Avatars Are Go
According to a new school of thought, virtual humans are the future of your life online.
|David Mattin||May 16||5|
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This week, reflections on the convergence of two powerful trends set to reshape our online lives. I’m talking about virtual humans, and a shift that some are calling the pseudonymous economy.
Enough preamble; let’s do this.
There’s a new star on video game streaming site Twitch, and her name is Miko. But Miko isn’t a person; she’s an avatar. Specifically, Miko is an animated character controlled by a puppet master known to her audience as The Technician.
The Technician created Miko using the development platform Unreal Engine. And during livestreams she controls Miko’s movements via an Xsens motion capture suit, which ensures that every gesture, glance, and facial expression is mimicked by her digital twin.
At the time of writing Miko has 700,000 followers on Twitch. Livestreams typically draw around 10,000 viewers, who can interact with her in a variety of ways: from causing words of their choice to flash across her clothing, to making her explode (she instantly re-spawns).
What’s going on here?
I’ve written before about the rise of virtual humans, and Miko represents a sub-category. Not the fully-autonomous, AI-fuelled kind, but a virtual human controlled by a real human behind the scenes.
It’s the same conceit that has fuelled a wave of wildly popular virtual YouTubers, such as Projekt Melody. But while those characters were made by digital agencies, Miko is the creation of an individual; The Technician is a US-based South Korean developer called Youna, who started work on Miko when the pandemic nixed her coding and animation day job.
In other words, Miko is a new form of virtual presence, and the technology that makes her possible is now available to individual creators.
And that matters, because an emerging school of thought says that soon many of us will choose to conduct our online lives – which, increasingly, are most of our lives – under the guise of some form of virtual presence. The future, so runs this line of thought, is pseudonymous.
The influential VC and technology thinker Balaji Srinivasan is at the head of those who make this argument. Srinivasan believes that soon most of us will conduct our online lives under the cloak of a range of pseudo-identities, each made bespoke for a different purpose.
At the heart of Srinivasan’s argument is the link he makes between pseudonymity and the primary force set to reshape the internet in the coming decade. Decentralisation, says Srinivasan, will mean new and socially transformative institutions – businesses, governments, currencies – that are resilient because power is spread across them rather than concentrated in one place. Meanwhile, pseudonymity means a resilient and truly networked individual online presence, which can’t be damaged, or ‘cancelled’, by powerful institutions or the raging mob. That’s because if the Twitter mob come for your pseudonymous identity, there will be mechanisms in place to transfer the followers you’ve amassed, and the trust you’ve built, to a new avatar.
In this way, decentralisation and pseudonymity are two sides of the same coin. Both advance the underlying megatrend reshaping our shared future, which is transfer of power away from legacy institutions and towards the connected individual.
Srinivasan says that in this imminent world, use of our real names will be limited to our interactions with government: think filing taxes or registering with a healthcare provider. Meanwhile, we’ll maintain a range of other identities as needed.
Imagine a freelance accountant who also trades cryptocurrencies, and loves watching sports in her spare time. She might maintain one virtual identity for her professional life, via which she interacts with her online clients. Using another identity, she tweets about Dogecoin and is an active member of a few crypto communities. And yet another identity is used to talk football and join sports livestreams.
At its simplest, this vision is only an extension of the multiple account online present that we already live in; plenty of people have, say, a burner account on Twitter that they use to browse under the cloak of anonymity. And there are already signs that such an extension is underway. Look, for example, at the culture of pseudonymity that exists in crypto. Back in March when Beeple’s NFT Everyday: The First 5,000 Days sold for $69 million, the buyer was an influential pseudonymous cryptowhale known to his followers as MetaKovan. MetaKovan subsequently revealed his true identity – he is Singapore-based entrepreneur Vignesh Sundaresan – but the sale felt a glimpse of the decentralised, pseudonymous online future that Srinivasan imagines. One in which people amass followers, build influence, create content, and even transact under virtual identities.
So is this really where we’re all heading?
The rise of the so-called pseudonymous economy is brought closer, and made more practical, by new tools that allow ordinary people to make sophisticated digital avatars.
Youna says she spent around $20,000 on developing Miko; few could afford to spend so much on an avatar. But new tools such as the MetaHuman Creator – made by Epic Games, who also make the Unreal Engine that fuels Miko – will allow people with little expertise to build photorealistic virtual humans far more cheaply. And via immersive, social games such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Roblox, an entire generation is being schooled in avatar-fuelled inhabitation of virtual worlds.
Srinivasan highlights the idea that virtual presence will protect people from what he believes is the primary online danger faced by connected individuals: the baying mob. But a more important driver for many will be the way avatars make possible powerful new forms of self-expression. Humans are inveterate seekers of status and recognition, and in the years ahead we’ll see millions enter into a complex status dance that involves their real person, their avatar-fuelled projected self, and their followers. Look at the way Miko’s creator sometimes livestreams as her real self, to give fans a peek behind the elaborate curtain that typically hides her from view. Via Miko, Youna is becoming famous in her own right.
And the long-term implications here? As ever more of our lives move online, the boundaries between real and virtual identities will blur. The developer Greg Fodor has even speculated on the rise of a new form of liberalism, which he calls Avatarism, and which is focused on protecting the right to freedom of form. The right, that is, to choose the digital form in which you are seen by others. To choose, in other words, your avatar.
It’s a weird new world that lies ahead. And these converging trends – the coming age of pseudonymity and the rise of sophisticated avatars – are only part of the arrival of an epic shift that I call augmented modernity: one of the big theses that drives this newsletter.
I’ll be writing more about that soon. In the meantime, start thinking about the coming Age of the Avatar. One day in the near future, you could be designing a Miko of your own.
I See You
Thanks for reading this week.
The rise of creator-driven virtual humans is the kind of trend I set up New World Same Humans to examine. In the end, it’s all about the collision of new technologies and age-old human needs: identity, self-expression, and status.
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I’ll be back on Wednesday with New Week Same Humans. Until then, be well,
David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.