"Fake it to make it" so the saying goes, nowhere is this more common than on platforms like social media. In a world where we can easily create an "invented" virtual identity of ourselves online, can we really trust anything we see on social media?
Is it actually a problem? We'll let you decide.
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This is especially true with the recent rise of "virtual influencers" on sites like Instagram who are a complete fabrication by design. And, believe it or not, real people actually seem to like following them.
But what are virtual identities and virtual influencers? Let's find out.
What is a virtual identity?
Virtual identities are just that, virtual representations of yourself (either realistic or complete fantasy) on virtual spaces and platforms. They are most commonly used on things like computer games and other virtual 'worlds,' e-commerce, e-mail, and social media, and are more commonly known as "Avatars."
"Avatars," as everyone is aware of in this day and age, come in a vast variety of forms and tend to include images, videos, a "handle" or name, and a profile that provides information about the virtual identity.
Booz Allen Hamilton, a leading strategy and technology consulting firm (via Federal News Network) notes that "Virtual worlds and social networks have created playgrounds for interpersonal interaction. Gender, nationality, names, and appearances are all flexible and replaceable and require no relationship to the real world. These new identities are also portable and increasingly have the ability to transcend their origins and move to other social networks, other virtual worlds, and even other web pages."
Most people will, within reason, build their virtual identities to be a sort of "a perfect world" representation of themselves.
"For example, someone's virtual identity in an online role-playing game is often almost completely different than their own identity, although in some ways it is a part of their own identity since it was individually created," according to Technopedia.
In some circumstances, providing the platform allows you to do so, "Avatars" may even be customized to ostensibly resemble the real person behind the character.
A prime example was the Mii's on the Nintendo Wii.
Again, Technopedia states that "Virtual identities play a substantial role in some of the most advanced technologies used to connect individual end-users across the global Internet and other wireless networks. The concept is that as virtual worlds and platforms become more functional and vibrant, virtual identities also become more dominant models for self-expression and practical tools for virtual collaboration."
How is a virtual identity created?
This completely depends on the platform and digital space that the virtual identity is created. For computer games, for example, you will tend to have a restricted amount of options to customize your "Avatar," but not always.
Information, where required for the "Avatar," like name, gender, age, interests, etc. could either be answered honestly or could be a complete fabrication. It really is up to you.
For a lot of social media sites, you tend to have an option to upload an image for your "Avatar," which again can be a real picture of you or not. It really doesn't matter too much.
If possible, especially for role-playing games, you can even customize the character's physical features to closely resemble your real physical appearance - within reason of course (e.g. a human character).
What is a virtual influencer?
We've all heard of social media influencers like the Kardashians, but, being human, they can be 'unreliable' for companies who use them to promote their products. While many have proved a great investment for companies, if the influencer in question gets embroiled in some kind of scandal, it can threaten the PR of any of their backers.
That's where a new market in 'virtual influencer' has opened up to keep the benefits of influencers on social media and limit the potential risks to companies who use them.
Virtual influencers, as the name suggests, are non-human online "celebrities" that are becoming more and more popular as time goes by. They are, of course, completely fictional with armies of digital artists creating any and all images they post on their profiles.
An influencer marketing firm, IZEA, notes that "A virtual influencer can’t go off script or get in trouble in its personal life. The only words it can say are things you dictate, and it doesn’t have a personal life from which scandal can spring."
Believe it or not, some people actually follow virtual influencers without seeming to care that they are completely fake. According to a digital agency, itp.live, some of the most popular on Instagram include the following:
1. Laila Blue (@chasing.laila)
Laila was created in 2018 and 'lives' in Dubai. 'She' is supposed to be half-French, half Lebanese and has her own backstory, of course.
If you are interested you can find her on Instagram.
2. Noonoouri (@noonoouri)
Noonoouri is "cute, curious and couture and is one of the fastest growing influencers on Instagram," according to itp.live.
3. Lil Miquela (@lilmiquela)
Lil Miquela was launched in 2016 by a Silicon-valley based company, Brud. 'She' has proved pretty popular since launch and currently has around 1.6 million followers on Instagram.
4. Imma (@imma.gram)
Imma was created in Japan by CG company ModelingCafe and was officially launched in 2018. You would be forgiven for thinking she might be a real person.
Her images are truly uncanny, and frankly, unnerving.
5. Bermuda (@bermudaisbae)
Bermuda has, to date, around 140K followers on Instagram and is another creation of Brud.
6. Blawko (@blawko22)
Blawko is yet another Brud creation and unlike others listed thus far, 'he' is a male virtual influencer. 'His' Instagram posts are mainly concerned with social commentary and memes.
7. Shudu (@shudu.gram)
Shudu is an incredibly realistic looking virtual character and one that is widely considered the world's first digital supermodel. Her Instagram feed often includes uncanny videos where you'd be forgiven for thinking 'she' is real.
8. Liam Nikuro (@liam_nikuro)
Liam is yet another completely virtual influencer on Instagram. Developed by 1Sec Inc. in Japan, 'he' focuses on popular culture and AI.
Images are created by superimposing an all-CG head, made with the use of 3D tools on a body filmed in live action. 'He' is also on Twitter.
みんな、はじめまして！僕はCGで作られたバーチャルヒューマンのリアム・ニクロ。僕はリアルには存在しないけどこれから僕が生み出すクリエイティブやプロデュースする事が世界中の人を少しでも楽しませたり、ちょっぴり希望を与えたり、世の中のほんの少しだけでもお役に立てたらなって思ってるよ。 pic.twitter.com/YcTU0DZSDD— Liam Nikuro (@liam_nikuro) April 3, 2019
9. Yoox's Daisy (@yoox)
Daisy is another popular virtual influencer by Yoox and is active on Instagram, engaging with the Italian fashion retailing company's followers.
'She' like the others mentioned earlier, focuses on fashion and popular culture on Instagram. To date, her account has over 325K followers and growing.
How is a virtual influencer created?
As we've already seen, virtual influencers (VI) require an army of digital artists to create their images and videos (where applicable). This requires a significant amount of time and effort and has become a growing industry over the last few years.
Companies like Brud in California and ModelingCafe in Japan are forging ahead in this domain and set the standard for their competitors.
As for their "views" or reviews of products, if relevant, these are carefully crafted by whoever pays the VI's creators. But the same is true for real human influencers, to a certain extent.
After all, as the adage goes, "he who pays the piper, calls the tune."