TECH

Friends with avatars: The future of stan culture?

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In October 2020, K-pop giant SM Entertainment introduced one of the members of their new girl group æspa, Karina with her avatar Ae Karina. Screenshot from AESPA/YOUTUBE OFFICIAL

Technology has made it possible for digital celebrities to not only exist, but to amass instant reach and response. And with this new technology are legions of dedicated fans and detractors. æspa’s “Black Mamba” music video, a technicolored frenzy of neon lights and holograms, has racked up over 103 million views since it was released last November. The girl group’s pull, however, is that behind the frontlining four members are avatars: complete with unique personalities formed from having “AI brains,” says Lee Soo-Man, founder of the Korean company SM Entertainment. He envisioned that the real and virtual members would “also become friends and share information, they do things in their respective worlds and share what they do. They will also eventually be able to come and go to each other’s world.”

Many people are conflicted about what this group’s avatars represents. In the video where the member Karina was introduced alongside her avatar counterpart, some commenters wrote: “This… what is this…” and “Lee Soo-Man, stop rolling.” Others praised Karina for her looks and confidence.

Now more than ever, consumers expect instant gratification when it comes to interacting with anything online, be it through digital versions of their idols or simply being able to watch them in real time. For the ever-growing tech industry, there is a huge opportunity to profit off of this growing demand. Norikazu Hayashi, CEO of Japanese production company Balus, estimates the annual market value for these avatars — or unique digitized personas — at ¥5-10 billion, or $40-90 million. He expects this value to hit the ¥50 billion mark in the near future. To compare, BTS’s live streamed concert “Map of the Soul ON:E” alone earned around $43 million in revenue.

In December 2020, Forbes reported that streaming revenue in China is projected to be $1 trillion that year. The new obsession with streaming is not endemic to China. Twitch, an American live streaming service, collected over 1.4 billion hours of live content in April 2020 alone, according to a report. 17 million of those were live music streams, which is a new trend on the platform that has primarily focused on video game streams.

This value is meaningful not only to China and Japan, but for the Philippines as well. In 2019, CNN reported that the Philippines rose to the top as the heaviest Internet users from any country. Based on data from the Datareportal, which breaks down Internet and social media data per country, the average Filipino, they reported, spent 10 hours a day on average browsing through various websites and social media platforms. That did not change in 2020. In fact, it boomed. The Digital 2020 report found that the number of social media users increased by 5.8 million between April 2019 and January 2020 putting us at 73 million Internet users — and that’s even before the pandemic. With the amount of time we spend online, especially now, it is inevitable that many of us have found comfort online through digital media like Netflix series, online concerts, and content from celebrities.

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It all started with the digital idol, Hatsune Miku. With long blue ponytails that dance around her ankles when she sings, Hatsune Miku is considered a Japanese pop culture sensation who sings “Bad Guy” using a vocal synthesis software created by Yamaha Corporation, and has since been dressed by Ricardo Tisci.

Gica, a Hatsune Miku superfan who spent a year in Japan said that Miku’s fanbase there is so large that they host a yearly concert, and it always sells out. Considering herself lucky, she won the lucky draw for tickets, and witnessed Hatsune perform, dance, and walk around the stage and make conversations with her fans “live,” like a regular artist. “Dude, when Miku showed up on the stage I fucking cried,” she said.

Gayle S. Stever, a psychologist at Empire State College, spent 30 years (1988-2018) traveling throughout North America and Europe in order to observe fan behavior. They described the relationship that forms between a fan and a celebrity as a parasocial interaction — which is the psychological relationship between an audience and the performers they encounter via mass media. “The viewer has an internal representation of the media figure and interacts with that imagined other,” Stever said in an interview for Transformative Works and Cultures. 

Most of the time, the imagined relationship manifests into something physical — purchasing clothing or dressing up like their celebrity, and buying merchandise or anything tangible that makes them feel more connected to their favorite celebrity. It’s almost like an investment.

Gica said Hatsune’s fans look out every year for special “versions” of their idol. “Every year they’re always looking out like what will her winter version be, because every time it’s [her] winter version: either they make her hair ice blue, or they give her a winter type of kimono, or sometimes they make her look like a fairy. It never dies.”

