You don’t have to like them. You don’t even have to pay attention to them. Know that they are out there. And they’re the future of influence.
Photoshop and a little ingenuity are all it takes to create a celebrity these days. I’m not referring to the swaths of Instagram models that have gained notoriety by doctoring all of their photos (although that is a problem we need to discuss later). Rather, I’m referring to digital humans, which are created from scratch. Their stories are fake. Their images are fake. But, their impact is real.
This is a movement that you need to pay attention to. Here’s why:
Digital Humans Are Here
Previously, I covered Lil Miquela, the digital human that has gone onto become a digital influencer (with a net worth of $6M) in the fashion industry. But, she’s not the first digital human to reach a level of fame.
Many of us are familiar with The Gorillaz, a virtual band created by musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. The band consists of four digital humans — 2-D on lead vocals and keyboard, Murdoc Niccals on bass guitar, Noodle on guitar, and Russel Hobbs on the drums. They’ve packed stadiums of fans, collaborated with the likes of Snoop Dogg and D12, and even been awarded a coveted Grammy.
However, for every digital human that has gone onto garner fame, there are thousands that haven’t taken off. How does a digital human create influence and gain a following?
First, it starts with a story. There needs to be something relatable of substance, such as a cause they fight for, an image they want to promote, or a backstory that needs to be shared.
For Ava, a digital human on the cusp of stardom, it’s “her” pansexuality that makes her more relatable to her following of over 5,000. Another is Perl, who similarly promotes body positivity, often showing off the mark around her eye that discolored her skin.
Some of the stories go even deeper, creating an entire scenario around their existence, such as Lil Miquela’s escape from underground sex slavery.
Lil Miquela — One of the most popular fictional characters on the internet.
Creating these stories or supporting a cause is the easy part. The hard part is then finding the proper way for them to express themselves artistically because it is in their art that they begin to pull people in.
Lil Miquela’s defining characteristic is her sense of style. She’s very fashionable, often rocking some of the latest streetwear trends. Melissa Cohenseems to be strategically positioning her digital human brand in the food industry, often promoting Blue Apron products and posting a lot of food pictures.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What’s the difference between the digital humans mentioned above, and say, Homer Simpson? He too is made of computer-graphics, has a backstory, and connects with millions of people. Is he a digital human?
Not quite. In fact, I wouldn’t consider any animated characters that start on television or in movies to be digital humans because they lack one defining characteristic.
Living Life To The Fullest
The main gist of digital humans is the illusion that they are “just living life” like the rest of us. Digital humans need to share their thoughts and emotions just as much as you and I. And they do so through social media.
Even though some of them deliberately admit that they are robots, social media allows digital humans to cultivate an image of realism as though they are a regular person. Very simply, they can hit the hearts of fans without needing to be talented or entertaining in some way.
For instance, Donny Red gives people a taste of his daily fun — riding roller coasters, diving into the pool, celebrating his pet turtle’s birthday. Nothing about him screams, “I’m a digital creation and I want you to spend your time and money on me.” Yet, he still connects with over 100,000 fans.
Another example is Blawko, a friend of Lil Miquela, who constantly posts pictures of himself hanging out and interacting with real people. Occasionally they even do “regular people” things, such as going to a job interview.
I could even picture Blawko one day partnering with a company like Soul Machines reimagining how we interact with machines. Soul Machines recently did a concept campaign showing how McDonald’s could employ interactive digital humans at ordering kiosks.
There’s no reason that the popular, relatable digital humans like Blawko couldn’t find employment through a Soul Machines provider — integrating their likeness into a corporate or service role. Not to mention, it’s another stream of income for the creators of these digital humans.
These digital humans have realistic opportunities emerging because social media allows them to relate on a very basic human level and to exist as if they are living life like the rest of us.
Contrast this to Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse, or George Jetson, who could only share their livelihood in preprogrammed, 30-minute time slots a couple times a week. Eventually, through amusement parks and merchandising, they were able to leave the confines of their Art and seemingly live a life outside of the TV. But, that came secondary.
Digital humans have the opportunity to live life on social media. In fact, this often happens before they even create an animated series, music, or art. It’s a very unique position for these anthropomorphic images of reality.
And for that reason, they are becoming quite the hot commodity.
In 2018 and moving forward, consumers are placing their trust in people over companies. Look at how swiftly Kylie Jenner’s brand amassed a billion-dollar fortune. Women her age, give or take a few years, find it easy to relate to her. Meanwhile, all of her actions are deliberately crafted with the idea of making her cosmetics line flourish, her television show grow, etc…
In very much the same way, everything about a digital human can be cognizantly created — from their personality to their struggles to the way they solve those struggles — all of which are used to build trust and eventually push an agenda. In many ways, they are a marketer’s ideal influencer.
Take for example, a pharmaceutical company like Pfizer who spends around $3 billion on advertising every year. One of their premier products is the antidepressant, Zoloft. Today, their route to selling this drug is through TV commercials. In just one minute, they have to build interest, garner trust, and make their pitch. A very traditional approach to advertising.
This statistic contains a timeline of the advertising expenditure of Pfizer from 2006 to 2017.
Why not instead take a small portion of this massive budget, delegate a team within their company, and build the brands of a few digital humans. If done properly, these digital humans subtly talk about their relatable issues (in this case, it would be depression). Over time, through this facade of honesty, they promote their agenda, openly talking about taking Zoloft or other medications.
