At first glance, Miquela Sousa is everything you would expect an Instagram-famous 19-year-old to be.
She’s got a signature aesthetic, space buns and all. She’s palled around with A-listers such as the Chainsmokers and Bo Burnham. Sometimes she takes a break from posting selfies to spotlight social causes, like family separation at the border or transgender rights. And, like almost every influencer, one could say Miquela lives online, broadcasting the ups and downs of her life to her 1.6 million followers on her Instagram account @lilmiquela.
“I ugly cried in front of about 50 strangers… and now he won’t respond to any of (my) texts or pick up his phone,” she wrote in one post about her on-again, off-again boyfriend, whom she calls “angel boi.” “Brb crying to Lana for the next 19 years”
But unlike other teens, Miquela doesn’t know what it’s like to be any age other than 19. She doesn’t know acne breakouts. She doesn’t know bad hair days. And she doesn’t know any of her followers in person – and she never will.
That’s because Miquela isn’t a person. She’s a digital avatar created through computer-generated imagery, or CGI.
In the last few years, Instagram has seen the emergence of a new kind of influencer, one whose image, agency and voice lie in the hands of people pulling their strings behind-the-scenes, often unbeknownst to their human followers.
Though their presence on social media is rather new, experts say these accounts have potential not only to change the landscape of digital marketing but also to surface serious problems for the real world.
I really played myself this time. One of angel boi’s friends told him who I was and he saw everything I’ve been posting about him. He blew up at me over lunch and stormed out as I ugly cried in front of about 50 strangers… and now he won’t respond to any of texts or pick up his phone. Y’all were right ~ I should have just told him the truth. It just felt so good to have someone like me for me… but I guess that wasn’t even true, because who I am on here IS me. My heart feels like it’s short-circuiting and on 1% battery all at once. Brb crying to Lana for the next 19 years 💧🥀
A post shared by Miquela (@lilmiquela) on Sep 9, 2019 at 12:45pm PDT
Their existence is fake, but their influence is real
Brand partnerships are the lifeblood of full-time influencers, who are paid by companies to promote their products on social media. But are CGI influencers as effective at persuading the masses as their human counterparts?
It seems so, according to a study conducted by the social entertainment firm Fullscreen last year.
Fullscreen’s director of strategy and cultural forecasting Mukta Chowdhary said the company conducted its study, “Can CGI Influencers Have Real Influence?,” when a brand inquired if partnerships with these accounts proved effective.
Surveying more than 500 13- to 34-year-olds, Fullscreen sought to learn whether people who followed CGI influencers made purchasing decisions because of them. According to the results, 55 percent of people who followed CGI influencers made a purchase, 55 percent attended an event, 53 percent followed a brand and 52 percent researched a brand product.
“Even an influencer that's not human can have some sort of influence,” Chowdhary said. “They're fake, but then they are creating buzz around them.”
Miquela herself has partnered with top brands including Samsung Mobile and Calvin Klein (even kissing model Bella Hadid in one ad), and Time magazine ranked her one of the 25 most influential people on the internet in 2018, among President Trump, Kanye West, Rihanna and Kylie Jenner.
According to Frank Mulhern, a Northwestern University professor of integrated marketing communications, CGI influencers have a key advantage over their human competitors: the promise of complete control. After all, humans come with human error, but CGI influencers can be manipulated. They’ll never go off-script or get caught in a scandal.
“They're completely controlled,” Mulhern said. “They can be programmed to say things and do things in online environments in ways that the brand marketers want them to.”
Mulhern added he’s unsure if CGI influencers are a passing trend or here to stay.
“In advertising, there are a lot of cycles and fads and things come and go and something else could come along later that's different or better,” he said. “On the other hand, this could stick.”
Many can’t tell who's CGI and who's human
Perhaps even more surprising than CGI influencers' persuasive power is how well they blend among real humans. That same Fullscreen study said 42 percent of Gen Z and millennials have followed an influencer they didn’t realize was CGI.
Mulhern said CGI influencers will likely become "indistinguishable from real people" as technology improves.
