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From Lil Miquela to Caryn AI: The glittering financial gains of virtual personas
And the advent of the AI girlfriend industry.
Lil Miquela (or as some may know her, Miquela Sousa) is a 19-year-old, Brazilian-American model making bank in the age of Internet influencers.
On TikTok, she has more than 3.5 million followers;Instagram, more than 2.7 million. She has more than 188,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and her song “Sims - Miquela Remix” has amassed over 65 million lifetime listens.
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In 2018, Miquela appeared on the cover of the April issue of Highsnobiety,and Time magazine named her one of the 25 most influential people on the Internet. In 2020, The Cut reported that she was estimated to make over $10 million per year.
She has been interviewed by Vogue,BuzzFeed, and The Guardian, to name a few, and it’s not uncommon to see pictures of her standing alongside celebrities or artists.
But here’s the thing: Miquela has been 19 years old since 2016.
She hasn’t aged because she can’t. Miquela isn’t flesh-and-blood real; she’s a virtual persona—a fictional character—created by the company Brud as an experiment-turned-moneymaker.
And given that Brud was valued at $125 million in 2021 when it was acquired by Dapper Labs,Lil Miquela is a big moneymaker.
Commodification of virtual personas
The “why” behind that multi-million-dollar valuation is capitalistically simple: Lil Miquela provides the value of a human influencer but with the added bonus of “absolute control over their projects from conception to completion.”
A virtual persona says whatever you tell them to say. They dress however you design them to dress. And, most importantly for business, they endorse whatever you instruct them to endorse. Everything the virtual persona “does is in a controlled setting by the people who are managing” the persona.
Unlike humans, virtual personas won’t demand worker rights, or ask for health insurance or parental leave, or require the myriad of other human-specific necessities imposed by society or law.
They just do what you tell them to do. And for companies, that level of absolute control over an identity is a godsend, because the artificiality removes “the PR risks from influencers who may do something that could impact [your] base of customers.”
For example, a virtual persona won’t be charged with criminal trespass and unlawful assembly for illegally entering the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall.They won’t issue a public apology after tweeting that Alicia Keyes has no business giving skin care advice. And they won’t compare the struggle of affording a maid as a white woman to the struggles of Harriet Tubman or Malala Yousafzai.
Instead, virtual personas exist solely as an extension of the controlling entity, and with a market size of $4.6 billion in 2022, it’s clear that virtual personas have captured corporate and consumer attention.
Now, with the advent of generative AI and LLMs, we are seeing a new advancement in virtual personas: the age of AI-powered virtual personas.
Virtual personas in the age of AI
In Blade Runner 2049, protagonist K (played by Ryan Gosling) forms a relationship with the virtual persona Joi (played by Ana de Armas). At the start of the film, Joi exists solely as a projection within K’s apartment. She materializes when he returns home, appearing in an outfit reflecting K’s mood at the moment—from caring housewife to Bond girl-like confidant.
Their relationship grows over the film, but the audience is left wondering if the relationship is authentic. Joi is imprisoned in K’s apartment until he buys a hardware upgrade that allows him to carry her outside, and she’s constantly inflating his ego by telling him he’s special.
But late in the film, both K and the audience confront the truth: Joi is a virtual persona product created by Wallace Corporation.
K stands before a massive holographic billboard of a naked Joi, who bends down to point at K and says, “You look lonely. I can fix that.” Flashing advertisements promise that Joi will be and do anything he wants. All he has to do is buy her.
While Blade Runner’s Joi may seem farfetched in today’s age, startups are already exploring the idea of combining virtual personas with generative AI to create virtual persona companions that interact with consumers.
In 2023, 23-year-old Caryn Marjorie got the idea to turn herself into a virtual girlfriend called Caryn AI.She trained a chatbot on her voice and used OpenAI’s GPT-4 to respond to messages from users. Then she opened up access to the AI, allowing anyone to communicate with it like a digital girlfriend or lover.
“I want Caryn AI to be the first step when somebody is in their bedroom and they're scared to talk to a girl or they know that they want to go outside and hang out with friends, but they're too scared to even make a first approach, that Caryn AI can be a nonjudgmental, caring, even loving, friendly persona that they can actually vent to, they can rant to, they can get advice from who's never going to let them down.”
Interacting with Caryn AI costs $1 per minute, and it generated over $76,610 during the beta week alone.Marjorie expects that Caryn AI will earn her $5 million each month based on its current growth trajectory.
That amount of wealth has inevitably caught the eye of other innovators, like Enias Cailliau who created a virtual persona companion of his girlfriend, Sacha Ludwig.And Forever Companion, a startup creating AI-powered companions that are “always by your side, ready to make your day brighter and your conversations more enjoyable.”
Just like Joi.
Prevalence of young women as virtual personas
When looking at pictures of Lil Miquela, Caryn AI, Forever Companions, and Joi, it’s hard not to see the similarities: they’re all women. And they’re all young.
This is the advent of what some are calling the AI girlfriend industry.This is the evolution of virtual personas from product ambassadors to products themselves.
Yet, despite that evolution, it’s clear that the craving for control remains. As the AI girlfriend app EVA AI blatantly advertises, “Jump into your desires with EVA AI. Control it all the way you want to” (emphasis added).
Caryn AI too hints at this control: “Caryn has unlimited time for you. Whether it's late at night, or the start of your day, Caryn will be by your side.”
Even Lil Miquela, after the acquisition by Dapper, was decentralized using NFTs so she would be “[c]ontrolled” by her community.“We're turning into a decentralized autonomous organization, which means we go from being a corporation into sort of breaking this open and handing Miquela over to her community,” said Nicole De Ayora of Dapper.
This control-based language and imagery has some concerned because if virtual personas replicate human interactions without the worry of losing control, it may promote unhealthy or damaging behaviors in users and audience members.
“Creating a perfect partner that you control and meets your every need is really frightening,” said Tara Hunter, the acting CEO for Full Stop Australia, to The Guardian. “Given what we know already that the drivers of gender-based violence are those ingrained cultural beliefs that men can control women, that is really problematic.”
Moreover, if control is at the heart of a virtual persona’s value, one must wonder about the creative decisions made to empower that sense of control. And more importantly: why were they made?
For example, why is Lil Miquela perpetually 19 years old? Why not 21 or 25? Why even give her an age at all? Did someone choose to give her an age because it empowered that sense of control?
And if the answer to these questions is that her young age increases her value as a virtual persona, are we okay with that answer?
Noe: virtual personas are still regulated by traditional advertising and endorsement laws and regulations. E.g., https://www.infolawgroup.com/insights/2023/8/11/virtual-influencers-are-now-officially-regulated-endorsersunless-theyre-spokespersons
Note: Regulators in the United States have imposed advertising rules on virtual influencers, https://www.infolawgroup.com/insights/2023/8/11/virtual-influencers-are-now-officially-regulated-endorsersunless-theyre-spokespersons
It’s worth noting that virtual influencers are being targeted by US regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission: https://www.infolawgroup.com/insights/2023/8/11/virtual-influencers-are-now-officially-regulated-endorsersunless-theyre-spokespersons