ear of automation, artificial intelligence, and "robots" taking jobs grows in tandem with the rapid modernization of a variety of industries. Per the advent and growth of the virtual influencer industry, models, influencers, music artists, and actors face a new fear: synthetic media.
Over the last decade, technological advancements to computer-generated imagery softwares make hyperrealistic media generation highly accessible to the masses, driven by endless demand in the animation and gaming industries for more immersive experiences. Whenever a mechanism of great difficulty or cost becomes available to the masses, sometimes referred to as a "platform shift", a trove of innovation and opportunity results, even in ways counterintuitive to the platform's intended use case.
With recent platform shifts occurring in the computer graphics space, a handful of teams have blown open the mold by using these softwares to create hyperrealistic virtual humans for unconventional use cases. By carefully compositing virtual humans into real-world photos, developing entire backstories, and carefully scripting engaging, fictional storylines, these realistic humans are brought to life on social media as virtual influencers—and millions follow them. While this practice may sound like an art experiment to some, the virtual influencer industry presents real opportunity for creative people.
For decades, talented or attractive humans have leveraged their self image to generate value—sometimes massively. When one's image grows to a scale unmanageable by just one person (read: themselves) and developing their image into a grander career is financially justifiable, they employ the support of managers, image experts, creative directors, fashion directors, photographers, social media managers, executive assistants, PR strategists, and more to handle the growth. Specific hires depend on scale and industry; the needs of a model vary from those of a musician.
As a talent scales, regardless of industry, their 'human image' evolves into a 'fan experience'. As is with any experience, continued strategic decision making, management, and partnerships are required to ensure the fan experience resonates as deeply as possible for as long as possible, ensuring continued relevance for the budding celebrity. As long as the human at the center of the now-business maintains favor in the public eye, the career thrives, evolves, and peaks. Alas, the human condition is a celebrity's own worst enemy: 100% of the time, and without fail, humans grow old, and the value of the fan experience degrades with the human's ability to entertain. C'est la vie.
However, the post-mortem success of a celebrity's media empire presents a wildly interesting opportunity. Dead celebrities generate tens of millions of dollars annually, with some inspiring fans multiple generations removed from the celebrity's lifespan. How is it a consumer who never even shares a day on Earth with a celebrity becomes a super-fan, let alone a fan in the first place? Preserved media, collectibles, stories, and other memories are the most powerful devices for fueling the fan experience, even when the creator has passed, thanks to the digitization of media. Throw out the notion that a human being needs to exist for a fan to love them; in entertainment, humans consume vibes, projections, ideals, art, postures, and mindsets, not human beings.
Reflect on the experience a celebrity enables for fans. They share transmedia content, opinions, messages, interviews, merchandise, music, film appearances, and more, yet the tiniest fraction of those who consume a celebrity's content actually see the celebrity with their own eyes in real life, even those they share the same lifetime with. How can one explain the obsession hundreds of millions of fans develop for a human they never, ever set eyes on in real life? The digital projection celebrities construct, reduced to images, captions, songs, videos, and more, supplements real human interaction well enough for fans to accept them as role models and leaders in their lives. In our digital world, celebrities share curated, idealized reflections of themselves. Then, followers consume these calibrated experiences as sources of real inspiration, multiple steps removed from who the celebrity really is and what they really believe in real life. On the internet, nobody is human, and the emerging virtual influencer industry capitalizes on this reality.
As the rest of the world slowly catches on, a select group of virtual influencer frontrunners bask in this blue ocean and sprint the relatively steep learning curve. Shudu Gram and Noonoouri are previews of what's ahead for the modeling industry. Lil Miquela, Hatsune Miku, and Knox Frost show us what's next in the music industry. Barbie, Ami Yamato, and Ai Angelica indicate what's up and coming in the live steaming industry. All the virtual influencers, collectively, demonstrate what the future holds for the influencer industry. In the next few years, Hollywood will start experimenting with casting virtual influencers in major roles, leveraging the already proven, ready-to-go strategies used in the likes of Spiderman, Avengers, Gemini Man, and more. In time, individuals will own cross-platform digital doubles as virtual influencers, and social platforms will be developed exclusively for virtual people. After all, that's actually already happening.
All of the founding teams of the aforementioned virtual influencers have heard some variation of this quote from a fan: "I still like [this virtual person] because there are living humans behind them, even though they are fake. That's all that matters." Fans can experience very human and very real emotions as a result of consuming fabricated, fictional, generated media. Read it again: fans do not care if the media they consume is fake, so long as the experience said fake media resonates with them on an emotional, human level. 2020’s parroted idea that “younger generations value authenticity online” doesn’t refer to a creator’s ability to be authentically human, but instead their ability to create an experience that leaves an emotional, deep impact on a fan – an authentic impact. Virtual influencers are competitively authentic on virtual platforms.
"I still like [this virtual person] because there are living humans behind them, even though they are fake. That's all that matters."
These very fake people create very real opportunities for everyone involved. Much like the teams who build celebrity media experiences, a high-functioning virtual influencer team depends on a range of creative talents: photographers, CGI artists, retouchers, animators, storytellers, models, content planners, fashion strategists, social media managers, partnership managers, PR strategists, and more. For every quality virtual influencer who comes to life, someone needs to perform one of these roles. Further, job security is higher for the team backing a virtual celebrity vs. a human celebrity, as virtual celebrity media businesses can live forever, ensuring long-term job opportunities not bound by the human condition of the celebrity.
The commonly used, first-impression quip "but virtual influencers are taking opportunities from real people" misses the mark entirely. While models, influencers, music artists, and actors may find roles and partnerships displaced by virtual influencers, these individuals will find opportunity working on virtual influencer teams. In the case of a team like The Diigitals and their Muse program, talents will unlock greater opportunity by partnering with the industry for exposure. Traditional talents aside, job opportunities in creative industries will explode as a result of virtual influencer industry growth. Creating virtual influencers creates jobs.
The innovation of the virtual influencer industry is the potential for creative teams to construct an immersive, social, digital fan experience from scratch with a focus on emulating (and innovating on) the already-proven celebrity business model, leveraging the same storytelling and scriptwriting strategies as Hollywood. By doing so, creation of the celebrity image can be reimagined and entirely rebuilt by an expansive team of creatives, innovating on the business model—sans the human.
One day, real human talent will be classified as a genre rather than the medium. The future will be synthesized.