VTubers, NFT Avatars and the New Data-Driven Characters

We live in a character culture, a world filled with iconic superheroes, mascots, and avatars. Tony Stark, Baby Yoda, Super Mario – they are all icons that we all know and love because they reach us in different media and stories. But today’s characters are also increasingly interactive and data-driven. Voice assistants, VTubers and chatbots are part of our everyday reality, and a way of connecting with us emotionally. Think of Hatsune Miku, a hologram and originally software without a character design.

The advantage of using characters in software, stories and interfaces is that we can easily connect with them. They are empathy machines, as I briefly discuss in a new article on characters and affect here. To consider character, I always say, means to consider intimacy, emotion and ownership. The fact that characters are very much a business model feeds into this – they are tokenized, monetized and exchanged. To an extent, even we become characters online.

What does being a data-driven character mean? When I use this term, I associate it with so much more than interactive characters like avatars. Think about virtual influencers used for marketing, mascots sold on the blockchain, and AI assistants, to name just a few. Data-driven characters are a business model. I wrote about virtual influencers already, but let’s talk about some of the more recent trends, in particular VTubers, NFT characters and the metaverse.

Kizuna AI is the first virtual YouTuber

VTubers and Streaming Characters
Streaming is still wildly popular. It’s an intimate, engaging way of reaching audiences, especially popular with generation Z. By now in business, we use the term creator economy to address this massive rise of professional user-generated content. We have seen a rise of non-human streamers as well, in particular different virtual influencers. The VTUbe genre is a perfect example of this. VTubers are virtual  YouTubers or Twitch streamers, designed as anime characters. One of the most popular examples is Kizuna AI, a virtual character who hosts let’s plays, discussions, Q&A’s and even concerts on YouTube.

What makes Kizuna AI stand out is that she is tongue in cheek. She knows that she is a fictional character, and purposely presents herself as AI (though her name also literally means love bounds).  She’s a fun, excited bishoujo wearing an iconic ribbon. Kizuna is recognized as the first virtual YouTube user. By now, her streams sparked an entire genre. There’s software that allows you to create similar products, such as VTube Studio and Luppet.

Recently, Kizuna AI went into a hiatus though. The company behind her is exploring her business model further, and focusing on expanding her brand to the metaverse. It’s going to be exciting to see what comes out of this. In her goodbye stream, Kizuna performs energetic songs as a virtual idol, bringing to mind Hatsune Miku and other idols. It’s a festive end to her YouTube career, full of appreciation for fans.

The end of Kizuna’s career makes me wonder where this trend will go. If it’s any indication, virtual influencers are stepping from typical big tech platforms to blockchain and other applications. Soon, we will see avatars that are not other humans, but controlled by companies as part of their marketing campaigns. In other words, you might be subjected to advertisements and branding in subtle, seemingly human ways. While we have clear rules about sponsorship on social media, what does it mean to meet virtual influencers in the metaverse?

A Kizuna AI let’s play in which Kizuna uses her voice to control a game

Avatars in the Metaverse
The ultimate data-driven character is perhaps our own avatar, as controlled in games and virtual worlds. Epic, Kakao, Facebook and many other companies have set the metaverse as their corporate strategy, investing in virtual worlds that go far beyond entertainment. Work, entertainment, social media, VR – metaverse applications integrate these different platforms and features into a unique second reality.

Often the line between reality and entertainment is thin in the metaverse, and between human and character. Think of Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour in Fortnite as a groundbreaking virtual concert experience. (A gamified celebrity that thrived during the lockdowns last year). By now, entire companies specialize in events on the metaverse, such as Animal Concerts which hosts virtual K-Pop concerts and fan experiences. 

Ariana Grande’s avatar in Fortnite

NFT Avatars and Art
Data-driven characters are monetized as well. A new skin in the metaverse that you can buy. An expansion to a game that you love with a new character. A rare character in gacha games like Genshin Impact. Interactive, playable characters are worth something. What stood out this year especially is that even as static art works, we love to collect them. The popularity of NFT’s (non-fungible tokens) proves that certain consumers are willing to invest in these characters. Their scarcity and tradability makes them a valuable digital asset with collectability and entertainment value. 

From Cryptokitties to Bored Ape Yacht Club, these virtual characters are sold and auctioned frequently. This year we saw the rise of NFT avatars, sold on market places like Open Sea or Crypto.com. Some of this art is hugely popular in the market. (This bored ape sold for over 200,000 dollars, for instance).

Of course NFT avatars don’t need to be this expensive. By now, you can even let an AI generate them for free for you, for example here at cybersemantics. You can even trade it afterwards at a marketplace, appropriately named AvatarPimp. It’s an interesting initiative to poke fun at this culture, but also to learn about it.  

Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT avatars

Data-Driven Identity
The fact that characters are increasingly sold, monetized and invested in raises questions about the value of stories, entertainment and art. but about our own identity. Is art just what the market is willing to pay, or is there an ethical and sustainable dimension to consider as well?

What seems innocent or just a hype is at first is actually something that requires our attention. What we see here is part of a bigger picture. As users, we interact with platforms through friendly characters that generate empathy – avatars, virtual influencers, bored apes. These trends are not just indicative of how art and entertainment are changing. We’ve had avatars for decades by now, but at the moment, we crave unique, personalized and custom characters. These are our identity in an increasingly digitalized culture. It’s an identity that we buy, and that becomes tokenized and marketed and maybe even exchanged. The seeds of this were already there in game culture, from World of Warcraft to Second Life‘s economy. What’s new is that third-party businesses and big tech intervene, sell our data, and pull the strings.

These examples raise concerns about our data, our actions and our entire self becoming a commodity. We are sold, branded, datafied and character-ized in this metaverse. This is not a neutral space at all, but a heavily privatized metaverse. It’s a space dominated and owned by big tech companies. You are playing on their turf. They have a stake in this, and the stake is to lock us in a total platform where we infinitely produce data for them, and keep relying on their services. The metaverse is a grand gesture, and a scary one – everything, everywhere, all at once!

Our personality and persona is for sale in this hypercapitalist landscape. Our digital body (our character, our skin, our fashion) belongs to big tech. We are not just interacting with these characters, but become the characters as we are streamed, performed, and using skins to play digital cosplay in a complex metaverse.

Zuckerberg pitching Meta’s digital avatars and digital clothing lines

Postmodern beings
Data-driven characters are something we need to keep an eye on. Simultaneously, we need to explore the character-ization and datafication of our own identity. These things are closely related. What was always a form of digital dress-up now becomes a capitalist gesture through expensive NFT’s and skins. In a way NFT apes are the new brillo box or Marilyn Monroe collage. Value is what we are willing to pay in a capitalist society after all.

I would argue that we have hit a new stage in postmodernity though, where every instance of a character and our digital identity (a comic panel, a gif, a digital clothing line) can be tokenized and sold. It’s a new discourse that pairs digital consumerism with uniqueness, exclusivity and tech.

Let’s keep watching this space, because the story is far from over. Soon we have to distinguish between the good and bad NFT art, and between the human and non-human character. And to conclude, here’s a super unique, one of a kind AI NFT character that I minted on Starry AI.

NFT character generated and minted in Starry AI

Read more about data-driven characters here
Characters of The Future – an article of mine on data-driven characters, AI and voice assistants

Avatars Assembled – a great edited book about all kinds of interactive characters, considering their social, psychological and emotional implications

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