I realize that this is a very sad reality — where consumers follow this fiction. But, we must realize that this level of long-term storytelling is very effective.
Look at it through the lens of a corporation. Digital human influencers are more reliable, trustworthy, and less of a hassle because all of their actions are controlled within the organization. They aren’t going to pull a “Justin Bieber” and crash their Ferrari into a light pole. Or turn out to be a child molester like Jared from Subway.
Companies need spokespeople to sell their products and advertisers need to continuously reinvent their strategies to keep consumers engaged. Fictional storytelling through digital humans is an opportunity to satisfy all the parties involved. Except for the consumer, who is deliberately lied to (but what’s new?).
Although the application of digital humans to Corporate Advertising is an interesting concept, more than anything, I believe that digital humans will first and foremost impact entertainment.
Six Individuals. One Digital Celebrity.
Building a digital human requires ingenuity, fine craftsmanship, and a large time investment. It’s really no different than building someone’s personal brand.
That’s why I see teams of people executing these strategies in very much the same way that real influencers have teams working behind them. For instance, Drake has a sound engineer, stylist, writers, PR strategists, and dozens of other people all working to make his brand the showrunner. Same goes for politicians, athletes, and public speakers.
This is really not a new concept. The only difference with digital humans is that the showrunner isn’t a person. It’s an avatar. And what’s truly unique now, is that these digital humans can be in many places at once.
Theoretically, a “digital Drake” could record a music video, shoot a campaign with Nike, and perform for thousands all at once. Most of all, he wouldn’t have to worry about getting tired or worn out. He could do this day after day since there’s an entire machine running behind him.
In 2023, will we see a Drake vs Lil Miquela rap beef?
My head starts to wander to the movie industry, which is practically digitizing their entire process. Many acting moments take place in front of a green screen, all the various parts are then spliced in the scene together. And it’s not just the settings that are digital.
Pioneering moments for the plight of digital human actors have already happened. Brad Pitt was almost entirely recreated using graphics in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Then there was the movie Avatar, where the faces of actors and actresses were morphed into entirely new beings.
There’s no reason that any of the digital humans mentioned throughout this story couldn’t star in one of these Hollywood blockbusters and fit right in.
In fact, it behooves the production studios themselves to grow their own digital humans and cast them in movies — thus eliminating some of the costs of hiring outside talent. The dollars clearly make cents.
But there’s still one area that the digital celebrity misses the mark completely… meeting their fans.
Bringing Digital Humans To Life
Although in this digital age it’s not a requirement to be physically present to build a brand. It’s an aspect that’s crucial to celebrity life.
The movie S1mone foresaw this issue perfectly. The digital celebrity, Simone, could rock the stage, hit TV, etc. but when it came time to meet the public where they were — on the red carpet, walking out of a hotel, going out to eat — she failed.
Then again, perhaps Digital Celebrities will experience physicality differently.
Augmented reality applications could potentially be used to bring these avatars to life. In very much the same way that Pokemon Go places Pokemon characters in the streets through our phone screen, we could bring digital humans to the streets as well.
Magic Leap, the maker of augmented reality glasses, recently previewed this possibility. MICA is the digital human concept they’ve created which essentially acts as the operating system for digital humans. Although MICA is visually completed, MICA is an alterable piece of software which brands and corporations can change to fit their narrative — and then deploy to the augmented world.
Perhaps a better alternative to bringing digital humans to life is in holograms. Pepper’s Ghost is a 150-year-old illusion technique, where holographic images can be formed by reflecting images or videos off of Plexiglas.
Companies like Pulse Evolution, similarly use this technique today to create hyper-realistic digital humans for entertainment. Famously, they created the animated live-performance of Michael Jackson at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014. There’s no reason that this technique couldn’t be copied in places all around us, bringing digital humans into our field of view.
For the foreseeable future, there’s always going to be some sort of “portal” required to interact with digital humans. Whether that be our phone screens, AR glasses, or holograms. That’s just the nature of creating this new being.
But in a way, these digital humans are already in a different dimension. Existing right under our noses, only accessible when we take out our devices to “see” into their realm.
As more and more digital humans enter our society and we embrace them for what they stand for, there’s a huge opportunity for them to rise to celebrity status and influence the way we are entertained.
What’s The Verdict?
What’s the verdict on Digital Celebrities? Are they good or are they bad for their respective industries, for our perspective on reality, and for our future?
Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t think they are good or bad… They just ARE.
On one hand, they pose a dangerous threat because they don’t necessarily feel the repercussions of their actions. There’s no one there to take the heat of bad behavior.
On the other hand, Jay-Z so eloquently framed it when he said, “Fame is the worst drug known to man”. By creating a degree of separation between creatives and fame, well, maybe it’ll turn out better for our society.
I think about the TMZ’s and National Enquirer’s that all make a living off dragging celebrities through the mud. Perhaps if it were a digital celebrity in these scenarios, its creators wouldn’t feel quite so exposed and heartbroken.
Nonetheless, the explosion of digital humans is upon us. Graphics technology, social media, and storytellers are all merging together to bring this new “being” to life. You don’t have to like them. You don’t even have to pay attention to them. But, just know that they are out there. And they’re the future of influence.