Doomscrolling through my Instagram newsfeed as a habituated ritual of self-sabotage, I surf past public personas seamlessly blending amongst literal fake people. Developing a public persona online is as old as the internet. But what happens when we depart from the highly augmented self and invoke a world of bots?
Artificial humyns1 deployed as virtual influencers, or ‘bots', are on the rise, and the interchangeability of their preferred nouns yield audiences who are just as intrigued as they are confused. Incidentally, when referring to some of these influencers as bots, one is also referring to their process of development. These online apparitions, used as computer-generated fictional characters presented as people, are devoid of agency but perform theatrically as though independent from corporate influence. Vapid in personality yet hyperreal in allure, virtual influencers crystallize "brand as lifestyle" in the metaverse where humyn discretion increasingly eclipses. Virtual influencers LARP – “live-action role-play” – as change-makers on the frontiers of innovation but are also agents of platform capitalism that use politics of recognition to further entrench ideals of individualism, capital accumulation, and ultimately valorize mediocrity. They casually populate newsfeeds with greater frequency, seducing users with self-indulgent lifestyles, luxurious travel fantasies, and expensive brands. Ultimately, these bots are not neutral to structures of material consequences that the online generation faces in an era of eroded online privacy and assimilated social media censorship.
Control strategies are embedded in both the physical composition of the virtual influencer and their structural relations. These spectral figures cloaked in digital ambiguity are enlisted by companies often reluctant to disclose the mystified details of their online conception. Dudley Nevill-Spencer, Founder of The Virtual Influencer Agency (VIA), explains how they supply industries with ‘future-proof’, sophisticated influencers for brands through processes of artificial intelligence. Using psychographics that analyze conversations and types of users through machine-learning and data analysis, the most appealing virtual humyn is then designed for a specific target audience.2 The content that generates the fake humyn eventually informs all details of their fabricated composition: their personality, age, physical appearance, style, and the content of speech they deliver as part of the modular narrative of a given brand.3 Virtual influencers are favoured by brands mostly because of their unique ability to insert a product lifecycle into their own story in a compelling way – a feat nearly impossible to execute convincingly with a real humyn influencer. Companies aim to suspend disbelief with the theatrics of bots while also inciting parasocial relatability and affect from users. Their very existence is premised on a closed-loop profit, cutting out the need to hire real-life influencers who are being replaced by sheer automated power. Brands are also guaranteed more control over what the influencer communicates to their audience and are less likely to be imperiled when an influencer behaves unpredictably or unceremoniously in the eyes of their massive, attentive audience. Virtual influencers reinforce a capitalist reality living online in a timeless and perpetually mutating landscape, structurally unhinged from aging and entrenched in corporate mortality.
As machines begin to emulate aspects of humyn behavior – overperforming spectacularly even in the realm of cognitive scale – apparent humyn uniqueness becomes further diminished. Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab, Illah Reza Nourbakhsh argues that artificial intelligence outperforms humyn form, together with the idea that future humanity will likely be modeled from non-humyn machines.4 Further, the automation of labour will reduce the need for humyn performance and consequently deficit from labour income. Virtual influencers as capital equipment are corporation-owned, generating capital income for the owner and radically shifting the ways in which compensation for work is distributed. Yet while these ensure company growth, as well as profit predictability and security, they also abstract humanity as clinical and corporate in an online world to which humyns are increasingly subjected to. With a future reliant on networks, and the ‘internet of things’ richly fused into the fabric of everyday life, the distinction between the body and digital embodiment overlaps with the dynamic between information and materiality; abstracted data can be organized, sequenced, regulated, and programmed, but information and materiality are not pregiven formations, rather they arise from specific practices and influences.
