CGI celebrities are courting followers—and controversy

When Instagram profiles are filtered and curated beyond recognition, is it OK if the person in the pictures is created on a computer?

The job title of "social-media influencer"—someone who makes a living through the popularity of their social media accounts—has become pretty mainstream.

Think of the Kardashians, or the movie 'Ingrid Goes West'. But there is a subcategory of those social media influencers, which includes the model Shudu Gram with more than 100K followers, and musician, etc… Lil Miquela with over one million. What makes them different is that neither of them are real. Both are computer generated, 3-D characters.

"Shudu has very much sparked a debate and discussion," said British photographer, artist, and creator of Shudu Gram, Cameron-James Wilson. "And I think in this time, people are looking for engaging content and I think she's probably one of the most controversial models of the decade. So what more engaging content could there be?"

While it is immediately clear that Lil Miquela is a CGI creation, Shudu Gram is much more realistic, and there was a debate among her followers about whether or not she was real. About nine months after the her profile appeared, Wilson finally acknowledged that he had created her.

Part of the controversy around these avatars has been about racial representation. "The optics are pretty stark...  a white, British man creating a 3-D character that looks like a black woman," said Lauren Michele Jackson, a Ph.D candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, and the author of a forthcoming collection of essays on race and representation.

Shudu has dark skin and short black hair, and often wears the gold neck rings, like those worn by Ndebele women in South Africa.

"If you're capitalizing on... a look that is supposed to be representative of real-life black women, then there's a kind of additional... responsibility," said Jackson. "You have to know how that's going to be perceived. And especially if you're getting criticism from the very people whose look you're trying to replicate." 

Characters like Shudu or Lil Miquela are distinct from other social media celebrities, but when these other influencers go to such lengths to edit and curate their accounts, it's not always clear how "real" the human influencers are either.

"The rise of... CGI influencers are really just latching on to the kind of weirdness of the influencer category," Jackson said: "The weirdness of a person who can basically craft an entire persona that basically only lives in that one app."