Scrolling through our timelines we are (subconsciously) influenced by the people we follow. We see friends, celebrities, athletes and bloggers using particular products, eating at special restaurants and wearing trendy clothing. We are already familiar with the fact that a lot of content we see on social media is a form of marketing. But what about influencers who do not actually exist in real life?

Meet Lil Miguela Sousa

A 20-year-old social influencer with over a million followers. At first sight she looks like no other social media influencer; she is wearing designer clothing, attends big events, she has modelled for well-known magazines and she even has a single on Spotify called ‘Not Mine’. So, what is so special about her? What makes her stand out from the overwhelming crowd of social influencers? Well, she does not exist. Lil Miguela Sousa is developed by a Los Angeles based company specialized in applying robotics and artificial intelligence in media businesses. In real life there is no Lil Miguela, but on Instagram she is a virtual influencer.

When you scroll through her feed it is not very obvious that you are looking at a fictional character. She is positioned in normal situations, as a normal human being. Her looks are extraordinary and her pictures do look photoshopped, but so do the pictures of several other real life influencers. Besides it is not only about fashion, Lil Miguela has her opinion on social matters as well. For example she supports the rights of transgender people and she is a follower of the Black Lives Matter movement. This makes her look more like a human being, than just an avatar. The fact that a non-existing person gained a large follower base, started rising questions about reality, identity and social influencing. Is there a difference between real and fake social influencers?

Social (Virtual) Influencers

Social influencers are often used as a marketing tool. Collaborations between brands and social influencers can create more brand awareness or consumer engagement. Content of social influencers can be sponsored or edited by the brands they work with. Lil Miguela is no exception; she is used as a marketing tool, just like any other social influencer. When it became known that she was not real, she only got more attention. Of course the fact that she does not exist led to some controversy. Do the rules regarding advertisement on social media platforms also apply for virtual influencers? Do virtual influencers contribute to inaccessible beauty norms? Is it morally right to be influenced by virtual influencers? These questions are hard to answer, but good to think about since virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics nowadays are becoming part of our daily life.

Virtual Everything

Lil Miguela is not the first virtual celebrity. In the late nineties a British musician created a virtual band called Gorillaz. This band is very well known and even won a Grammy Award. Another well known virtual artist, Hatsune Miku, performs in the form of a hologram and was the support act of Lady Gaga. Besides entertainment, virtual characters can also be used in in other situations. Virtual character ‘Sweetie’ was created by international children’s rights organization Terre des Hommes to track down child sex tourists.

What will the future look like? Maybe we will go to movies with famous virtual actors or watch the news being hosted by virtual reporters. It might sound like science fiction, but we are already pretty close to it. Virtual characters create new possibilities in many fields, especially in marketing. Do you think there should be special rules for virtual characters or should they be treated just like normal human beings?