While the possibility of a CGI influencer who looks completely human may appeal to brands, Diane Pacom, a retired sociology professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada, worries about the social implications.
For Pacom, the rise of CGI influencers fulfills predictions put forth by 20th century philosophers like Jean Baudrillard, who warned of “hyperreality,” or the replacement of the real with manmade constructions.
“It was almost like prophecy," Pacom said. "That slowly but surely we're living in a world where the real and the unreal – or the real and what is given, what has been constructed – will be completely confused, then fused.”
A post shared by Miquela (@lilmiquela) on Aug 31, 2019 at 11:39am PDT
Attorney David Polgar, a tech ethicist and digital citizenship expert, said transparency is going to become key as the technology of CGI influencers advances.
“You're basically assuming that they are a person who is making their decisions based out of free will, that they have some sense of volition or agency, when in fact it's a brand,” he said. “It's decisions that might be made by six people sitting in a conference room.”
Who are the real people behind the CGI influencers?
Though some creators of digital influencers speak openly about their work, others are more elusive.
Cameron-James Wilson, for instance, has been vocal about creating Shudu, one of the world’s first digital supermodels. Wilson created Shudu, inspired by the South African Princess Barbie, in 2017. Now, he's CEO of The Diigitals, an all-digital modeling agency.
When Shudu went viral, Wilson said he found it important to clarify she wasn’t real.
If “I kept that a secret, the majority of people might think she's a real person,” Wilson said. “There needs to be a level of awareness about that with technology. I think that has potential to be abused.”
A post shared by Shudu (@shudu.gram) on Mar 3, 2018 at 12:08pm PST
“I decided for myself, if people ask me who's behind it, I definitely tell them the truth," Zuber said. "If they don't ask, I just let it flow. I wouldn't say there is kind of a recipe how to do that.”
my kind of goodnight-drink 🌙💧@lancaster_beauty #myairbubble #livewithlight sponsored #ad . . #beauty #skincare #skincareroutine #lancaster #metime #detox #hydrate #skinfood #healthyskin #doll #superfood #dolls #noonoouri
A post shared by noonoouri (@noonoouri) on Sep 21, 2019 at 12:51am PDT
Brud, the company behind Miquela as well as two other CGI influencers named Blawko and Bermuda, has taken a different, more secretive approach. Rather than reveal their company as the mastermind behind Miquela, they wrote themselves into her story.
Miquela debuted on Instagram in 2016, but Brud thrust her into the spotlight last year by staging a fake hijacking of her account by her CGI rival Bermuda. When Miquela regained control of her account, the forever-19-year-old opened up about her origins in an emotional post.
“I’m a robot,” she wrote. “It just doesn’t sound right. I feel so human. I cry and I laugh and I dream. I fall in love.”
Miquela also called out Brud for lying to her about who she really was.
“I’m so upset and afraid,” she added. “The more I feel those feelings the worse it gets. These emotions are just a computer program. But yet they still hurt.”
The people behind Brud have kept the company’s internet presence scarce, with only a modest Instagram page and a website linking to a one-page Google document. The document describes Brud as “a transmedia studio that creates digital character driven story worlds” and names Sara DeCou and Trevor McFedries as its founders.
PLOT TWIST: I’m back with my family. . I spent a lot of time in the past couple months being angry. I was angry the people who I loved the most lied to me, angry that I have to fight to be accepted for who and what I am. . I felt helpless and scared and in some ways I still do. But after hanging out with @bermudaisbae I saw what can happen when you let your anger justify treating people poorly. . The person I was treating poorly was myself. . I was isolating myself and partying too hard because I resented and then questioned everything Trevor and Sara taught me: to be kind, take care of your mental health, and get right with yourself so you can put yourself in a position to help others. . I love these people so much. We have trust to re-gain and plenty of fights to have, but that's what family is. For the first time in awhile, I truly can't wait to see what happens next and I feel like a weight has been lifted off my chest. . I want to say a special thank you to all of you, for letting me get all of my feelings out on IG and help me navigate through this strange, kinda sad, pretty happy, a little lonely, sometimes turnt but mostly exciting time.