K/DA, a similar group created within the world of the game, League of Legends, has hit over 400 million views on YouTube with their debut music video, “Pop/Stars,” putting them in the ranks of BTS, Blackpink, and PSY for having some of the most viewed K-pop videos of all time. Their latest mini album, “All Out,” debuted on the Billboard Top 200. Yet, the four members of K/DA, Ahri, Akali, Evelynn, and Kai’Sa, aren’t real. Or, they’re only as real as Riot Games, the video game developer behind the League of Legends franchise, wants them to be.

Beth and Alex, two avid League of Legends players and K/DA fans who live in London, described the group’s debut performance at the World Championships 2018 as a “must-watch.” The girls were shown on a large stage, dancing and performing alongside the real singers who provided their voices. “At home, we see eight people from K/DA performing,” Beth said.

Patrick Morales, Riot Games’s creative director said this blending of real and computer-generated was the intended effect. “We wanted players to interact and ‘stan’ over them, the same way they can with other musicians in the real world through social media.”

Like Hatsune, K/DA is supposed to inspire an endless stream of purchases, such as “skins” or outfits that the K/DA characters can wear during League of Legends matches, comics building the lore, and even magazine covers.

K/DA skins will cost a player playing a character 1350 riot points or RP, Riot Games’ very own in-game currency that can only be obtained through real money transactions, with the cheapest priced at $10 for 1380 RP. In order to buy all the skins, you would have to spend around $4,500 dollars minimum — that is, if you’re lucky and catch them on sale.

Seraphine, Riot’s latest musical artist who collaborated with K/DA on their latest digital single “More,” kept her fans engaged during the promotional period through social media. With both a Twitter and an Instagram account, she posts and converses to her followers as herself, talking like she is engaged in regular, one-to-one conversation. “I’m realizing that making music isn’t just for other people, it’s also for yourself” she tweeted in all lowercase.

And the music is pretty good.

“The music stands up,” said Alex, who joked that he was a K/DA historian having witnessed their monumental ascent to fame. “I think if K/DA came out and the songs weren’t very good or we weren’t into them it wouldn’t work but they put resources into making the music worthwhile.”

For fans who want more, the official music videos are augmented by live streams on South Korean platforms like Vlive — spur-of-the-moment, candid, and “personal” moments where they have conversations with fans and answer questions they catch on the turret-like chat sections. These remain on the Vlive platform after the livestream, where fans have unlimited access to it. Subtitles are usually uploaded to the video for international fans to understand. Mamamoo’s Solar has a channel where she uploads mukbangs, DIY challenges, and exercise routines. Blackpink uploads all the episodes of their reality show, “Blackpink House” for free on YouTube.

Victoria, a fan who had participated in a virtual fan meeting with Kim Yugyeom, from the group Got7, described the experience as something more personal, even more personal than holding their hand in a physical fan meeting. “It was nice because it was just him and me — I was able to show a personal side — I was able to show Yugyeom [my dog], things like that!”

This effortless ability to connect to their audience by showing more candid sides of their personality is also exactly why VTubers like shark-girl, Gawr Gura, have gone viral.

A VTuber, for the uninitiated, is a “virtual YouTuber.” The only thing that sets them apart from your regular human YouTuber is that instead of their real faces, you see anime-style models that move with their voices and expressions. Often, their avatars are characters with concepts, like Gawr Gura who is a girl dressed as a shark, or Usada Pekora who is a bunny girl. Like K-Pop idols, the launch of new avatars are called “debuts” and fans excitedly await their reveals.

Joe is a video game designer who first became interested in VTubers because his friends had asked him how the avatars worked. He explained that it is a mix of motion detection and programmed movements assigned to their computer keyboards. Joe became endeared with the streamers after watching their content. “There was this one clip where they were playing Among Us and that was it — I was hooked,” he said. His favorite is Usada Pekora, a Japanese VTuber whose concept is a bunny girl. “Unassuming ng itsura niya, she looks cutesy and stuff, but she is the most insane, chaotic energy that I’ve ever seen. The extent that she goes for just a dumb joke is ridiculously funny to me.”

