A white guy is making bank from black avatars
And other things to consider about a world where you can be whoever and whatever you want
Cameron-James Wilson is CEO of the world’s first all-digital modeling agency, The Diigitals. The company’s Instagram bio mentions Wilson and Company Director, Tom Lockyer as the most prominent figures behind the initiative.
What do they have in common? They’re both talented 3D and CGI artists. Alright, but what do they have in common on a foundational level? They’re both white men.
I’d often take a deep breath and vouch— okay and? But it gets weird.
Wilson and Lockyer have a handful of digital models— the three at the forefront have been Shudu, Brenn, and Koffi. That’s two black women and a black man. Their lineup also includes Dagny, Jyung, and Galaxia— a white woman, an Asian man, and an alien.
Aside from their alien, The Diigital’s virtual beings are the most realistic that I’ve seen on social media by a mile. Though their Instagram bios disclose that they’re not human, if you were to come across them on your Explore feed or commercial content, you’d likely assume that they’re just genetically blessed beings.
Clearly, none of the physical identities of Wilson and Lockyer’s creations align with their own— yet they profit off of them. Shudu has become their star, amassing more than 230,000 Instagram followers and collaborating with the likes of Elle Spain, Lexus, and Samsung among many others. People argue that these coveted opportunities could instead go to real black women, especially within an industry that only over recent years has become better with representation.
I emailed Cameron-James Wilson to comment on how profit is distributed and was hoping to get an understanding of where his head is at regarding the controversy. Questions like, “Is it that you believe the future will allow people to be whatever and whoever they want to be, so current ethics aside, people will become accustomed to it?” are ones that I was looking to explore— but no comment.
Luckily, Wilson has been confronted with similar questions before. Throughout my research, my understanding of and outlook on this topic have changed quite drastically. From disgust to curiosity, there’s a lot to unpack here.
A look into the virtual influencer space
Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer turned singer with 3 million Instagram followers and 3.3 million TikTok followers, landed big-time brand deals such as a Calvin Klein campaign with Bella Hadid. It’s estimated that she made over $10 million in 2020.
Weighing in on social issues and sharing feelings about hardships in her “life”, Lil Miquela is likely the most personalized virtual influencer at the moment.
The company behind her, Brud, is backed by Silicon Valley investors and manages other virtual influencers as well— Bermuda and Blawko. Brud keeps the background of these online personalities a mystery when it comes to how they’re created, who voices them, and who takes their place in real-life collaboration.
Though it’s quite obvious in videos that Lil Miquela is a rendered image, lines get quite blurred in photos. You look at her long enough and register that she’s not real, but your mind also considers that it may not necessarily be impossible that she could be. Because of this, people often assess if others in her posts are rendered or not— such as the current significant other they’ve added to her storyline. I vote real.
Noonoouri is another virtual influencer who has landed noteworthy opportunities with KKW Beauty, Dior, and more. What’s different about Noonoouri is her creators make a strong visual distinction that she’s not human. She looks like a character, not a replacement.
The role that avatars are predicted to soon play in our lives
Our relationship with digital identities is forecasted to go far beyond scrolling past virtual influencers, decking out a video game character, or updating your Bitmoji. As mentioned in USA Today, Bill Gates predicts our work meetings will move into extended realities (or the “metaverse” if we wanna be annoying) within the next three years. Just as computers started to be utilized within work environments before becoming vital to entertainment— the first step towards virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) mass adoption is to make them seemingly essential within the workplace.
Currently in video games, chosen characters are not necessarily meant to represent your true identity— they’re meant to fulfill a fantasy or narrative. Currently on social media, our digital identities are strongly tied to our real-life physical identities. If you want to utilize anonymity or pseudonymity, you end up quite limited in ways to physically express yourself— diverting to writing, vocalization, curation, art, or anything that simultaneously hides telling physical characteristics instead.
It’s forecasted that avatars will be an all-encompassing extension of our identities. If you’re someone whose compelled by the agency of digital, there is further opportunity to play into a personalized, physical identity fantasy— something you only have select agency over in the real world, and even current digital landscape.
“I just think the reality is there are gonna be different use cases for different things. So if you’re going from photo-realistic to expressive, there’s also representing you directly versus some fantasy identity.
In the early days of Facebook, I thought okay you’re going to have one identity, and now I think that’s clearly not gonna be the case. I think you’re going to have all these different things and there’s utility in being able to do different things.” -Mark Zuckerberg on the Lex Fridman Podcast
As someone who prefers to watch video versions of podcasts, I believe people’s mannerisms tell a more complete story about their personality and intentions— so you’d think I’d be ecstatic about the possibilities here. My mind actually goes in a few different directions, but we’ll save that for another time.
Understanding Cameron-James Wilson
Understanding the role that avatars are forecasted to have in our lives is essential to understanding Cameron-James Wilson’s belief that The Diigitals is not an ethics nightmare. Wilson claims to pride himself on transparency. He says that he does not try to hide who he is or what he does, and claims that there is nothing wrong with allowing others to become immersed in your fantasy world, because at the end of the day, they have the autonomy to pay mind to it or not.
I believe that’s dumbing down the severity and importance of the questions at play, considering what they could snowball into for society… but let’s get into the juice 🍑
(1) Profiting off of the aesthetics of people of color
Wilson is at the forefront of an emerging industry and believes that it’s beautiful for him to lead with diversity in a space that’s traditionally marketed toward white and Asian men. He argues that a white man putting a woman of color at the forefront of a technological space is an immensely powerful thing.
