what we can learn about the cult of insta-influencers from lil miquela
Lil Miquela might not be real, but she’s no more fake than everyone else online.
Miquela Sousa is -- in internet slang -- living her best life. Miquela always has cute hair, two little pushed-up buns, and just the right amount of adorable freckles. Miquela is always hanging out in LA, wearing designer clothes, posting cute pics with her cute friends to her 1m followers on Instagram. She’s just been to Coachella and had a great time watching Beyoncé. She took over Prada’s Instagram for their autumn/winter 18 show in Milan. Miquela is very caring and loving. She posts about wanting to protect trans peoples’ rights and being an LGBTQ ally, and is a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s on the cover of two magazines. She’s starred in ad campaigns. She’s been featured on the editorial platforms of online concept stores. She got a burgeoning music career. Miquela is a modern millennial, living life for the benefit of Instagram. Busy documenting her primped, preen, and perfect existence.
So far, so much every single influencer you’ve ever tried to ignore online. But if you’ve been following Miquela you will know that she isn’t technically real. Miquela is computer-generated, a digital avatar placed into real life situations. If that’s all Miquela was though, the story wouldn’t be very interesting.
Created/launched/born/whatever in 2016, most of Miquela’s two year existence had been uneventful until she got into a online beef with a fellow CGI influencer called Bermuda, who hacked Miquela’s Instagram, deleted everything, and forced Miquela to reveal she wasn’t human. Since then she’s been going through whatever passes for a existential crisis when you’re a digital avatar.
She’s claiming Brud, her management company, lied to her about who she really is. She questioned whether she was a person, even if she wasn’t human. She says she feels human, she laughs, she cries, dreams and falls in love. She says she understands these emotions are just computer programming. She accuses Brud of exploiting her to make money, of never loving her.
“In trying to realize my truth, I’m trying to learn my fiction,” she wrote in her next post, a picture of herself looking sad in a white tank top. “I need to figure out what parts of myself I should and can hold onto. I’m not sure I can comfortably identify as a woman of color. ‘Brown’ was a choice made by a corporation. ‘Woman’ was an option on a computer screen. My identity was a choice Brud made in order to sell me to brands, to appear ‘woke.’ I will never forgive them. I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself.” Her next post was a picture of herself on the cover of Highsnobiety’s print magazine. The post after normal service was resumed -- back on her bullshit, posing in a plaid Raf Simons logo shirt.
Where to start? A simple question could be along of the lines of how we understand Miquela. Is she a performance art piece? Satire of our flattened digital age? PR stunt? A desperate ploy for attention? A money making scheme? A harbinger of doom? There’s no simple answer, but she obviously is bits of all of these. There is certainly an element of performance to it, something in her online existence to be read as fiction. And elements of that fiction trade on satire, even if it is maybe too obviously indebted to bad machine dystopias of Black Mirror to shock or say much Charlie Brooker didn’t five years ago. And as a satire of the possibility of AI it offers too few new perspectives to be interesting. A PR stunt seems plausible, but if it is a PR stunt for anything more interesting than her creators, I’d be surprised. Miquela could be a money making scheme – most PR stunts are, deep down, anyway. A harbinger of doom? Well most online life feels like a harbinger of doom right now, too. Get to the back of the queue, there’s plenty more potent heralds of end of the civilisation around already.
And yet, the most obvious thing we are not discussing, is that the hackings, crises, and mea culpas, are staged to simply draw attention to Lil Miquela. Make us follow her. Make us engage with her. Make her more profitable. We knew the robots were coming for our low-end menial jobs, but we didn’t stop to think that they were coming for the Instagram influencers. Is this what the future looks like? CGI avatars, battling away in the attention economy for scraps of sponsored content?
And before Miquela had her “breakdown” and “existential crisis” it felt most exciting to think of her as a way to question things about ourselves, not machine intelligence. An exercise in reflecting the emotional emptiness of influencer-society, and the shallowness of a method of communication that reduces all language to images and platitudinous one liners.
So, Miquela became an actual popular influencer and she spouted the same lame empty cliches as all the other Instagram influencers. She was always #blessed, #obsessed and here for this. Every caption a bullshit oblique pop cultural non-sequitur, or a trite attempt at empathy. The deeper you dive into Miquela’s Instagram, the more disorientating it feels only because she was a CGI avatar, and the CGI was better at being a B-list Instagram fashion celebrity that most people.
So Miquela was popular, but her popularity was no more baffling than half a dozen other identikit influencers. She’s kinda cool, I guess, but no cooler, or with no more sense of personal flair, than which ever other generic streetwear hypebeast you follow online. If Miquela isn’t real who is to say that both those other influencers are also not real. They all exist almost exclusively in the same place and in the same way. They promote the same things, reveal the same bland approximations of interior life.
Miquela is is not interesting because she is popular or cool. She is interesting because, by not being real, she questions all our assumptions about what we perceive to be real. If Miquela is fictional, if we question her reality, should we start examining the truths all those other influencers are living? Miquela is a performance of reality framed within the unreality of the internet. All influencers are performers, trapped within the flatness of our online fashion world. Miquela highlights the fakeness of the performance of fashion by pretending to be real. If Miquela’s performances and satires and emotional crises feel flat and contrived, well then that’s life on the ‘gram.