Meet Sylvia, The Virtual Influencer
On Instagram, she's tackling ageism and is aging by a decade each month
Influencers — people with the power to affect others’ attitudes and purchasing decisions — have been around forever. Pope Francis has even called the Virgin Mary the first influencer. But the influencer industry has really come of age with the rise of social media.
That’s not to say that the influencers themselves have come of age, however. According to one report, just 12% of Instagram influencers are older than 35 and just 1% have reached their 50s. And virtual influencers — lifelike characters who exist only online — are no more mature.
Recently, Ziv Schneider, an artist and designer who works with new and emerging technologies in nonfiction storytelling, has been exploring the intersection between influencers and aging.
In the summer of 2020, she created Sylvia, a virtual influencer whose name comes from “silver virtual influencer.” The character joined Instagram as a thirtysomething graphic designer, and she’ll age a decade per month until she reaches her 80s. Along with new photos, Sylvia's "thoughts" are shared in each new post.
Next Avenue recently connected with Schneider, a creative technologist at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University, to discuss the project. This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Next Avenue: Describe the virtual influencer landscape.
Ziv Schneider: Some people say that Barbie is a virtual influencer, but specifically on social media, it’s a concept that’s been around for the past three to four years.
The prime example is Lil Miquela, a virtual character that also makes music. She has millions of followers, and a lot of the virtual influencer accounts are trying to recreate that success. Miquela has done several campaigns for large brands such as Samsung and Calvin Klein.
Right now, especially with the pandemic, it’s become an opportunity for people to create virtual models that can serve as brand ambassadors and kind of take the role of an influencer.
Most virtual influencers tend to be young, right?
Schneider: I was looking at what’s out there, and I didn’t feel that I was represented in any of the characters’ designs. [Schneider is in her mid-30s.] KFC made their own virtual being that’s kind of a version of the Colonel, but if you look at the way he is designed, he looks pretty young.
"I used to be a graphic designer, so I know the concerns of individuals not having a future in the industry. It's not a work environment that favors people later in their lives."
Why create an older virtual influencer?
Schneider: You know, media and advertising are already glorifying youth, and then with virtual influencers competing with real-life influencers and real-life models, it’s like how do you compete with this so-called perfect image of a human that doesn’t age? And then why do we design age out of it?
Those questions were interesting to me to explore and to see if people would engage with a virtual influencer that represents an image that’s aging.
How did you design Sylvia?
Schneider: First of all, I learned about what it takes to produce these characters and the software that goes into creating the images. There’s a marketplace in which you can buy characters, and they’re all based on these base characters like the Genesis 3 and Genesis 8 in the Daz software that I am using. People make certain modifications, and they can sell them to you.
I found a character artist that will design her to our specific requests and can design her over different periods of time. The next step was to design a story and to think of what would make her influential in some way. I also conducted some focus groups to try and see why people follow certain influencers and also looked at a lot of influencers that already exist and the content that they’re creating.
You made Sylvia a graphic designer. Why?
Schneider: I used to be a graphic designer, so I know the concerns of individuals not having a future in the industry. It’s not a work environment that favors people later in their lives. The turnaround is just very quick, and there’s something about the work conditions that the industry has that are not something the person can do for long once they have other priorities. Another reason for making Sylvia a designer is that with virtual beings, ageism is a design issue.
How are you aging Sylvia?
Schneider: Every month, she ages a decade, so we look at references of women in that age group. The character artist designs specific details and features that really add to the character. It’s very technical.
Between certain decades, only the skin changes; between other decades, we change the body frame as well.
We also try to think about what makes sense for her story. How would she age considering her lifestyle? How do we show her facing ageism or being aged out of a job, for example, but also how do we present a positive image of aging?
What’s her story at the moment?
Schneider: She has left her workplace — the reasons for her not working there are not specified — and she’s starting her own independent consultancy. One thing we’re about to highlight in the story is that she continues to work throughout her life.
Is it correct that some of the posts are computer generated?
Schneider: If you see an image of her, I wrote that text, and it is text that is made to push the story forward or give you information about who she is and what she does.
"I had one user write to ask her about her skincare routine; I don't know what was behind that."
For every other post, we trained a machine-learning model to write text and trained it on influential Instagram accounts. And that algorithm is actually aging as well; we change the set of accounts that it’s trained on. That language actually has been pretty convincing for a lot of people to read. I think a lot of them didn’t know that it’s been automated.
How have people online reacted to Sylvia?
Schneider: Most respond very positively to her, and a lot of people think that she is a real human being and even express romantic interest in her…
There’s this one follower that says, like, 'Robots don’t age.' Sylvia commented, 'Well, this one does.' I had one user write to her asking about her skincare routine; I don’t know what was behind that.
What has the project taught you about aging?
Schneider: There’s something about designing a character that has an accelerated lifespan that has made me feel like my life has become a race against the clock. There’s a sense of wanting to get more done in time and kind of life slipping between your hands, and I think that sense has accelerated because of Sylvia’s accelerated life span.
Follow Sylvia's story on Instagram.