After much thought, I started to feel that this is a strong point. For example: consider the representation of black women in gaming— unfortunately few and far between. If the future embraces blurred lines when it comes to not only our relationship with digital but our identities as well— having a black woman regarded as an ideal is, like Wilson said, a powerful thing.
In a video interview, Wilson drew many parallels between story-telling, character building, and what he’s working on within 3D and CGI art. Thinking about characters in books, cartoons, animations, video games… for dolls, toys, and action figures— does the notion of white men being at the bottom line to profit off of the aesthetics of people of color not also arise?
I think the answer to that question is an easy yes, but I also think it would be naive to then entirely write off this argument against Wilson. This case is unique in the way that The Diigitals’ virtual beings look so realistic to the point that they could be mistaken for the most authentic form of POC representation.
(2) Taking opportunity away from real people
Many question the ethics of virtual influencers and supermodels entirely, as real people seek out these coveted opportunities. In the same video interview, Wilson makes it clear that since growing The Diigitals, he wants the virtual models to be more like a collaboration or collective rather than a single individual.
Wilson utilizes true models as stand-ins for his virtual models during shoots when necessary. The Global Muse Program has been an initiative for the virtual models to work alongside models all over the world who have a similar look. Wilson also hired writer Ama Badu to become the voice of Shudu— because despite being particular about his visual fantasies, he believed her personality needed to be curated by someone with a similar background for the most authentic spin.
I find the collective and collaborative approach to be compelling and bring a greater sense of humanity to the endeavor. Though, the need to evaluate if the approach is a net positive or net negative when comparing it to an actual individual receiving these opportunities instead— is still valid. The reality is there are still many opportunities for these virtual models that don’t call for others’ involvement— only requiring the 3D and CGI skills of The Diigitals. Meaning, again, only the white men are profiting.
(3) Human and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry
In another video interview, Wilson made a few other points that support the case for virtual influencers:
“I think there are some cases where digital models have a really great impact, and that’s things like child photography. When you think of children’s fashions and things like that, it’s a very hardworking industry and I feel that 3d models could have a really positive impact there because children don’t have to work such long hours, things like that. And obviously, fashion is maybe not the best industry to bring kids into— it’s a very adult industry.”
🟢 I actually align with this outlook. No further comment.
“I think people also have to look at this from a sustainability point of view and how fashion shoots can be really wasteful. A model can shoot for eCommerce and shoot 300-400 garments a day. Those garments are cut off the model and they’re sent to landfills and burned. This is happening every single day, thousands and thousands of garments.”
🟡 More nuance to be had, but I’m not currently equipped to direct the conversation. Though I’ve shared the idea of getting our excess desires out virtually/digitally and instead, living minimally in real life. Not saying that boastfully.
“It’s not the industry that it once was, and it’s definitely not the glamorous industry people think it is. There is a lot of pressure on women. How can you tell a human being that your waist needs to be this big or your thigh needs to be this big? I don’t think that’s an industry that’s really great for real people. I think using 3D models can actually be beneficial because you make them however you want to make them, you know, so it kind of removes that pressure from real models.”
🔴 This is fuel, not a solution. Real women aren’t as fake as we can get. We have to induce further unattainable beauty standards— there are more products and services on the market than ever before. The economy! Thrive bitch, thrive.
In the future, how will identity be defined?
My initial outlook was that what The Diigitals is doing is fucking absurd. This piece was originally going to be harsh, but when doing the deep-dive research, I realized that some of Wilson’s outlooks on identity coincided with my curiosity.
“I believe that what used to be called colorblindness is really the only philosophically sound approach to have towards race. And I don’t mean pretending not to see race– you’re clearly Asian, I’m clearly not. Obviously, everyone sees race, right? So the phrase ‘I don’t see race’ is false and misleading, but the charitable interpretation of that is ‘I strive to be a person that does not let race influence my considered decisions’ and that’s the world I want to create— a world where people think about race less and less and less.”
Though Hughes and Wilson are coming from different lenses, there are parallels to be drawn in their premises. Wilson brought to light that when gaming, people tend to utilize characters that do not match their identity in terms of gender, race, and so on— but within gaming, these concepts are quite loose anyway. Though likely to change as we become more immersed, currently bystanders don’t assume that a person is pretending to deeply align with a gaming character, it’s just how they want them to look. Wilson states, “I think we’re going to become used to seeing people create avatars of different races and I think it’s actually better. You don’t have to have the labels that you were born with, you can move past them. I think that's positive.”
On the show Alter Ego, Grimes expresses that she’s over being human and believes that being invested in digital avatars is simply a part of human evolution. On the show, it seems that most of the contestants felt constrained by their physical appearances and became liberated when creating idealized, digital versions of themselves to perform with.
While this all may sound beautiful in theory to some, I believe disassociating from our physical identity would cause extreme societal issues. Mass psychosis, if you will. Considering Alter Ego, being able to detach from the trivial reason you may get overlooked is likely a great experience and momentary high— but the underlying situation still remains in the real world. Once the high wears off, does this not just induce a further mind-fuck? The answer would be to never let it wear off by staying immersed in your digital identity within extended reality.
Over the coming decades, will the concept of physical identity become so diluted that we become detached from it? That it becomes void?
Joe Rogan isn’t far off in believing that the alien stereotype could be a peek into how humans will evolve— standardized look, big-brained, big eyes, telepathy, and so on.
I have a lot of beef with the extended reality future forecasted to begin this decade. A lot of it is frightening, a lot of it is uncomfortable, and I have no doubt that we’re going to experience severe trial and error. The emergence of physicalists and virtualists will likely be quite evident.
But beauty often comes from hardships— some, if not many, just might be sacrificed in uncovering it.
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