Have you ever been on TikTok and seen videos of influencers pouring their hearts out as they update their fans on what’s going on in their life right now? Like TikTok user Tia (@thatsthetia), who has been posting videos on TikTok about her complicated love life with her ex-boyfriend, who turns out to be African royalty. It can be pretty entertaining to watch and speculate what will happen next, but not all of the stories you’ll hear on TikTok are real, because fictional influencers are apparently a thing.
Just as the name implies, a fictional influencer is not a real person, and neither are the stories they tell in their videos. The characters and their stories seem authentic because they’re created by a team of writers and portrayed by actors who can really channel the characters’ personalities.
how does “baby, you a prince?” sound??
Tia is actually an example of a fictional influencer. Her Cinderella love story with her royal boyfriend will take you on a rollercoaster of emotions but the story is fictional, and so is Tia herself. The stories sound really convincing and unique because there’s a whole team of writers working on the characters and their story arcs. In fact, a tech company made a bunch of fictional influencers. Tech company FourFront works closely with a team of writers to design characters and write story arcs that will keep viewers hooked, and they also have the actors who portray the characters that they created.
According to FourFront co-founder Ilan Benjamin, the company is “basically creating an MCU-style universe of characters on TikTok.” So far, FourFront has launched 22 “stories” or character arcs, and Tia is one of them. According to the company, it has raised $1.5 million in seed funding so far.
Recently, Tia and other characters created by FourFront met up IRL in Los Angeles, supposedly to take part in a contest to win a billion dollars. This meet-up also acted as FourFont’s “big reveal” for the characters they created. The characters hosted a live Zoom event to show that they all exist in the same universe. These fictional influencers have amassed a total of 1.9 million followers and 281 million views.
Fictional influencers aren’t limited to TikTok, and they’re not exactly new. In June 2006, the YouTube channel Lonelygirl15 started uploading video confessionals on the platform. The channel was supposedly run by a shy 16-year-old girl named Bree, but Bree isn’t a real person. Bree turned out to be a fictional character written by screenwriters Miles Beckett and Mesh Flinders, with help from lawyer-producer Greg Goodfried, who is now president of D’Amelio Family Enterprises, the company that represents TikTok users Charli and Dixie D’Amelio.
Many people tuned in to listen to Bree’s story, even going on message boards to discuss speculations about what was happening behind the scenes, and by September 2006 sleuths had managed to snoop out that Bree wasn’t a real person — they had dug up trademark applications and pictures of Jessica Rose, the actress who portrayed Bree.
A lot of fans were disappointed that Bree turned out to be a fictional character, but the channel still maintained a following as the videos went on to air on YouTube for another two years. The Guardian had asked Flinders if a fictional influencer like Lonelygirl15 could still exist today, and he said that nowadays they wouldn’t get away with it for long because people will be able to tell right away that she’s fictional.
However, it might not be the same for fictional influencers on TikTok. Even though FourFront says that the majority of its audience is aware that their fictional influencers are fictional, it’s actually hard to tell if that really is the case. Hashtags are meant to make videos easier to find and sort through in categories, but a lot of the time TikTokers tend to use unrelated hashtags in their posts to boost traffic for their posts and write weird bios on purpose to make themselves stand out among other TikTokers on the platform. Because of this, even though FourFront now makes sure to include the hashtag #fictional in their posts and “fictional” in the characters’ bios, they might not suffice as indicators.
It can be seen that some viewers indeed think that these characters might be real, based on how they engage with the characters. Fans would comment on the characters’ videos as though these characters were real influencers that they were communicating with — they would leave comments giving advice to the characters and would sometimes even share their own experiences and reactions to what the characters are going through.
These fictional influencers aren’t real people, yet they’re so well-written that some fans are convinced that they’re real, and their stories elicit empathy from their fans. The characters are also made to appear more real because fans can also get responses from the characters, making it seem like they’re actually talking to these fictional people.
FourFront’s series of fictional influencers aren’t just for artistic purposes. The company shared with Fast Company that it plans to license their AI character voices to other companies, and to monetize the characters through a subscription model or by selling tickets to live events that will feature the characters. According to Benjamin, the main idea for which the company began was the question: “Why can’t we allow people to get closer to their favorite characters?”
FourFront also encourages fans of the fictional influencers to interact with them through a separate messaging app and “unlock secrets” to learn more about their story arcs. The messaging app uses the AI language GPT-3 to respond to fans’ messages to the characters. One of the company’s earlier characters, Paige, was written with the story concept wherein all of her friends blocked her and she couldn’t figure out why, so she turned to TikTok for help.
It was revealed at the start that the story was fictional, but according to Benjamin, 89 percent still wanted to continue with the story, and 42 percent “shared really emotional data with the character.” He added that the company does not intend to sell the data gathered, rather it will be used to improve their storytelling.
These fictional influencers were designed to entertain people, and yet it’s also kind of an ethical dilemma. The internet already has plenty of content that seems real but isn’t and designed to make money, plus there’s the question of whether the characters are taking advantage of the sympathies of people who mean well or people who can’t really tell that these characters are fake.
However, these fictional influencers could also be platforms for change. Just as real influencers can use their voices to bring attention to issues that need to be addressed, maybe fictional influencers can work the same way. Sure, the stories would be fictional, but if movies and TV shows can tell fictional stories while reflecting issues from reality, then maybe the stories that these fictional influencers are in can go in the same direction.