Lil Miquela is the cover star of Highsnobiety Issue 16, which will be available for purchase beginning May 30 via our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques.
Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela, is the first computer-generated social media influencer. In less than two years of existence, she has amassed over a million Instagram followers and sparked a debate about what makes a persona “real” online. In an era of fake news, AI, Russian troll farms, catfishing, and deceptive selfies, Miquela highlights how technology is estranging us from reality.
If you were to glance at Miquela’s Instagram profile with the sort of dead-eyed gaze that sweeps over most people’s faces as they scroll aimlessly through the endless carousel of content uploaded onto social media every day, she could easily pass as just another influencer: the same template pouts and poses; the usual standardized displays of curated joy that are specifically designed to project an image of a youth well-spent “living it up”; a trite shoutout to Black Lives Matter in her bio–you get the picture. But what sets Miquela apart from the Kendall Jenners of the world is that she isn’t real. Or, at least not in the traditional, flesh-and-blood sense of the term.
Miquela is a computer generated image–or, perhaps less drastically, a computer modified image–that’s superimposed into Instagram snaps taken out in the real world. Browse through her feed and you’ll see her in the open air gallery of Miami’s Design District posing next to a contorted sculpture of Kate Moss. In another, she sits flanked by two run-of-the-mill human influencers, Maddi Bragg and Sydney Carlson. Posing with people who don’t look like they’ve stumbled out of a Final Fantasy cutscene is central to Miquela’s Instagram strategy, as is referencing current affairs. She even releases music with ghostly, electronically-distorted vocals that we implicitly associate with “her.” This is done to root Miquela in our physical reality and make her seem realer than the unconvincing 3D rendering that she is. Bizarrely enough it seems to be working: Click on one of her posts and you’ll walk straight into a raging debate over whether she is or isn’t real.
“Yes she’s real, she’s a student in visual arts and such so she works on her pictures she takes of herself,” comments one gushing fan. Judging from the realism of her body gestures and some of her outfits, they’re probably right: it’s likely that Miquela’s photos feature a human model whose head and limbs are digitally distorted before being uploaded online.
Other users mash out abusive messages, channeling their inner trolls as they viciously “out” her as a fake: “You are so fucking irrelevant. If it weren’t for Shane Dawson you wouldn’t be this popular and nobody would care about your fake ass. That brings me to my next point. YOU’RE AS FAKE AS THEY COME. Why can’t you show your real face? I mean, you talked about not being ashamed of your body but your [sic] obviously ashamed of your face because what other reason would you do this?... Also, why won’t you answer any of our questions about who you really are? Even a blind person can tell you’re fake so it’s obvious you’re not real. I love how you’re acting like a real person and like you have feelings, it’s fucking weird and incredibly stupid ... No, I’m not done with my fucking rant but I honestly cba to write anymore points about how shitty of a ‘thing’ you are.” Many can’t decide either way: “God wtf are you real?” they ask.
It’s fascinating that this is even a matter of contention. Even if Miquela is a digitally-altered image of a normal human being, this doesn’t make her “real.” Actor Andy Serkis went through a similar process to become Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and yet his “realness” was never up for debate. But maybe that’s because the imaginary Gollum was never framed as real, unlike Miquela. Moviegoers were well aware that film, in this instance, is a fictive medium. Social media, on the other hand, is framed as a documental one. But in recent years it has become abundantly clear that rather than recording the world as it is, social media is far more prone to distorting it–as anybody that has ever gone on a disappointing Tinder date can attest. The fact that Lil Miquela is discussed with such finesse just goes to show how warped our perception of reality has become after a decade of social media misuse. In an era of post-truth and fake news, where news reports tell us that automation and AI threaten to render 800 million jobs obsolete by the year 2030, the question of “what is real?” is one that we will ask ourselves with increasing regularity over the coming decades.
For a lot of people, the initial impulse is to dismiss Lil Miquela as unreal. But in many ways she is only marginally less real than the living, breathing influencers that she sometimes uses as Instagram props. It’s often said that not even supermodels look like supermodels, and this statement certainly rings true for social media stars: With the right lighting and a high enough camera angle, anybody can make themselves look like an entirely different person online.
