The fashion industry recently woke up to the opportunity of creating virtual celebrities. In 2013, Louis Vuitton designed tour costumes for virtual avatar Hatsune Miku, a sixteen-year-old Japanese singer who performs her concert onstage as an animated projection hologram and has collaborated with artists such as Lady Gaga and Pharrell. The brand also enlisted fictional video game character Lightning - a pink-haired avatar from the “Final Fantasy” video game series - for its Spring/Summer 2016 advertisement campaign. Riccardo Tisci, during his tenure as creative director of Givenchy, also designed an exclusive haute couture gown for Miku, who modelled for American Vogue’s May 2016 issue.
More recently, Shudu Gram (@shudu.gram) - which appeared on Rihanna's Instagram account promoting its line of cosmetics, Fenty Beauty and which today is the image of Balmain - known as the first 3D supermodel, which challenges (even more) the concept of inclusion and diversity in the female beauty standard of our era.
But the most overwhelming case is undoubtedly Miquela (@lilmiquela), which was born in 2016 and has 1.5 million followers on Instagram. Miquela is a young Hispanic-Brazilian character, "residing" in Los Angeles and projecting IT-Girl identity by wearing well-known brands such as Chanel, Proenza Schouler, Supreme, Vetements and Off-White and also supporting emerging designers. Miquela has started her musical career launching several musical themes and collaborating with notable artists. She is a regular face at major events and has also starred in editorials for magazines such as Paper.
After three years we already know a little bit of what the story is about: behind this not great, but awesome idea, there is Brud, a company specialized in robotics, artificial intelligence, applications to media businesses and the one in charge of Instagram’s most popular virtual influencers and their less well-known partners in crime; Blawko22 (@blawko22) - Miquela’s brother - and BermudaisBae (@bermudaisbae) - Miquela's friend - who has no interest in fashion and supports the ideals of Donald Trump.
Brud has raised millions of dollars from Silicon Valley investors and brands that request their creations with promotional purposes.
We have entered a phase of history in which we have normalized that relationships can be created and maintained through virtual environments.
With the appearance of radio and, especially, television, the affective and intimate relationships that some members of the audience projected towards characters from television could be lived as real, but there was a lack of reciprocity in the interaction. Brud's virtual characters are able to interact on social media, opening up a whole world of possibilities, setting the ultimate trap.
The fan knows that they are not real, but their affections are. It's a choice, a game they choose to play: because it allows them to feel accompanied, because it entertains them, because it gives them some kind of gratification, in short.
"The community stems from a place that feels safe to communicate and voice your opinions. When you’re only showing the world and not engaging it becomes one-sided. Taking in the likes, the comments, even the hate, and you stop learning from others around you. Learning also comes from listening, so if you don’t have space for people to speak to you, then you’re limiting your growth." Miquela.
Miquela has published content that defended the Black Lives Matter movement or the rights of transgender people, but what if she made an apology for the possession of weapons? It can be worrying who can use these profiles and for what purposes so maybe it's time to park the debate fiction vs. reality and worry more about what social values each one promotes.
If all this seems visionary to you, Black Mirror already saw it coming in 2013. The third chapter of the second season, The Waldo Moment, reflects on how a cartoon ends up being presented to the elections and not only do you win but, years later, becomes a world leader.
The question is - beyond marketing and the commercial aspect - could these characters play a really transforming social function?