable. Read Deya's full thesis here.

Concepts Discussed
Virtual Humans Mentioned