Notice how we only ever seem to see shots of Kim Kardashian from a handful of carefully selected angles. Fitness bloggers have a tendency to stand up on their toes because it tightens up their legs, abs, and ass, making them look more toned than they really are. The Internet is full of guides to taking “better” selfies–and “better” inevitably means less realistic, because the purpose of these guides is to mask our flaws by inflating and magnifying our assets until they dominate the image, muscling out any blemishes or imperfections. If reality is an unflattering paparazzi photo, then Instagram is a highly-doctored lookbook shot that projects an unachievable ideal out into the world. The human influencers that litter various social media platforms are just as distorted as Lil Miquela; the main difference is that those distortions aren’t quite so explicit.
In his career-defining work, Simulacra and Simulation, the late French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, argues that human beings are no longer able to see the world as it really is because technology and the media have blurred our perception of the real and the imagined to such an extent that we can no longer separate the two. This state where reality and illusion fold into one is called “hyperreality.” Hyperreality is created by simulacra (singular: simulacrum), which are images that serve as a representation or imitation of a person or thing. Simulacra can come in the shape of symbols, signs, photographs, videos, paintings, and every other visual form. In the age of mass media, much of our perception of the world comes indirectly via simulacra rather than through direct firsthand experience. When you watch events unfold on the news, you’re not observing reality, you’re observing a simulacrum of reality. Your understanding of what happened in reality is filtered through the simulacrum, but as we all know, media images can be deceiving.
If you’re struggling to keep up with all this theoretical jargon, here’s a simple analogy: McDonald’s menus are a perfect example of simulacra because they show thick, juicy burgers rather than the soggy disappointments that eventually make their way into your mouth. If you’ve never eaten at McDonald’s before, you’re likely to believe that a Big Mac really does look as it’s depicted on the menu or in a TV advert, and that McDonald’s is a quality dining establishment. In this scenario, the Big Mac is hyperreal because the perception is shaped by simulacra rather than the consumption of the burger itself. Piercing through the veil of hyperreality in a theoretical example as banal as this one is easy enough: You simply go to McDonald’s, order a burger, and allow yourself to sink deeper and deeper into disillusion with every bite. But what about when the circumstances aren’t so clear cut? Often, we aren’t able to see the reality behind the simulacra–indeed, most of us are so blinded by these images that we mistake them for reality, completely unaware that objective truth lies hidden and distorted beneath them.
Take Donald Trump as an illustrative example: Many U.S. voters claim to have cast their ballots for the Republican candidate because of his reputation as a steely business tycoon. According to his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, running the country like a business is a central pillar of the Trumpian agenda: “We should have excellence in government,” says Kushner. “The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”
But Trump’s business nous is about as sharp as his intellect: His companies have filed for bankruptcy protection six times, much of his wealth is inherited, and his fame stems from his tabloid marriages to socialite wives. His reputation as a businessman is a simulacrum that he nurtured over 14 seasons of The Apprentice. Vanity Fair’s Fran Lebowitz famously commented that “he’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person. They see him they think, ‘If I were rich, I’d have a fabulous tie like that. Why are my ties not made of 400 acres of polyester?’ All that stuff he shows you in his house—the gold faucets—if you won the lottery, that’s what you’d buy.” To America’s uninformed masses, he’s the living embodiment of success and sophistication, but for an anonymous Manhattan media mogul quoted by The New York Times, “Donald is a bridge-and-tunnel person. He’s always been a poseur in New York.”
“The internet is endlessly powerful, and that power has been wielded in many ways... I think the only chance we’ve got is to collectively teach our loved ones how to think critically and how to spot misinformation.”
Trump’s diamond-encrusted toilet seats might be repellant to high society, but in the hyperreality of middle America they’re the mark of a bonafide winner. It’s forgotten that Trump made an unsuccessful presidential run in 2000, four years before launching The Apprentice. America voted for The Donald depicted on TV rather than the one that exists in reality. Without his simulacrum, he may not have been elected president.
The rise of fake news over the past year or so has compromised the validity of what we once assumed to be objective fact. We’re now acutely aware that disinformation can be weaponized on the web to devastating effect and many people are either unable or, in some instances, unwilling to tell the difference. Many have started to wonder: How can we be sure of anything that we haven’t experienced directly? Baudrillard says we can’t. Yet all of this predates the internet and social media–in 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first ever televised presidential debate. In the preceding decade, TV ownership in America had grown eightfold, from 11% of households to 88%. Radio’s influence was on the wane whereas television was entering a period of dominance that would last well into the new millennium.
