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Virtual Influencers: Our AI Engines study what makes them cool

Updated: May 21


Photo by Kate Torline on Unsplash

In this time of COVID-19, virtual influencer Lil Miquela started a #MiquelaCovers series helping to raise money for a Covid-19 Relief Fund. Earlier in April, the World Health Organisation partnered with a virtual influencer Knox Frost to drive donations to the WHO’s Covid-19 solidarity fund.


What makes a social media influencer popular? 


Many will say it’s the appeal of authenticity — that these aren’t Hollywood actors and actresses but regular people with regular lives, with just a little more sleekness.


They’ve been posting instagram stories about self-care routines, kitchen (mis)adventures or the latest TV series they’re bingeing. Sometimes, their content can be ultra-personal, in the form of personal rambles about life struggles and other related introspective posts.


These stories are symbols of relatability, which goes far in forming bonds with followers and gaining their trust.


But we’re beginning to see that authenticity may not always be the main motivating factor.

Just as some of us might be feeling like our instagram feeds are getting over-saturated by influencers , the influencer world welcomes virtual influencers. In other words, CGI influencers.


The Age of the Hyper-real


These are digital avatars complete with generated fictional narratives about their lives, habits and personalities. Pictures of them with bowls of food, at record stores or lying on the grass all depict real regular-joe life experiences, but yet are very much fiction.


These virtual influencers amass strong follower bases, and manage to attract strong follower engagement on their posts, with many comments, despite users’ knowledge that the ‘person’ they are talking to is not human. 


How do their instagram feeds look like, and what makes this type of influencer popular?


We studied the instagram accounts of five such virtual influencers, running hundreds of images from each account through our Culture AI models. They were: Lil Miquela , Shudu , Liam Nikuro, Bermuda, and Blawko.


Results from our object detection model showed how these influencers’ feed were similar to that of regular influencers. 


It identified fashion and beauty to be the top-detected objects. It also identified symbols of urban street culture present in these influencers’ feeds, such as skateboarding equipment, hoodies and fast food restaurants.




The fine art of Realistic Language


Examining the results from our language model, we saw three clusters:


Mastering Relatability through Slang


The first cluster of words indicated the tone these virtual influencers used to talk to their audiences. It had items such as “rly”, “aka”, “anyways”, “obvi”, “idk”, “wut”, pls”, all of which are colloquialisms found in casual conversations, text messages and social media captions.


These words are linguistic symbols signalling belonging to a certain generation, highly characteristic of young millennial and Gen Z-speak. Through using these terms, the virtual influencers add a layer of authenticity to their identities- making them believably young and cool.


Promotion-speak done right


Another cluster contained words expressing delight, to qualify the products or experiences they were promoting. Words such as “love”, “nice”, “huge” and “favourite” were found. The word “bby” (a clipped form of the word “baby”) also appeared in this cluster, a slang word sometimes used to refer affectionately to non-human objects as well.


The Humanisation Element


The third cluster contained words indicating introspection, adding a journalistic, personal human touch to their caption content. Some examples of these words are “humbled”, “blessed”, “thought” and “believe”.


Virtual influencers: Different, but not too different?


With visuals just like that of real-life influencers, and language that’s in line with influencer-speak in the instagram world, these virtual influencers manage to come across as something familiar to their viewing audience.


Familiar narratives like going out to grab coffee and donuts with friends, celebrating a new favourite clothing item or going out for a quick skate session endears these virtual characters to followers.


At the same time, there is a fantasy element associated with these influencers — followers are fully aware that they are make-believe. This fascination for the magical adds to the attractiveness of the virtual influencers.


It’s also worth noting that the main follower demographic of these influencers are the generations who grew up cating for online avatars, in games like The Sims or Minecraft. On the most basic level, these virtual figures are anthropomorphized — made to possess human characteristics.


Looking at something that looks human, behaves human and dresses human, it’s easy to feel the urge to feel care and want to form an emotional connection. Being “real-life” probably is not as big a criteria for them — authenticity need not be earthly. Rather, believable, relatable storytelling is what matters.


If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like: Walking down the High-Street: Streetwear in the 2020s

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