"I'm sorry, this is crazy," said Jamie Chung as she scrolled through Instagram on her iPhone. The actress and "What the Chung" blogger was on a panel called "Influencers of the Future: Tastemakers or AI?" at SXSW in Austin back in March and had just learned about the CGI-generated model and musician Miquela Sousa, also known as @lilmiquela. As Chung pulled up Sousa's feed — filled with designer fit pics and selfies — so did the rest of the attendees in the audience. "When we had this conversation prior to talk about the topic, I thought, 'There's no way they're going to take over,'" said Chung to her fellow panelists, Finery co-founders Brooklyn Decker and Whitney Casey. "But after looking at this, I do think it's quite possible."
At the end of last year, we had Sousa on our radar for one of the fashion influencers to watch in 2018, and since then, her following has grown exponentially to 1 million followers on Instagram. In February, Business of Fashion called her "Fashion's First Computer-Generated Influencer" and the partnerships from brands and publications have steadily rolled in. She attended Prada's Fall 2018 runway show and debuted the Italian house's GIF sticker pack; she attained muse status in the eyes of beauty mogul Pat McGrath; she landed an editorial in V Magazine, as well as a King Kong Magazine cover; and she's rubbed elbows with top-tier fashion industry folk like Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert and Margaret Zhang.
On Friday, Semaine will launch three online concept shops in collaboration with Sousa, marking its first-ever partnership with a virtual influencer. Unlike previous tastemakers featured on Semaine, each shop is tailored to a different look or aesthetic of Sousa's: "Virtual Princess," "Rock Royalty" and "Culture Kitsch." The shops feature a slew of fashion items, from designer names to streetwear, as well as beauty products, home decor and links to purchase "The Sims 4" game and Facetune app — a nod to Sousa's digital-only presence.
"We are pushing the boundaries a little more with the digital experience that we're able to offer because her identity is crafted," says co-founder Michelle Lu over the phone from the company's headquarters in London. "We interacted with her the same way we would with any other tastemaker, which is conducting an interview and putting together all of the content from the information that she offered. In her case, she actually has just as much to say as anyone else."
And while Lu and her fellow Semaine co-founder Georgina Harding were surprised to learn about Sousa's account being hacked by another CGI model named Bermuda just days before their collaboration debut, Harding says it's really the beginning of the adventure. "She's the first one that's caught the attention on whether there's going to be more of these virtual influencers," says Harding. "People almost don't like to question if she's real — you just follow her or like her for who she is, which is super interesting."
There definitely are more figures like Sousa right now — her nemesis Bermuda, her good friend Ronnie Blawko and supermodel Shudu, a computer-generated product of photographer and digital-artist Cameron-James Wilson, to name a few — and they existed even before she arrived online in 2016. In music, there's English virtual band Gorillaz and Japanese hologram pop star Hatsune Miku. After Miku came Aimi Eguchi, who appeared to be eerily human but was actually a CGI mashup of several facial features from Tokyo's female super group AKB48. Americus Reed, a marketing professor and "identity theorist" at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, remembers Max Headroom from the '80s sci-fi series of the same name, a CGI alter-ego to the show's main character, Edison Carter.
"People have been creating characters for all of time and this is just a part of that," says Mike Froggatt, Director of Intelligence at Gartner L2, but what he finds interesting is Sousa's opinions and takes on social issues and pop culture, from her bio's "Black Lives Matter" to sharing memes. "That's all chosen to communicate these values that make her more of a fully-fledged 'person' or thing on the internet," he says.
Lynsey Eaton, a former attorney, first learned about Sousa through "Bag Snob" blogger Tina Craig, who had shown Eaton another CGI/AI influencer she's interested in courting for Estate Five, their newly launched influencer agency with fashion publicist Suzanne Droese.
"Her partnerships are very elevated because she's able to sort of make herself exactly what she needs to be," says Eaton. "Whereas a lot of influencers are working with what they've got and they have to actually turn real life into what the brand needs, as opposed to sort of being able to go on and create it." While influencers like Sousa boast some advantages over a real, live human who might need to invest in pricey beauty treatments or produce their own photo shoots during a major event like New York Fashion Week, Eaton does note that one type of influencer is no better than the other.
"Because social media is so deeply embedded within our societal thread, now is the opportunity for a CGI character to really take hold," says Reed. As Sousa's star rises — and as followers and brand partnerships keep coming — can AI-powered CGI creations potentially take over the influencer space? Reed sees those who aim to follow Sousa's path to internet fame may not garner the same kind of hype. "For each new one that comes on, the incremental ability to be interesting goes down because it's something that you're used to and that you're seeing," he says. "So you have to be very careful about it — it's great if you can be the first one."
According to Vanessa Flaherty, Partner and Executive Vice President of Digital Brand Architects, what makes for a successful influencer is identifying with followers in a personal way, because there will always be an innate need for human connection. "Technology will inevitably evolve the ways we engage and interact with virtual influencers, but only time will tell whether the fascination with them will persist," she says. Mae Karwowski, CEO and Founder of global influencer company Obviously, sees Sousa as a "bright, shiny object" in the influencer space, or a novelty that could grow into an artsy, cool niche within the grand scheme of influencer marketing.
This begs the question: How can human influencers keep up? A recent study from Launchmetrics reports that the quality of an influencer's content is considered the most important factor for companies who use influencer marketing. "It's less about creating more Miquelas and more about having individuals doing what Miquela is actually doing, which is learning from their audience and then improving the content that they create," says Keenan Beasley, co-founder of BLKBOX, a boutique firm that offers marketing services through methodology and proprietary software. He recommends that influencers really dive into the insights and performance of their online platforms, and looking at their audience as a consumer segment in the way a brand does.
"It's all about creating more relevant content for your audience," says Beasley. "I think AI is allowing companies like mine to do that and that's where we're going to elevate the content that we create and the selection of influencers for our brand partners." Since its launch in 2014, Influential has raised $14.5 million in funding for its IBM Watson-powered social intelligence platform that can help match influencers with brand campaigns, as well as and predict its success based on data and machine learning.
At Obviously, Karwowski and her team apply AI towards seeking high-performing photos on Instagram by breaking an image down and determining what components are actually resonating with followers, whether it's a bucolic background, a flat-lay on marble versus a #shelfie or featuring specific colors. "A lot of those things are not being tracked or tracked properly because it's really hard to deduce those things to a visual image, whereas now AI can do a lot of that," says Karwowski.
Plus, it also boils down to an influencer's authenticity, which, in Miquela's case, is still the subject of online speculations, conspiracy theories and her "beef" with Bermuda, which was somewhat settled on Thursday. (Surprise! She's a robot!) In Karwowski's experience, she sees greater engagement from Instagram Stories versus a post, as followers prefer seeing influencers go about their everyday routines rather than solely updating a feed of highly curated photos. "Can you be an authentic CGI influencer?" she asks. "Would you rather see Michael Jackson in concert or as a hologram? Right now, the cool new thing is seeing the hologram, but you still want to see the real person."