I’ve written before here on Virtual Influencers – from an overview of their appeal, KFC marketing experiments, virtual bands like Gorillaz, and most recently with an analysis of how Lara Croft moved beyond a PS1 video game and became a celebrity in her own right.
But earlier this month I had the chance to sit down and talk with Christopher Travers – a man very active in the virtual influencer space, with some great insight into Gen Z, social media, and influencer culture as a whole.
We covered a lot of ground – everything from the GEICO Gecko to the interactive future of humanity! The full interview is below. (Don’t worry, that’s not me in the header image – that’s Christopher speaking with one of the fastest growing Virtual Influencers – NobodySausage on his website). As always, please enjoy!
JAMES K. WIGHT: Hello Christopher. So, to begin, who are you and what do you do?
CHRISTOPHER TRAVERS: Well, my name is Christopher Travers. I’m the cofounder of Offbeat Media Group, I also built www.virtualhumans.org, and I come from a background building pseudo-anonymous social media experiences. When I was at university I cofounded a social network with a group of university students in Canada, focused on allowing you to flirt with, compliment, or question anyone on your campus, anonymously.
So that blew up in Canada, and then I went to launch – with some of those cofounders – another social app built on sharing photos anonymously. And that drove me really into this idea that you can express yourself or be more “true to self” online using a pseudonym than you can where you need to present yourself as a human.
This was what drove me into this idea of pseudonymity as a utility, where I went on to launch multiple social media presences where I would facilitate messages or ideologies focused on dating or aesthetics or dog photos. And that focus drove me into virtual influencers – that you can go all the way into creating a computer-generated image, a personality online, and then seeing that it comes to life.
So yeah, very fascinated by the internet, gaming, new anime, and social influence, as well as privacy – which I think is a big part of pseudonymity.
JKW: Can you explain what a virtual influencer is, and how they differ from regular influencers?
CT: Yeah, so I’ve been studying this for four years, so I’ve refined the definition. You take a computer-generated character, then you start posting on social media and writing captions in such a way that the character adopts a first-person view of the world.
If you do this repetitively, you create a narrative. The GEICO Gecko used to be on television, talking as a spokesperson, and then he used to appear on ads talking in first person – like it came from him. Now, they’ve moved it to Instagram. And the key decision they’ve made is they use the word “I’m.”
They don’t say “The GEICO Gecko is going to the park today.” They say, “I’m going to the park today.” From the perspective of the Gecko.
JKW: Would you say it makes it feel more personal? More intimate?
CT: Absolutely. Everything you know about animated storytelling is now becoming available on social media. That’s the key. People find it weird that these animated stories are coming to social media, but now that they’re here it’s a new form of media – they look like influencers at face value – but it runs much deeper than that.
JKW: Why do you think a brand should go for a virtual influencer over a real-life person? What’s the appeal?
CT: There’s a lot of appeal. A lot of brands want to appear innovative online; they want to stay on the cutting edge, and they want to be a part of what’s coming next. So they will force themselves and their teams to keep this innovative mindset as a priority. They’re fully researching what’s coming next, and a virtual influencer is reflective of what’s coming next, and I actually believe it’s on a hundred year timespan of what we’ll achieve with virtual influencers.
That said, there’s this long opportunity around IP, taking ownership of an IP in the same way GEICO Gecko has. Or perhaps taking control of an IP. If a brand scripts a message, they know that that script will come through clearly through a virtual influencer. But if you give a script over to a human influencer, it might not translate clearly.
But you don’t want to give a human influencer a script – you want them to take your ideology and turn it into their creative work. Then that creates the best outcome for a brand.
As for Virtual Influencers, it’s much easier to plug into an existing narrative than risk a human influencer’s miscommunication of your brand or idea. So for many brands it’s a much safer option.
JKW: When you say “safer” what do you mean by that?
CT: Virtual Influencers are not going to tweet something they shouldn’t say. They’re not going to drive drunk. They’re not going to be late to the studio.
These are the three examples I see commonly referred to – they’re generic, but they’re true. So a virtual influencer will never be misaligned with the mission. They lack human nature in the right ways, you could say.
That said, if I’m going to the GEICO Gecko and want to stake a million dollars in an ad campaign for – I dunno – RayBan. If I’m RayBan and I have a million dollars to sponsor the GEICO Gecko to wear shades, I know full well that for the next fifty years that the Gecko won’t do anything reckless or stupid. It’s a safe investment. I know.
But let’s say I work with Logan Paul or Jake Paul, who are consistently in the news for questionable decisions (to put it lightly). If I’m RayBan and I stake a million dollars on Logan Paul, who the Hell knows what he could be seen doing in one year wearing RayBans?! So that is what it means to be safe – working with a scripted animated character negates all these risks.
JKW: From the perspective of an influencer, is this something to be worried about? Will they be able to compete?