Canadian writer and academic Nick Snireck’s Platform Capitalism charts the demise of a production-based capitalism in a world of exhaustible resources. Snireck attributes this paradigm shift to a focus on automation with an assisted, intensive integration of artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, and proclamations of the ‘internet of things’ with extravagant claims likening the fourth industrial revolution – #4ir – to the advances of the Enlightenment and Renaissance.5 In a #4ir world, algorithms educate and provide competitive advantage to new introductory norms and processes. Media platforms are a new kind of firm, narrowing infrastructure that subordinates different user-clusters in order to participate in various online engagements with limited and constricted interactive possibilities. Platform capitalism is thus reliant on ‘network effects’: the more users engage with a platform, the more valuable that platform becomes. The importance of network effects means that platforms deploy a range of tactics to ensure that more and more users register to their service.6 These ‘innovative’ changes, ultimately redefining humyn relationships towards corporations, are further materialized by deteriorating personal agency and exacerbating unequal distributions of power, crystallized by the fact that digital literacy is a swelling gap. We find ourselves living in a capitalism under crisis, or as one currently being restructured into new organizational forms. Virtual influencers are #4ir agents of platform capitalism here to entrench, model, and compound existing values.
Learning to adopt these fabricated humyns as new norms shapes real humyn performance and perception, blending amongst the offline and rapidly becoming a dominant force in online existence. Most of us are ambivalent to these overtly fake influencers, but apathy to bots is also a consequence. In his book Celebrity Persona Pandemic, David Marshall portrays the production of the public self into an online persona as a normalized and naturalized phenomenon of the contemporary moment. Investing in the digital self as a public persona is connected to the politics of recognition: the social and psychological dimensions that shift politics into forms of social power, hereby reinforcing possessive individualism and the notion of celebrity.7 According to Marshall, celebrity operates as a system of transferring value into a culture. Celebrities are figurations of people that, through their production, benefit from the highest echelons of the political, cultural, and economic elite.8 Celebrity intersects with the pervasive culture of public persona, elevating arrangements of the self that have real, material effects with regard to social capital, income, and reputation. Just as celebrity culture valorizes some of the most prosaic personalities of our time and produces cult followers of parasocial worship, it also entrenches users deeper into a competitive, dominating performance in an online world that monetizes possessive individualism and the desire to achieve celebrity-like recognition on platforms. Celebrity status – whether micro or macro – can also implicate or transform professions, social connections, leisure, and recreational lives. Prioritizing the digital self not only implies participation in these networks in the first place, but also allows for tracking media platform activity, ‘follower’ gain, acquisition of ‘friends’, the nature of publications, the number of likes, the number of dislikes, gathering patterns of attention, and any other data that informs corporations interested in influencing user decision-making. Though nearly everyone at some point during the Covid-19 pandemic can recall experiencing adverse effects of prioritizing the digital self, virtual influencers are uninterrupted in the daily production and participation of the persona as an intensifying norm.
Virtual influencers are here to define, model, and compound existing values in an already deeply stratified society. Fundamentally, their purpose is to regulate our online impulses, our social interactions, revealing an augmented culture obsessed with capital over lives and manipulation of mass online consumption. Public personas are extensions of the self, of our physical bodies and, when integrated into networks, reinforce the fusion of one’s conscious and nervous system within, strengthening the interconnection of humyns with the corporeal structure of technology.9 What is to become of users’ bodies as they become so encumbered by technology that they disappear beneath the hardware? Realities once considered complex are now flattened across cyberscapes where digital agency negotiates participating in a biased virtual architecture, and tech companies work hand in hand with governments to surreptitiously implement new digital and extractive norms. A code of ethics for media platforms ought to be at the forefront of innovations in which technology is undeniably prioritized without considering material implications within online, so-called immaterial environments. Though virtual influencers and pervasive networked presence are part of a larger constellation of economic, social, and political shifts, equitable access and fluency of our daily digital participation and data use must be rendered less opaque. Algorithms designed to only benefit those who possess ownership only crystallize the ongoing exploitation of those using the algorithm to ‘influence’ behavior, particularly if it is used only to discipline an incoming generation of users displaying mediocre aspirations to become macro-celebrities or pursue unending online shopping as some life-fulfilling precedent. Perhaps platforms should divest from encouraging digitally fortified narcissism so that real humyns may retain some semblance of collective cooperation and digital dignity, over the all too simulated impulses of dominance and competition.