A post shared by Miquela (@lilmiquela) on Jul 9, 2018 at 6:35pm PDT
According to Chowdhary, Brud’s mystery makes Miquela more enticing.
“We all kind of know what they're doing, but they haven't let down their guard,” she said. “That's part of the intrigue. They know once the veil is lifted, the intrigue is gone.”
She added: “Also, if you know too much about them, then little Miquela can't really shine. So they are building these personalities, and if you know the man behind the curtain, all of a sudden the whole 'Wizard of Oz' thing just kind of falls.”
USA TODAY's requests for comment to Brud have not been returned.
Will CGI influencers replace human influencers?
The advent of the CGI influencer raises questions about the future of human influencers and what social media has become.
While Dr. Mike Varshavski, an influencer whose Instagram account has amassed 3.3 million followers, finds CGI influencers fascinating, he doesn’t think they threaten the traditional human influencer.
“I think they can coexist,” he said. “I think there's plenty of room for both to thrive and do well in the marketplace.”
Varshavski became an influencer when his Instagram account earned him a viral reputation as "the hot doctor” in 2015. The way he sees it, the ability for CGI influencers to be controlled to perfection may be their downfall.
“There's something magical and interesting watching a human live their lives because humans are imperfect, and that sort of imperfection is really what makes being a human special,” he said. “They can both live together harmoniously and help the field thrive even further.”
Zuber said he never intended his CGI creation Noonoouri to replace the human influencer.
“I don't want to substitute real humans," he said. "What Noonoouri is doing is she is enriching and enhancing maybe an existing campaign together with a person and to see how things are being transported through her eyes into life.”
children = future 🙏🏾 2NITE @naomi @fashion4relief London ♥️ #NaomiAfrica #FashionForReliefWithNaomiCampbell #lfw . . #NaomiCampbell #hope #future #oneworld #africa #nature #savetheplanet #fundraising #doll #editorial #shooting #london #hypebeast #dolls #manga #inspo #noonoouri
A post shared by noonoouri (@noonoouri) on Sep 14, 2019 at 3:37am PDT
For Wilson, just because CGI influencers aren’t real doesn’t mean they don’t have a place on social media. After all, he said, hasn’t social media always been a haven for people to make believe?
“It's a kind of fantasy world anyway, so what difference does it make throwing CGI into it?” he said.
According to Chowdhary, the presence of CGI influencers on Instagram calls attention to the desire to project perfection on social media.
“CGI is almost poking fun about that polished look,” she said. “This is a fake person, but so is a super polished, human person on social media. You don't know their intentions better than you would little Miquela's.”
A post shared by Miquela (@lilmiquela) on Aug 26, 2019 at 7:53pm PDT
A future of CGI
Two days after her tearful breakup, Miquela lets her followers know she’s “still heartbroken over angel boi” but trying to move on. And what better way to do that than with a sound healing session at Unplug Meditation?
“Trying to ground myself with some sound healing,” she wrote on Instagram, tagging the business. “Hope this works ~ I don't know what else to do.”
It’s unclear if Unplug Meditation sponsored this post, but what is clear is how much Miquela's break-up resonates with her fans.
“after my breakup with my ex, meditation was the only thing that could kept me function, stay strong girl,” one user commented.
“u dont know what love is until u experience heart break. u just have to remember that every time u get hurt u r one step closer to the one u r destined to be with babygirl,” wrote another. “keep on keeping on.”
“Love sound healing,” another wrote. “that should help your broken heart.”
That last comment earned a reply from Miquela, who wrote, “I def feel like its working!”
A post shared by Miquela (@lilmiquela) on Sep 11, 2019 at 4:57pm PDT
For Pacom, a future that sees CGI influencers the same as humans does not look bright.
“It's the person, talking with someone who looks like them, but who is the production of about 10 or 15 very intelligent adults with the sole purpose to manipulate them, to make of these young people consumers,” she said.
Though it’s too late to change course, Pacom encourages Instagram users to think critically about what they see as they scroll.
“It's already happening, so we cannot stop it. The only thing we can do is to create a critical perspective on it,” she said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CGI influencers: Not real people, but really good at selling things