CT: In truth, the way a typical virtual influencer will become popular will be because avatar technology will become more readily available. It will be easy for everyone to make avatars and virtual influencers will be able to explode in popularity. Any influencer could theoretically use a virtual avatar of themselves online or go into virtual worlds themselves.
Take the example of JoshDub, a YouTuber who’s blowing up creating VR content. What he does is he shows his face as a human at his desk first, before diving right into the most hilarious, asinine VR content you’ve ever seen.
The way I see it, JoshDub is a representation of the future. Logan Paul may have a virtual presence somewhere, or he can launch an alter ego – like a virtual pet or whatever, like a kitten or whatever who hates people. Right?
JKW: It’s funny you mention that. Is it Charli D’Amelio who’s launched a virtual pet recently?
CT: Squeaky and Roy? Yes. It’s a purple penguin and a pink bear. It is the example of what I’m talking about. So they’re not going out to make a virtual Charli, right? You know, that could weird people out. Instead, they’ve made these characters – who were the actual childhood dolls reincarnated – so there’s this story behind it, and it’s deeply, intimately connected to their human story.
It’s like a branch directly from Charli, and for fans it feels like they’re following another piece of Charli’s story. So by creating these characters in such a smart way, they’ve managed to expand the IP, create an IP to live forever, and convert the fans into double-fans – it gives them a way to follow more channels.
It’s about using the tools available to you to create the most captivating image of yourself, and that can absolutely incorporate virtual influencers.
JKW: You spoke a bit about longevity. Why do you think that – even when compared to other celebrities – influencers struggle to endure?
CT: It’s a complex question, but at the core it’s platform-related, relevance-related, and it’s to do with the dominant generation influencing culture. So I’ll talk first about the platforms.
Platforms change over every few years. You know, there’s always an up-and-coming social platform that each generation will adopt. You know, first it was, like Facebook, then YouTube, then Instagram, then Vine, now TikTok’s come out of nowhere to rocket to the top.
The truth is that a lot of these influencers who are famous are famous because of the platform, not because of them. They are early on a platform that ended up blowing up, and that really defines their success. Charli D’Amelio’s a great example – early on TikTok which blew up in the coming years.
But that’s the thing. They blow up out of their control on a platform, and then have to replicate that success across media, across industries even, and with the constant knowledge of upcoming platforms and what could blow up next. Now that’s a challenge, and few have managed it.
It’s a weird balance between constantly creating content whilst also looking to move to newer platforms.
Finally, there’s the generational element. Ages 18 – 22 are when a lot of influencers break out. It’s a fact of life that teenagers define what is cool and who to follow online. Ages 27 – 30, you’ll have a much harder time relating to those younger demographics.
This could get a bit heady, but when I was 18 – 22, it was a time of Reddit, Minecraft, Chatroulette, Halo and whatever. We were trained how to interact by the platforms we used. We were trained on Facebook and online gaming and whatever – it’s a mental model of how to interact with each other.
Young person and young platform – is like a square peg in a square hole.
But when you’re trying to apply that model of interaction to other platforms and younger demographics, it’s like putting a round peg in a square hole.
JKW: We’ve spoken about generations in a broad sense, I just want to focus a bit on Gen Z. How do they differ from previous generations with their relationship to media?
CT: Yeah, so it’s way more micro. Way more niche. So communities that they’re joining are smaller. The size of the content they’re consuming is tiny, and way more rapid. When I say tiny, I mean time and size.
I’ll put it like this. Twitter went tiny – it was photos and text. But the value packed into those tiny tweets has gone way up. Twitter. Snapchat. They’re these sudden moments of inspiration which we consume. That’s Millennials.
Now you have TikTok and Gen Z, it’s easy to create with the in-app tools, and super passive to consume. Just audio, video, text and more in thirty-second bursts. Compare that to Twitter where you need to stop and read a text, interpret it, and then scroll.
Even the TikTok f***ing feed, you just flick your thumb and it forces you to the next video! You don’t even need to scroll when a video ends another just loads up automatically.
JKW: We’ve talked a lot about TikTok, do you have any thoughts on longer-form content like YouTube?
CT: Yeah, so YouTube is still very Gen Z-centric. It’s not like thirty-second TikTok videos but here’s why it’s important.
YouTube is Google for Gen Z. They will first go to YouTube and type a key search to learn something. It’s taking the role of an informative source of trust. I don’t think TikTok’s considered a source of trust … just yet. But YouTube is where there’s a video for anything now.
But here’s the thing about YouTube as well. It’s also TV for Gen Z. It’s now Netflix. It’s a mixture of all these things that gives the generation a one-stop-stop for all their video needs. And they’re going a step further by pivoting to Shorts to compete now with TikTok.
JKW: You mentioned Netflix, how can they compete against things like YouTube and TikTok?
CT: Oh my god, they need to bring in influencers! They need to give those YouTubers shows! In the same way channels were so smart signing up Jackass in the early days and MTV shows, that has to happen. But they’re not doing it!
