Social & Digital Update: Virtual Influencing, Avatars and Meta’s Developing ‘Ethical Framework’

By Ellen Corrigan.

With the metaverse rapidly expanding, numerous companies have reportedly begun snapping up millions of dollars worth of virtual land to mark their digital territory. Virtual reality plots have soared up to 500% in price within recent months as brands like Niantic, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Nike embrace the fresh marketing opportunities the metaverse has to offer. With digital avatars and computerised characters making the meta home, a new trend has developed - the emergence of the ‘Virtual Influencer’.

Virtual Influencers or Vi’s are essentially digitally generated ‘people’ who mimic the realistic characteristics and personalities of humans but are entirely fictional. Created by brands or individual innovators, Vi’s share facets of their imaginary lives just as your average real-life influencer would - from dating dramas and friendships to brand collaborations and promotions. However, it’s now the faceless creators who reap the financial rewards.

“From synthesised versions of real people to wholly invented “virtual influencers” (VIs), synthetic media is a rising phenomenon. Meta platforms are home to more than 200 VIs, with 30 verified VI accounts hosted on Instagram. These VIs boast huge follower counts, collaborate with some of the world’s biggest brands, fundraise for organisations like the WHO, and champion social causes like Black Lives Matter.” - Meta, 2022

Vi’s are already proving intensely popular on social media. Pioneering the trend is ‘Lil Miquela’, a 19 year old Brazilian/American model with an instagram following of 3.1 million. Created by L.A. based start-up Brud, Miquela has worked with brands including Calvin Klein, Samsung and Prada and boasts her own discography. In June 2018, Miquela was named one of Time’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet and is currently projected to earn over $10M this year. Other successful VI accounts include Shudu Gram, dubbed the world's first ‘digital supermodel’, and Blawko, a self-proclaimed ‘robot sex-symbol’ (yes, really).

With the imminent global shift into the metaverse, Meta have recognised their ethical obligation to guide users of what is and isn’t real while also offering advertisers a clear directive of how to market in the virtual world. An ‘ethical framework’ is currently under design by developers to help brands navigate a new era of digital advertising and fully benefit from its potential advantages.

There are undeniable pros to the Vi industry from a marketing perspective - reduced production costs, full persona autonomy and tireless campaign applications to name a few. However, valid concerns have been raised on social media about Vi’s and their link to potential body image issues, imitating/hoarding work from real-life BIPOC and a general eerie feel of uncanny valley. It remains to be seen whether Vi’s will occupy the digital world simply as a quirky niche or essential brand partners.

In a further attempt to usher in the Meta-age, an updated process for 3D avatar creation on Facebook and Messenger has been enabled for use in Instagram Stories and DMs as well. Users in the US, Canada, and Mexico can now appear as their virtual selves through features including stickers, feed posts and Facebook profile pictures. These new avatars are less Mii-character and more humanised, with an array of customisation features to better reflect the appearance of their creator. Further inclusive customisation features have been added for people with disabilities including Cochlear implants, hearing aids and wheelchairs.

Additionally, users can deck their avatars out in an array of digital threads - opening the floodgates for more sponsored content. From now until February 28th, users can adorn their avatars in either Super Bowl LVI contender jerseys with a further option to don a neutral shirt instead. While the scope of digital fashion continues to advance at warp speed, the brains behind the Metaverse are more than happy to keep up - evidently with us all in tow.

However, serious reports of VR sexual harrassment have majorly marred their push towards avatar autonomy. Numerous incidents were reported during Horizon World’s VR beta testing, spurring Meta to add a ‘personal boundary’ system to its virtual reality experiences. The new default feature will create an invisible barrier around individual avatars, preventing others from getting too close. In Meta’s words, it gives everyone a two-foot radius of virtual personal space, creating the equivalent of four virtual feet between avatars. However, you can still offer fist-bumps and high fives to your digital pals. With such serious issues arising even in its infancy, it’s fair to say that the road towards the Metaverse will be an extremely bumpy one.

Brand takeouts:

Meta to establish “an ethical framework” in regards to Vi advertising - brands will have a clear directive on how to market within the Metaverse.

Update to 3D avatar customisation for people in the US, Canada and Mexico with use enabled on Facebook, Messenger and Instagram - businesses will have the option to create a brand avatar.

The digital fashion world is advancing rapidly and users can now dress their avatars in a variety of virtual threads - this creates further opportunities for brand sponsorships in the Metaverse.