This piece was originally published by Eureka Street.
The internet is rife with theories about the identity of Miquela Sousa. Some say the computer generated ‘it-girl’, better known as Lil Miquela, is the alter-ego of another recording artist, a marketing strategy, or simply a piece of digital performance art. Her creators are keeping us in the dark — with 1.2 million Instagram followers at stake, they want to sustain the mystery.
But the more interesting question is not who Miquela is, but why she matters. Because Miquela holds up a mirror to how we construct our own online personas. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you’re doing it too.
On the face of it, Miquela is the same as any other ‘influencer’: somebody who influences our behaviour, most commonly what we buy or how we think about brands. But behind her tiny normcore sunglasses, Miquela is dead. Orchestrating her content is Brud, an LA-based tech startup masterminded by Sara DeCou and Trevor McDefries.
Brud has succeeded in creating a character who isn’t just realistic, she’s also relatable. Miquela tells her followers when she’s promoting her music and fashion projects, but also when she’s hung over, stressed out, or feelin’ herself. She parties at Coachella, was stoked to meet Nile Rogers, and got inked by celebrity tattoo artist Dr Woo.
She’s campaigned for Black Lives Matter, positioned herself as a trans rights ally, and even interacts with her followers via direct messages, G-Chat and email, which is more than most high-profile internet folk do. She tells us what she is wearing, doing, and thinking. Or at least, the version of these things that she wants us to know. Just like the rest of us.
Social media reflects a curated, aspirational version of our lives, the outward image we want to project to others. The extent to which this actually relates to reality varies from person to person. As Miquela herself mused during an interview with YouTuber Shane Dawson, ‘Can you name one person on Instagram who doesn’t edit their photos?’
In the case of influencers, this is amplified: after all, it’s their job to lead an enviable life at all times. If somebody you follow posts a photo of themselves sprawled on the beach of a faraway holiday destination, or hitting brunch with their best gal pals, or taking a political stand, we believe them, right? But what evidence do we have that any of these things are really happening offline.
“Given Miquela’s success, the future is now wide open for brands to start building their own mute, compliant and politically uninvolved figures.”
The lines between IRL and the WWW have long been blurred. We live in a world where social media stars create better-looking versions of reality — be it impossibly stunning travel shots or unattainably perfect selfies. Everyday people invent entire fake relationships spanning years. We’ve seen former influencers lay bare the lies behind the ‘Gram. These things test the limits of how far we can push the online identities we create.
Miquela’s creators are in on the joke of course. In a seemingly candid post, McFedries claims to have proposed a Bill of Universal Rights for AIs in 2016, while DeCou’s bio states she was special advisor for President Obama on the ethics of AI development. A quick Google search confirms both these claims are BS. They are, once again, testing the boundaries between real life and fiction.
But there is a murky side to all this. Miquela isn’t some kooky idea cooked up by art students, but the brainchild of two successful fashion and tech professionals with a reported $6 million funding from Silicon Valley in the bank. The creators don’t work off borrowed laptops or live in squats — in fact, DeCou lives in the kind of propertymost of us can only dream of. Are we to believe there was no monetary motivation behind Brud?
When Miquela became monetised, through a modelling gig with Prada and her own merchandise, her essence shifted. What may have started as a commentary on our complex relationship with social media became a commercial project.
It’s easy to see why CGI models, actors and influencers might appeal to brands: minimal overhead costs (no need to pay for hair and makeup staff, catering, transport etc.), no diva demands, no need to abide by labour laws. They don’t need downtime and they have no family, friends or partners. They won’t talk back or call brands out on their misdemeanours.
Given Miquela’s success, the future is now wide open for brands to start building their own mute, compliant and politically uninvolved figures.
The process is already in motion. Shudu Gram, the black model controversially cooked up by white male photographer Cameron-James Wilson, was booked by Women’s Wear Daily, and doll-like CGI influencer Noonoouri works with Dior.
As Miquela and her CGI cohorts continue to enjoy success and notoriety, it’s important to keep their real value in mind: these creations remind us of exactly how fake social media can be. It’s 2018, the Sims are taking over and they’re masters of deceit.