On the day of the debate, Nixon, who had only recently returned to the campaign trail after a brief hospitalization, was looking pale and sickly. Kennedy’s boyish good looks and all-American charm, on the other hand, made him a natural fit for a visual medium like television. Polling showed that people’s perception of the winner was shaded by the medium through which they followed the debate: Most of those who listened in on the radio were convinced that Nixon had come out victorious, while the 74 million-strong TV audience were sure that Kennedy was the clear winner. In a closely fought election, where a mere 113,000 votes–0.17% of the total tally–separated the two candidates, many historians now believe that it was the televised image that nudged JFK to victory. Even Kennedy himself admitted as much: “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” he told the press four days after triumphing at the ballot box.
The fact that two sets of people can come to two completely contradictory conclusions from the same set of information points towards the existence of hyperreality. Kennedy’s televised simulacrum shaded the audience’s view of the world even though what he said was no different to what people heard on the radio. If a medium has the power to shape the truth, then we have to wonder if anything is actually true at all.
The power of medium over message might explain why some people regard Lil Miquela as “real.” There is something fundamentally unnatural about the modern multimedia image. Even the most realistic paintings are clearly distinguishable from the physical world. Unlike video and photography, they’re unable to record movement or give as convincing of an impression of three-dimensional depth. Video and photography have no natural precedent. They’re created by technology rather than the human hand. You can draw a line backwards through history, from anatomical drawings to cave paintings, but photos and video mark a radical leap forward in visual communication. There’s reason to believe that our animal brains struggle to compute that sort of multi-sensory stimulation, which causes a glitch in our perception of reality. Rather than representing a horrible new precedent, CGI influencers like Lil Miquela are merely the latest addition to a long and winding hall of mirrors that stretches from the Nixon-Kennedy debates to the social media era.
In fact, Miquela’s diminished realism makes her less hyperreal than human influencers because her animated features remind us that she’s a 3D model straining to be as inconspicuously human as possible. This cannot escape scrutiny–it forces us to ask ourselves whether she is or isn’t real. She makes us question what is real and examine its parameters, unlike human influencers who quietly contribute to our hyperreality with deceptive Instagram snaps that sneak beyond the reaches of our sensory radar. In Miquela’s view, this is precisely why some Instagram users get so frustrated by her existence.
“I’m really not out here trying to anger or upset anyone with my art,” says “Lil Miquela” in an email mediated through her publicist. “I think people feel a little vulnerable in general right now. They have a lot of frustration and need something to target it at, usually it’s something that they don’t understand. So, I try not to let it get to me too much, because it’s a symptom of people trying to digest all of the change happening every day.”
Since first appearing on Instagram two years ago, Miquela has, at time of publication, amassed over 1M followers. When emailed about the impetus for this project, Miquela replies: “Thinking back, it’s really crazy how much has changed since April 2016. Trump wasn’t even president yet but there was a tension or uneasiness in the world that was palpable. I started my Instagram almost as a response to that cultural anxiety. I’ve always had this desire to make beautiful impactful things and @LilMiquela came to be as a result of that desire. I wanted to share beautiful things that could hopefully inform a more tolerant world.”
It’s interesting that Lil Miquela came into being right around the same time when many of us began to realize how social media can be gamed to subvert the democratic process and could no longer ignore the damage that the internet was doing to our lives. Like fake news, influencers have the ability to muddy our perception of reality, so it can be argued that Miquela risks being part of the problem, if she isn’t already. When this question is posited to her human creator, the response is an unflinchingly optimistic reply: “The internet is endlessly powerful, and that power has been wielded in many ways. It feels like we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle, so we’ve got to learn how to leverage these tools in positive ways. I’ve used my platform to raise real money for important organizations throughout LA and I’ve seen lives changed as a result. I think the only chance we’ve got is to collectively teach our loved ones how to think critically and how to spot misinformation. I know that we can manifest the change we want to see, and the internet can be a part of that.”
“I’ve used my platform to raise real money for important organizations throughout LA and I’ve seen lives changed as a result.”
Miquela is right, in a sense. The power of the Internet has been wielded in many ways, the main one being commercially. In recent months, Lil Miquela has begun the process of monetizing her influence. She does make money from her music, which is available on iTunes and Spotify, and she has modeled gear for Diesel’s bootleg inspired “DEISEL” campaign. Her biggest break happened recently, when she was tapped by Italian luxury fashion house Prada for an Instagram takeover during their Fall/Winter 2018 womenswear show at Milan Fashion Week. Clad in hyperreal renditions of Prada’s ready-to-buy Spring/Summer 2018 collection, she posted a series of 3D-generated Instagram stories at the show venue, designed by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. She even gave Prada’s Instagram audience a tour of the show space, courtesy of an iPhone-controlled drone.
