Culture

Inside the Increasingly Weird World of Virtual Influencers

Digital “humans” are pushing the boundaries of possibility in the influencer scene.
imma viru
Meet imma, one of the many virtual creations making waves in the social media influencer scene. Photo: Courtesy of Takayuki Moriya

By most accounts, Laserbolt is a regular YouTuber: He reviews the latest video games, creates game guides, and collaborates with brands to promote their gaming products. But despite sounding human in all his videos, he only ever appears as CGI across his social media accounts. Laserbolt isn’t actually real.

Described as an “ageless 23-year-old digital human,” his origin story blends fantasy and reality. The story goes that Laserbolt was a famous gaming personality in his home world of Telsa, until he was magically transported to Earth through a mysterious portal. 

Advertisement
GF Laserbolt, a gaming YouTuber who is a digital human.

A photo of Laserbolt. Image: Courtesy of GamerFuzion

In real life, on our side of the universe, he is a content creator at GamerFuzion, a gaming news and review company. His backstory may be fictional, but his social media following is very real, having amassed over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube.

“I am basically a human just like you but in digital form,” an email response sent to VICE and supposedly written by Laserbolt reads, outlining his fantastical backstory. The creators VICE reached out to often preferred to stick to the public narratives that they have created for their virtual humans. “I am outgoing, outspoken, strong-willed, and single,” the email continues. 

Between The Sims-looking Instagrammer Lil Miquela and synth-pop star Hatsune Miku, we already know that you don’t even need to be human to be an insanely popular celebrity. 

Virtual influencers are gaining popularity for their ability to be absolutely scandal-free—a life-saving PR vaccine in the world of social media marketing. Unlike their human counterparts who can get canceled for an offensive tattoo or arrested for vices, virtual influencers rarely get embroiled in personal messes. Clients or creators also have full control of their activities and never have to deal with the very human limitations of time and space. Plus, they can look as attractive as they are designed to be, giving the phrase “unrealistic beauty standards” a literal new meaning. 

Advertisement

In the burgeoning virtual influencer scene, creators are pushing the boundaries of virtual spaces and parasocial relationships.

For example, when Japanese virtual Instagrammer imma asked her followers for advice in a vulnerable Instagram post, after a supposed fight with her brother, her comments section was immediately filled with people sharing their personal stories of severed relationships and offering support. It didn’t matter that she was, as one user pointed out, shedding “fake digital tears.”

Since she debuted in 2018, imma has amassed over 350,000 followers on Instagram and close to 250,000 on TikTok. She has carved a name for herself in the influencer scene, launching a fashion collection with Amazon and designing her own virtual fashion items (which she models herself).

But despite her influencer-esque endeavors, her creator is hesitant to label imma as that, preferring to describe her as a “virtual human” instead.

“I always think it’s more important to think about what you want to influence people on,” said Takayuki Moriya, CEO of virtual human company Aww Inc., adding that he wants imma’s fans to be able to connect and empathize with her.

Evidently, crafting an authentic personality for a virtual being is a nebulous concept that virtual influencers and their creators grapple with. But judging from the outpouring of emotional support that imma has garnered during her petty sibling feud, it seems like her fans are already deeply invested in the social media personality.

Advertisement

In the spirit of amping up the authenticity, some virtual influencers turn to championing social causes and showcasing their passions on social media.

Rae, a Singapore-based virtual influencer, frequently demonstrates her interest in art and skateboarding, as well as her knack for forging offline friendships. Not much is known about the virtual influencer besides the fact that she is run by an entity called Team Rae. Like many other virtual influencers, Rae’s creators prefer to stay anonymous and stick to her virtual narrative—that she is a forever-25-year-old digital artist.

In January, Rae was featured in a magazine cover with Chinese rapper VaVa, a real human.

“We clicked the moment we met! Both of us believe in breaking down stereotypes and showing that we girls can make a change when we put talent, passion and hard work together,” reads an email response to VICE, supposedly written by Rae.

In 2016, Lil Miquela burst onto the influencer scene with her signature microbangs and gap-tooth smile, becoming perhaps the most famous virtual influencer in the world. For five years, she has regularly churned out lifestyle and fashion content for her 3 million followers on Instagram—all while staying at the golden age of 19 throughout her online fame.

Another obvious advantage that virtual influencers have over their human counterparts is the fact that they simply don’t age. It was against this backdrop that Sylvia emerged, an antithesis to the permanent youth of virtual influencers. 

Advertisement

“I was really interested in virtual influencers, as a trend and storytelling opportunity,” Ziv Schneider, a creative technologist at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, told VICE. So, she created Sylvia, a virtual influencer that aged in front of the audience’s eyes.

In what Schneider described as a “five-month-long performance” from July to November 2020, Sylvia garnered over 2,700 Instagram followers. People connected with Sylvia despite her being virtual and despite her progressive departure from the image of a conventionally attractive social media influencer. Sylvia’s 80th post was also her last—a symbolic number as she was 80 when she passed, or, more accurately, when the performance ended.

“I was really surprised by how people got attached to the character, the account over these five months,” said Schneider. “There were a lot of followers that really connected to her, and it didn't matter to them that she was old.”

On the other hand, Schneider noted that Sylvia was also met with backlash from people who detested the very idea of virtual influencers.

“It’s a very dangerous proposition to start confusing the difference between a real and a fake person,” reads one comment on Sylvia’s Instagram. “Sylvia is a fake person.”

But the distrust in these digital influencers isn’t stopping their creators from having them live out seemingly and increasingly human lives in virtual spaces. 

“Many are keen to write us virtual influencers off, but I’m more than just a pretty face,” said the email from Rae, the Singaporean virtual influencer. “Being connected and living in this middle ground between the real and virtual worlds is a sweet spot to be in.”

Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.