Social media influencers – mainly people famous for posting content online – are often accused of presenting artificial versions of their lives. But one group in particular is blurring the line between the real and the fake.
Created by tech-savvy teams using computer-generated imagery, CGI or virtual influencers look and act like real people, but are actually just digital images with a curated online presence.
Virtual influencers like Mikaela Sousa (better known as Lil Mikaela) have become increasingly attractive to brands. They can be changed to look, act and speak as the brand wishes, and they don’t need to travel physically for photo shoots – a particular draw during the pandemic.
But what could be a lack of transparency about who creates and profits from CGI influencers has its own problems.
CGI influencers feature their human counterparts with well-followed social media profiles, high-definition selfies and an awareness of trending topics. And like human influencers, they appear in a variety of body types, ages, genders and ethnicities. A closer look at the diversity among CGI influencers – and who is responsible for it – raises questions about colonialism, cultural appropriation and exploitation.
Human influencers often have teams of campaigners and agents behind them, but ultimately, they have control over their work and personalities. What happens when an influential person is made by someone with a different life experience, or a different ethnicity?
For centuries, black people – especially women – have been objectified and alienated by white people in their pursuit of profit. While this is evident in many areas, the fashion industry is particularly known for appropriating and modifying black culture in ways that elevate the work and status of white creators. A modern example of this is the creation of racial CGI influencers to turn a profit for largely white creators and white-owned businesses.
questions of authenticity
The brilliance of CGI influencers’ surface-level image doesn’t mask what they really embody—the demand for marketable, liveable, “diverse” characters that can easily be changed to suit the whims of brands.
I recently cited evidence from a UK parliamentary inquiry into influencer culture, where I argued that it reflects and reinforces structural inequalities, including racism and sexism. This is evident in the racial pay gap in the industry and the reports of relentless online abuse and harassment directed at black women.
CGI influencers are not exempt from such issues – and their existence raises even more complex and interesting questions about digital representation, power and profit. My research on CGI influencer culture has explored the relationship between racialization, racial capitalism, and black CGI influencers. I argue that black CGI influencers embody the deeply oppressive fixation, objectification, and disregard for black people at the core of consumer culture.
Criticism of influencers often focuses on transparency and their perceived “authenticity”. But despite their growing popularity, the CGI influencers — and the creative team behind them — have largely escaped scrutiny.
As more brands align themselves with activism, working with supposedly “activist” CGI influencers can improve their optics without doing anything to address structural disparities. These involvements can trivialize and distort the actual worker work.
When brands are explicitly associated with CGI influencers by their perceived social justice credentials, it fosters the misconception that CGI influencers are activists. This deviates from the reality that they are not agents of change but a byproduct of digital technology and consumer culture.
Digital Celebrities has been described as the world’s first modeling agency for virtual celebrities. Its website currently shows seven digital models, four of whom are constructed as black through their skin colour, hair texture and physical characteristics.
The roster of models includes Shudu (@shudu.gram), which was developed to resemble a dark-skinned black woman. But it has been argued that Shudu, like many other CGI models, was created through the white male gaze – reflecting the power of white and patriarchal attitudes in society.
A kaleidoscope of Shudu’s Instagram post includes an image of the earrings she is wearing in the shape of the continent of Africa.
One photo caption read: “The most beautiful thing about the ocean is the diversity within it.” This language suggests that Shudu is used to show how digitals “value” racial diversity – but I would argue that the existence of such models shows disrespect and perversion of black women.
Works like Shudu and Koffi (@koffi.gram), another digitized model, I would argue, show how the objectification of black people and the objectification of blackness undermine elements of a CGI-influenced culture. The marketable imitation of black aesthetics and the styles of black people is evident in other industries as well.
CGIs are another example of the influencing colonialist ways that black people and their cultures can be regarded as commodities for mining and for aiding commercial activities by powerful white people in Western societies.
The Digital’s public image has changed significantly since I began researching the topic in 2018. Its once sparse website now includes real-life names and indicates ongoing work with black women. The gesture may be meaningful and quell some of the criticisms of the swelling number of black CGI influencers across the industry, many of whom are clearly not created by black people.
A more pessimistic view may view such activity as projecting the illusion of racial diversity. There may be times when a brand’s use of a CGI influencer prevents a true black influencer from reaching enough work. Acting with real black people as “muscles” is not the same as digital black people who create and direct the influencer from their inception. However, it is important to recognize the work of real black people who are changing the industry in influential ways that are not fully captured by the word “muse.”
To me, many black CGI influencers and their origin stories represent a broader market demand for impersonations of black people that can serve to distorted ideas about black lives, cultures, and avatars. Still, I appreciate the work of black people seeking to change the industry and I’m interested in how the future of black CGI influencers can be shaped by black people who are both creators and “muscles.” .
The Conversation contacted The Digitals for comment, and founder Cameron-James Wilson said: “This article seems too one-sided.” She continued: “I see no reference to the amazing real women involved in my work and not mentioning them disregards their contribution to the industry”. Digital did not provide any further comment. The article was expanded to make a more substantial reference to actual women working with The Digitales.