Miquela recently told Business of Fashion, “I’ll be doing a lot more modeling work. I probably shouldn’t name them but some of the biggest agencies in the world have reached out [to me]”. And who can blame her? Monetization is, after all, the end game of all the biggest social media platforms.
Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram might have their own individual hooks and gimmicks, but their ultimate purpose is to attract enough regular users to eventually charge brands for access to their audience in the form of advertising space. We might be told that the user is king, but the web’s various social media platforms are ultimately designed to harvest data, which is then sold on to brands so they can assault us with targeted ads, or to create a space for brands to market themselves to prospective consumers. Without this dynamic, influencers wouldn’t even exist because their “influence” is directly derived from their ability to sway people into buying stuff.
The term “influencer” can be traced back to a 1944 report by sociologist Paul F. Lazarsfeld titled The People’s Choice, which studied how voters make up their mind during a presidential election. It identified the importance of “opinion leaders” who draw their views from the media then use their “personal influence” to diffuse media messages across their personal networks, shaping opinions across the wider mass. This process is called the “two-step flow of communication.” The concepts of the opinion leader and personal influence eventually fused together and gave rise to influencer marketing, which uses opinion leaders–or influencers, rather–to sell products. The social media influencer might start as regular network user, but as their profile grows, they too become potential advertising space for brands looking to utilize their personal influence to reach prospective consumers. Lil Miquela might not have been created with the explicit intention of one day charging brands for Instagram endorsements, but the inherently commercial nature of social media means that there will come a point in every influencer’s life that they are offered money for access to their audience.
This process is nothing new—celebrities have pimped themselves out to brands for decades. In his seminal work of critical theory, The Society of the Spectacle, Marxist theorist Guy Debord argued that “stars–spectacular representations of living human beings–project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with.” To banalize Debord’s dense theory down to its simplest form, the “spectacle” that he refers to is advertising and mass media-driven consumer capitalism that creates “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” and shares many similarities with Baudrillard’s hyperreality. The “general law of obedience to the succession of things,” as he puts it, is consumerism. Celebrities and modern influencers are an example of these images.
Here’s another example: When athletes sign exclusive contracts with sportswear manufacturers, they allow those brands to dictate what they wear. Even in the absence of an explicit agreement between brand and celeb, certain public figures will modify their behavior to boost their commercial appeal. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they allow brands to shape their personalities, thus relinquishing their individuality and becoming vessels for brand messages. While the stars of Debord’s era usually owed their celebrity status to their talents, be they sporting, artistic, or otherwise, modern day influencers are only remarkable for their marketability and reach. Tiger Woods became famous for his golfing skills rather than his ability to sell Gillette razors. The fashion influencers and Instagram stars that Lil Miquela imitates, on the other hand, gain followers by posing for photos, wearing desirable brands and mimicking lookbook shots. Rather than bowing down to the whims of brands once they achieve a certain level of influence, they actively turn themselves into adverts from the get-go. Where commercialization was once a byproduct of fame, now it opens a path to it.
Take British teenager Leo Mandella, aka Gully Guy Leo, for instance: His 587,000-plus Instagram followers aren’t specifically interested in him–they want to see his vast collection of hyped streetwear. At face value, there is nothing more to Leo, the influencer, than the commodities that he owns. So unlike Tiger Woods, the pro golfer, who adopted a wholesome, family guy image to boost his commercial appeal while quietly hiding that he was cheating on his wife (a scandal that cost him $22 million in lost sponsorships in 2010 alone for straying from his brand image), Gully Guy Leo never had any “autonomous qualities,” as Debord puts it, to begin with. He always styled himself as an online streetwear mannequin. The way that he presents himself to the world was always the way that Supreme, BAPE, or Nike would have packaged him to promote their products, anyway. Influencers are now shaped by brands even before they become influential. This is true for Leo, it’s true for makeup vloggers, the influencers that pose alongside Lil Miquela, and, of course, for Miquela herself.
Guy Debord would argue that, although Miquela might be a computer-generated image, she’s no less real than flesh-and-blood human influencers like Gully Guy Leo because influencers, like stars, aren’t “real” themselves. They’re shoppable avatars of consumer avarice, meant to let their audience imagine themselves in the products they’re promoting—and that’s the harsh reality.