They’re literally turning a blind eye to all these creators. Billy on the Street was literally the last smart decision Netflix did, because they brought in a relevant creator to resonate with their audience. The next thing they need to do, is give creators tools to create better content. They need to branch into the creator economy, and they’re in a position to do so. Especially as far as gaming goes.
JKW: Do you think YouTubers and influencers have a level of transferability to move to a platform like Netflix?
CT: Yes. Absolutely.
JKW: It’s just I’m reminded of some terrible Logan Paul movie like Airplane Mode or The Thinning.
CT: If you try to plug Logan Paul into the next Squid Game or something, it’ll be distracting as Hell. Right? The idea of a YouTuber as an actor doesn’t make sense. If you put him on a show like Love is Blind that’s where he could excel, and Netflix could do that. Because there’s a revelation factor of “how will this person react that it was Logan Paul all the time?!”
You have to be creative about these things. Netflix has every type of media under the sun – it’s just in a longer format. So there is a door and a channel for all these YouTubers.
Another avenue I see is life documentaries on these influencers. So let’s say Logan Paul came out with a two hour documentary on Netflix, what he doesn’t tell his fans on YouTube, who he really is. It’s like the Charli D’Amelio show on Disney+, right? A different, more personal way to interact with these influencers – and that’s how you can bring fandoms over to Netflix.
JKW: I just want to go over your thoughts on NFTs and the Metaverse, and your thoughts are on those. Because there is a lot that’s happened recently.
CT: Yeah, so forget the fluff, forget the hype. Look at the technology and the utility: Blockchain and virtual spaces. NFTs and the Metaverse as we know it are just the proliferation and excitement – over excitement – of the technology. It’s a good thing that all this excitement is happening, and the only difference today is that we can actually put a dollar amount on the excitement.
But people use that dollar excitement, and the fact it goes up and down, as a way to demonise the entire space. Because there’s capital exchange in the space, people demonise it. Look at Google Trends, there are so many trends that go up and down and then skyrocket.
What I’m getting to, as with any trend in life, is that it’ll go up and it’ll go down. We were talking about those models of culture, how things are, there’s this difficult learning we’ll have to do about how NFTs work, how digital wallets work, how Web3 will work, and we’re all learning right now.
But this young generation that spends time online, they’re learning the most and innovating.
JKW: Going back to Virtual Influencers, where do you see them in relations to NFTs and the Metaverse?
CT: Yeah, we can talk a long time about this. I actually find it frustrating that people refer to Metaverse in the plural sense. Do we call the Internet, the Internets? The Metaverse at large will be the Metaverse – virtual worlds within the larger perspective of the Metaverse.
The best way of simplifying this is mapping reality to virtual reality. So, we’re in this bar, right now, having this conversation, but we could be in a virtual space having this same conversation. So how would we look? We’d be avatars, right?
In the future, avatars will be the dominant vehicle in which we represent ourselves. Virtual Influencers are just this early, early version of that – a future of a billion avatars interacting and engaging.
Now when you talk about NFTs, they become popular through these avatar images on the blockchain. So there’s all these collectors, and speculators who are scooping up these avatars. There are some NFT collections which do offer creative control, and there are some which don’t. And it’s the ones that offer that control which will succeed in the long run – not as a flat image, but a 3D image, both on social media and virtual environments.
JKW: We’re both exploring this space. But I know a lot of people who are very sceptical of NFTs, they’re very sceptical of Crypto – we’ve recently seen big crashes in both these spaces.
They see million-dollar Bored Apes and just don’t get it. How do you move away from that exclusivity into something more mainstream, like your vision for the avatar-future?
CT: Well, if you look at the NFT space and defining it all as Bored Apes, that’s like looking at reality and defining it by celebrities, or wealthy people. I’ll tell you why there’s this stigma around it now, and it’s because of lazy journalism.
It’s extremely lazy journalism to refer to the top of any given space as representative of the whole space. It’s also insulting to a lot of the creators in this space. Just because they did it first, and did it well, doesn’t mean it defines the nature of the entire space.
JKW: It’s like defining all film by Marvel.
CT: Exactly! Exactly, one hundred percent! And most people do because it’s their only exposure to film. And this is why I built www.virtualhumans.org. I spent months deeply researching this space, and the only thing journalists did for me was give me the top 5 virtual influencers out there. Because they’re constantly regurgitating each other’s pieces without any deeper insight.
In search of clicks, they will read a bunch of articles and then just reformat them into one article and post it. They won’t go to primary sources or look deeper under the hood. I mean, it’s a lot to write about it.
The best pieces are from the journalists who’ll spend months going into a topic. They won’t get the most clicks, but they’re the best pieces.
JKW: Well, I suppose that wraps it up. Thank you for your time and covering a ton of ground.
CT: My pleasure!
You can of course check Christopher out on his Linkedin at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ctrav/ – some great pieces there for everything Virtual Influencer!