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Offset, DJ Khaled, Russell Westbrook, and the brave new world of celebrity digital avatars

In a world of proliferating digital representations, how many avatars will each person have—and who will control them?

Offset, DJ Khaled, Russell Westbrook, and the brave new world of celebrity digital avatars
Left to right: Fast Company senior writer Elizabeth Segran, Kevin Abosch, artist, I AM A COIN, Martine Jarlgaard, artist, Meet Yourself, and Akash Nigam, CEO, Genies [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

What did Atlanta rapper Offset’s mom do when her son went missing on a day when he was expected to create content for a multi-million-dollar brand sponsorship opportunity? She called the digital avatar company Genies and asked them to quickly create a cartoon likeness that could be posted on Instagram in his place. This is according to Genies cofounder and CEO Akash Nigam, who spoke about the future of digital avatars at Fast Company’s European Innovation Festival in Milan last week.

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From its Venice, California, headquarters, Nigam’s company produces 3D animated likenesses that can be playfully customized and used across dozens of messaging apps. The company has several brand partners, including a deal with Gucci that allows users to dress their mini-me in the fashion label’s clothing. Genies also recently launched an agency that creates avatars for such high-profile clients as Offset, DJ Khaled, Steve Aoki, and sports stars like Russell Westbrook and helps them line up sponsorship opportunities with brands. Genies can create the content on behalf of its clients and simply run it past them for approval before posting on Instagram.

“The genies actually outperform the humans themselves, based on likes, comments, and views,” says Nigam. They will continue to do so, he says, as long as the avatars remain innovative and fresh. “If we’re constantly improving the avatar—both mentally, by making it smarter, and aesthetically—[we’re] going to beat the boredom curve of human [viewers].”   

Nigam was speaking with conceptual artists Kevin Abosch and Martine Jarlgaard about the future of identity in an increasingly digital world.

Abosch has played with these themes in work that includes I AM A COIN, in which he created 10 million blockchain tokens and stamped them with his own blood as a way to explore identity and value. The project was a way, he says, to enable people “who wished to engage with me as commodity.” Jarlgaard created Meet Yourself, a mixed-reality installation where viewers get to face a life-sized holographic avatar of themselves and, as she says, “have an out-of-body experience.”

All three panelists foresee a future of proliferating digital representations. The question is: How many avatars will each person have—and who will control them?

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

Nigam stressed the value of maintaining just one avatar to avoid brand dilution. “This needs to be an extension of one’s identity. Not an alternate personality, to avoid losing the authenticity of the human themselves,” he said. From a brand sponsorship standpoint, things would get rather messy if high-profile people have multiple avatars endorsing multiple things.   

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On a more personal level, Jarlgaard described avatars as masks that allow people to engage in role-playing. In this regard, Abosch sees value in having multiple identities. “We are different things to different people, so it’s useful to generate multiple proxies,” he said. Having digital proxies allows you to “funnel people to that part of yourself that you wish to engage.” 

It also allows people to discard identities in times of crisis. “It’s a treacherous landscape out there, and identities can be assassinated rather easily,” he said. “It would be a shame if you had to wear that mask in perpetuity despite some sort of public shaming. I think it’s a positive thing to be able to turn an [identity] off and turn on another one.” 

Nigam warned that while tech companies are racing to establish their own avatar products—Snapchat, Facebook, Google, and more—”there’s no framework or laws around them.” He stressed the necessity of regulation to ensure that digital squatters don’t try to use someone’s likeness for their own means, the way people lay claim to domain names or social media handles today.

Abosch agreed that people should be able to own and control their own avatars, “but in the digital world, it’s the Wild West,” he said. Citing deepfakes and more, he said he believes we are going to continue to live in a world where personal identity is spoofed and used malevolently. The only question, he said, is whether “you sit and cry about it or adapt.”

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