Personally, I’ve somehow become a casual fan of the Japanese VTuber Kanae, whose fansubbed videos found its way to my recommendations one afternoon. I watched an entire video that compiled his conversations with his mother, and even watched a video of his new avatar reveal. Like Joe, I found the content endearing and easy to watch. Somehow, the lack of a human face made his personality shine more since I wasn’t distracted by different camera angles or sets like vloggers.

Beyond music, another domain where avatars have established themselves in the public consciousness is fashion. Kendall Jenner was transformed into an avatar for Burberry’s first socially distanced campaign shoot. Jenner photographed herself at home using her computer, while photographer Nick Knight shot a CGI video featuring the model’s likeness. The campaign was spearheaded by Ricardo Tisci, the same designer who did a dress for Hatsune. Jenner, whose digital avatar resembles her so closely it’s hard to believe she wasn’t physically present for the shoot, said that the entire concept and creative process resonated with her as a California girl. "I really loved … watching it evolve from the physical to the digital, blending reality and fantasy," she told Nylon.

It’s something her and her sisters do well, creating closeness for their followers on Instagram, all while cherry-picking the best parts to show — outfits, hairstyles, poses, new Gucci, vintage Chanel.

Jenner’s older sister Kim discusses this in her episode on David Letterman’s Netflix series, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” She draws the distinction between acting and being a reality star. “So if someone doesn’t like that movie and that character, that’s okay. But people have to like us for us,” said Kardashian. “To me that was a harder job, is, “How do you share your life?”” From the start, the family made a promise to their fans and to themselves that they would “show everything.” When Kim had found herself at gunpoint, duct-taped, in Paris, the entire world knew about it. The culprits had been following her for two years before the break-in and they knew from her posts about the ring, “This huge new ring,” described Kardashian, that pushed them to go forward with the operation.

Past studies done by Sheridan and team from the University of Leicester, have identified three types of celebrity worship: entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological. Most people who identify as stans fall under the entertainment-social category: they follow celebrities through the entertainment they consume, and demonstrate a normal level interest in their lives by reading news about them and engaging in gossip, but not too much beyond that. Once individuals dip into the second category, they begin to manifest neurotic traits. People who fall under intense-personal, like the name suggests, believe that they have an intense personal connection with the celebrities they follow — even going so far as to think that celebrity is their soulmate — and frequently have intrusive thoughts about their favorite celebrity. Picture: Theodore falling hopelessly in love with Samantha in the movie “Her” before she ascends the physical realm (well, as much as AI can ascend). The third category and arguably the most radical and psychologically harmful is borderline-pathological — those who believe that celebrities are omnipotent. They tirelessly obsess over the details of their favorite celebrities’ lives and believe that they can communicate with them through a secret code. Like QAnon. No lines can be drawn because they hold a deep connection with them that cannot be stopped nor explained.

And the scary thing is there are companies that actually encourage this type of ardor.

Back in Korea, where entertainment is a significant part of the GDP, the æ in æspa actually stands for “Avatar X Experience.” The company SM entertainment has made a product out of this combination, and the whole word means “aspect” to allude to “your other self.” This is only possible because of their well-developed infrastructures for the entertainment arts, and the fandoms, all over the world, including the Philippines, that consume it.

Martin, who has been a K-pop fan for 10 years, has been following the æspa accounts since their announcement, feels fear. “I’m scared about the idea of this kasi nga, kunwari, Twice, they do not have virtual counterparts and yet, there are instances where fans abuse the level of access they give. That’s the job of an idol — they sell a fantasy and fans buy in — but some fans take it too far,” he said.

Lee Soo-Man views æspa as the beginning of a world he’s envisioned as early as 2017, a world where fans can integrate bespoke versions of their favorite idols into their lives. “Most importantly, the development of AI technologies will enable customized avatars to fit into personal lives,” he said in a speech at an industry forum. “Imagine an avatar of your favorite celebrity being created and being together with her or him, next to you.” However, it is clear Lee’s focus is on the fan, the customer, and not the idols he’ll be “selling.”

This is exactly the future Martin dreads will come as æspa grows. “The idea they’re selling is there’s gonna be an AI version of this girl and you have 24/7 access, she’s your friend, she’s your roommate. Imagine the psychological trauma of that — that people taking that version [of that person] and doing whatever they want.”