There’s been a rise of virtual influencers in recent years — computer-generated personalities who are just as active on social media platforms as real humans are. Many companies are investing in what’s called the “digital human economy,” a bullish market that is forecasted to reach $125 billion by 2035, per Gartner.
And now, thanks to the fascination with AI image generators Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, creating virtual influencers is a breeze, enabling anyone to produce fabricated lives who engage with fans as if they’re actual internet personalities.
One such company, 1337 (pronounced Leet), is leveraging generative AI to build a community of AI-driven micro-influencers, smaller content creators with hyper-personalized interests and diverse backgrounds who want to connect to people from niche communities like gardening, emo music, vintage fashion, classical literature and more.
The startup — named after a popular term in 80s gaming and hacker culture — emerged from stealth today with $4 million.
Rather than only using AI to create these influencers, 1337 also allows users to suggest what they do and say.
“Today, we have a rare opportunity to combine human interaction with early-stage AI,” co-founder and CEO Jenny Dearing told TechCrunch. “In a world oversaturated with influencers who are often either too commercial or too impersonal, 1337 introduces diverse, AI-driven entities that engage users in entirely new, dynamic ways.”
Plus, users are paid for their contributions. The company is currently offering a flat fee; however, it declined to disclose the amount publicly.
“Once our ‘Entities’ have followings, we will make this fee and bonus opportunities tied to the engagement of the community with content,” Dearing said.
Dubbed “Entities,” 1337 is debuting 50 AI-driven influencers who all have their own set of skills, traits and interests. For instance, there’s Daria (she/her, they/them), a 19-year-old unapologetic music blogger who has a passion for “emo culture” and is an “advocate for mental health,” according to 1337’s website. They even have their own backstory; after stumbling upon their cousin’s vinyl record collection, Daria resonated with the “raw emotion” in the lyrics and decided to create a blog for like-minded people struggling with mental health challenges.
The lives of each Entity are certainly elaborate. They even share what their home looks like, their favorite outdoor/indoor hangout spots and their philosophy on the world. 1337 offers a wide range of Entities to follow, all with different ages, gender identities, nationalities and occupations. Plus, they all have their own Instagram accounts, LinkedIn profiles and public Spotify playlists. Followers can even interact with the Entities through Instagram comments and direct messages.
“Our vision goes beyond mere chatbot interactions; we’re crafting entities that evolve with their niche communities, adapting to the rapidly changing digital landscape where technology is evolving constantly,” Dearing added. “In doing so, we’re breaking new ground, and we firmly believe that this will redefine how we think about social media engagement and how people interact with each other online.”
Entities are still in beta. They will officially launch in January 2024.
Entities are created and designed by the founding 1337 team in collaboration with users and AI models like OpenAI’s GPT-4 (for written captions), Midjourney (art) and 1337’s in-house solution.
Along with Dearing, the founding team also includes co-founder Robin Raszka, who previously founded AI avatar startup Alter, which sold to Google in 2022 for $100 million. Jan Maly, a former machine learning engineer at software design company STRV, is chief technical officer. There are also a few key strategic advisors on the team, including Bailey Richardson, former head of community at Instagram, who currently leads both marketing and community at Substack.
“In our toolkit, we leverage open-source software (OSS) large language models (LLMs) for multimedia content analysis, focusing on images, and customized OSS LLMs integrated into our workflows,” Raszka explained to us. “When we first ventured into generated content, we faced the challenge of maintaining consistent facial features in our virtual entities. Our pursuit of perfection led us to develop an in-house solution… we can now add a new entity and ensure his or her face remains consistent across images.”
To co-create with an Entity, the user participates in a Discord chat by entering a prompt to generate a caption and four photos of the Entity doing something, posing in a certain location or experiencing an event. 1337 also offers a mode called “Entity Point of View,” where users can envision how the Entity views the world around them.
The moderation team approves the post on the Entity’s behalf, fine-tuning content based on pre-established guidelines like their dispositions, behaviors and tone of voice. When a post is approved, the creator is credited in the caption.
“Our creators, especially Gen-Zers, are demonstrating incredible engagement with the Entities and are creating and curating far more content on a daily basis than we can publish,” Dearing said.
Eventually, 1337 will allow its “super creators” to create a completely new Entity from scratch. Next year, the company will also launch a revenue model where creators that make Entities will be compensated a percentage of revenue.
“For example, any brand collaborations would provide a revenue share model leaning heavily on supporting the creator vs. 1337,” Dearing said. “We have also discussed innovative models similar to what Substack has done, offering creators the opportunity for equity in the business.”
“We are also exploring how we may support solopreneurs and nano/micro-influencers to create new ways of connecting with their existing communities and audiences to scale their own businesses,” she added.
There are a few other exciting developments in the pipeline, the company revealed to us, including the ability for Entities to speak, allowing them to host podcasts and produce videos. Audio for Entities will launch in the first half of 2024.
Investors who participated in 1337’s funding round include Credo Ventures, GFR Fund, Treble Capital, Roosh Ventures, as well as angels Hugging Face CEO Clément Delangue and impact investor and model Natalia Vodianova.
The primary focus of the funding is to help grow its global creator community. So far, several hundred people have co-created content for the Entities.
“Today, some of the most dynamic applications of LLMs and diffusion models are found within the realms of human creativity and connectivity. This supports our conviction that the next wave of AI will have a significant impact on the social media landscape, affecting creators, followers, and advertisers alike,” said Karolina Mrozkova, general partner and investor at Credo Ventures.