All the way back in 2013, when professional influencers were still in their infancy and influencer marketing was the Wild West, the world was introduced to Waldo. No, not the red and white-striped ninja who seemingly hides in any crowd. This Waldo was a foul-mouthed animated bear, controlled behind the scenes by an unhappy comedian who turned political candidate. Sadly, Waldo wasn’t real (in either respect), as his story was told in an episode of Black Mirror. But his existence shined a light on changes to come that continue to this day: the rise of the faux personality.
Almost a decade later, you find faux influencers like Lil Miquela (2.5M Instagram followers) leading the charge alongside her digital compatriots like Shudu (200K Instagram followers) in tow. This isn’t to say the influence isn’t there, but that they aren’t “real people” shown in the content.
For example, Lil Miquela has been the face of national brand campaigns to engaged audiences. And, considering she is not a flesh and blood person, she has a fairly engaged following for an account of her size. For all intents and purposes, Lil Miquela is a full-fledged influencer—even if she isn’t exactly who we think she is off camera.
Digital Entities with a Following
And while the growth of digital-first characters to these levels is no short feat, it isn’t the first time a fictional being has garnered a following. Marvel’s Deadpool (181K Twitter followers), Sunday comic’s infamous Garfield (115K Twitter followers) and even Sonic the Hedgehog (a staggering 5.8M Twitter followers) are all characters that don’t have IRL counterparts, yet have become social media embodiments of the fiction they are associated with.
Lil Miquela and her digital brethren were a natural evolution of something that was already being done: having incredibly talented human individuals building out a digital presence for someone other than themselves.
Learning from AI Attempts in the Past
But where does that go? How does it continue to evolve? If the digital landscape has taught influencers anything, it is that they must continually mature and innovate as thousands of new would-be creators launch their digital careers in an attempt to take a piece of the pie. And what can evolve faster than any human, or even large groups of them? AI.
Content creation around AI peeked its way into the content landscape during “Elsagate” in 2017 when irresponsible programmers used AI to ideate and create content exploiting YouTube’s algorithm after seeing IRL counterparts doing the same. Content received billions of views, but with no guardrails in place the videos were pitifully dumbed down and showcased scenes of such terrible content that no person, let alone children, should be able to watch.
We have also seen what happens when an algorithm is left solely to its own devices on other social platforms with Tay.
The shining light through all of this: it proved content creation could be done by AI.
The Future of AI and Virtual Content
Knowing all of this, there is now the opportunity for someone to do it properly. There is no doubt that within the next few years we’ll see the first-ever “true” AI influencer. That means that from start to finish, AI will create a persona from the ground up and can responsibly produce content that an audience will engage in—and then the AI will be able to interact and respond to that audience.
Especially in the beginning, it will require the most human oversight to make sure the AI learns the difference between content that solely drives insane amounts of views and content that responsibly draws in audiences and drives intended results for platforms. This early stage will likely be the most expensive and time consuming as the AI starts to figure out the content that is the strongest fit for each platform.
Once they begin to scale, there will likely be tons of data to work with, but unlike the “Elsagate” animation channels, gaming the system will be harder and harder to do, especially on YouTube. In response to those unregulated animations, YouTube put in place guidelines to prevent their algorithm from being taken advantage of by that kind of content.
And while we will see many channels rise and fall, eventually we will see that lightning in the bottle captured with the first true AI influencer.
An AI Influencer Shouldn’t Be Scary
AI becomes a thing of distress when talking about the future. Skynet and HAL 9000 showed us warnings of what happens when AI goes wrong. But what could be the result of an AI-built influencer?
With the right team behind it and the proper boundaries in place, an AI influencer would be a positive force and achieve maximum potential, even beyond video views, likes, and positive brand sentiment.