Have you heard of Lil Miquela? If, for some reason, you haven’t, here are some facts: She’s a 19-year-old Brazilian American Instagram “influencer”, model and occasional pop singer. She often posts pictures of herself in designer gear, from Chanel to Prada and Vetements to Supreme. She regularly uploads selfies with other models, artists and musicians like Samantha Urbani and Jesse Jo Stark. So far, she’s amassed around 876,000 followers, although that number is always rising. She’s also not even slightly real. She’s a computer-generated cyborg. And no one seems entirely sure who exactly is behind the account.
Despite the fact Miquela looks like a lost Kardashian sister who has been scanned and uploaded to The Sims, people on Instagram still seem confused about her visual authenticity, with all-caps comments like “ARE YOU A ROBOT?” peppered below her perfectly constructed posts. In among those comments, though, are just as many lauding her style and engaging with her as if she’s fully real. “Why is your hair the same in every photo ? ?” asks one user, beneath a pic of her in a monochrome tracksuit at the airport. “Slay!” posts another, beneath one where she’s wearing some Napapijri dungarees and tiny sunglasses, with another writing “Omg follow me queen!” It’s not that these users don’t know her image is computer-generated per se, it’s more that they don’t care. But when everybody’s Instagram feeds are just as curated as this flawless cyborg, who can really blame them? And, more to the point, if you’re an influencer who promotes brands, does it even matter?
Last week, I woke up so hungover, I could barely see. I’d spent the night going from a gig to a restaurant, to the pub, to a house party, and somehow I’d ended up outside my house at 4am in a parked Uber, deep in conversation with the driver about the art of palm reading. The whole next day was spent alone, wearing an old bobbly tracksuit, only occasionally leaving my bed to toast yet another dry bagel to suck on while watching Friends re-runs. At one point, I caught myself in the mirror, saw my sweaty fringe plastered across my puffy face and thought ‘Wow, thank God only I can see this’. The week before that, I’d felt too premenstrual to leave the house other than to go to work and buy food. If you’d looked on my Instagram, however, you wouldn’t have gleaned any of this. You’d have seen pics of me and my friends in various fun locations alongside some memes and carefully angled selfies. To say my online self is curated would be an understatement; it doesn’t look like my real life at all.
Of course, none of this is new; we all know social media bears very little resemblance to our everyday existence. It’s also far too simplistic to point to this as a bad thing. The effects of social media are multifaceted and hard to quantify, so it feels pointless demanding more authenticity from something that doesn’t necessarily require it – why should people see me hungover in a tracksuit when I don’t want them to? When it comes to Lil Miquela as a phenomenon, though, the whole thing outlines how – online at least – aesthetics are valued way above authenticity, and that alone is interesting. Sure, there are probably a lot of users who follow her because of a sheer fascination with something so strange. But that doesn’t take away from the fact she has close to a million followers, with streams of likes and comments on all her pics. And it doesn’t take away from the fact that some of the biggest names in fashion are lining up to get her to “model” their clothes.
Lil Miquela is essentially an embodiment of what we all engage in – highly stylised content masquerading as a documentation of reality – the only difference is, she doesn’t even resemble a real human being. But then again, how much do we? Our faces are also pushed through filters, our angles made just so, our skin airbrushed so that we don’t show the blackheads on our nose or the tired bags under our eyes. And when it comes to social media influencers in particular, their sole job is to look good. Their main focus is to appear cool and interesting, so that the brands they wear seem cool and interesting by extension. The person behind the image, the one sat at home on their phone, is pretty much irrelevant.
If that sounds depressing, you could apply this logic to every single public-facing facet of our lives. Your professional self. Your dating self. The self you present to extended family members at Christmas. The Polaroids you decide to stick to your bedroom wall so that people can see them. Because when we start thinking about social realities as a wider concept, it soon becomes clear that authenticity is a shaky notion anyway. Without sounding too much like someone’s stoner brother round a campfire, no image we choose to put out into the world is truly real. It’s just an image – cyborg or non-cyborg.