Virtual Youtubers – What’s the appeal?

By Laura Dazon

It sounds like it’s straight out of Black Mirror: Virtual YouTubers – or ‘Vtubers’ – are your typical “like and subscribe” influencers, except for one thing: they’re not real.

They display human characteristics, they vlog and crack jokes, but their existence is entirely artificial. If the typical appeal of YouTubers is their sincerity and authenticity, why have so many viewers flocked to fiction?

Automation or Creation

Many intrinsically human things can be automated with data and algorithms, even comedy. But this recipe doesn’t apply to Virtual Youtubers. Despite so many incorporating the term, Vtubers are not AI. Behind channels like Kizuna AI or Ami Yamato are teams of creative artists. A few minutes of video requires the joint effort of writers, producers, animators, voice actors, and video editors. It also involves the use of manual technologies like motion capture, face tracking software, and CGI.

Artificial Authenticity or Genuine Falseness?

Virtual YouTubers are a great tool for anthropological studies, and for a good reason: everything an AI does is inspired by real people. A VTuber’s YouTube channel is a melting-pot of trends, digital habits, and customs formed by us, humans. After analyzing YouTube’s landscape, they select and reproduce popular content. This results in videos like AI TikTok compilations, AI travelling vlogs, or even virtual Barbie filming a Best Friend Tag – and yes, Barbie friend-zoned Ken.

You may think the artificiality of the process breaks the whole AI mystery magic, when, actually, knowing that an AI video is the result of a lot of data mining makes it a fascinating piece of art. So yes, it’s fake, and so are many things on the platform. In fact, Ami Yamato goes on to say, not without wit: “Nobody is real on YouTube. Everyone is a persona of their true self.

Carl Jung would be proud.

Anthropomorphism and Moe anthropomorphism

Vtubers are anthropomorphic entities. Anthropomorphism comes from the Greek ánthrōpos, “man, human being” and morphḗ, “form, shape.” Basically, “like humans.” And that’s exactly what Vtubers do: they mimic humans. They not only reproduce codes and uses of the YouTube sphere but also perpetuate cultural and societal codes. This leads me to an important side note if you want to understand the virtual YouTubers phenomenon more in-depth. When you look up “virtual YouTuber” online you will most likely notice a pattern. Wonder why so many of them look alike? Cute girls with cute costumes screaming in high-pitched cute voices and exaggerating cute attitudes. Sounds familiar, right? Most Vtubers come from Japan, and yes, they reproduce already existing tropes from the Japanese anime culture.

Virtual Youtubers what's the appeal
Kizuna AI

This is Moe Anthropomorphism. The term Moe has different meanings but generally refers to the feeling of cuteness a character can evoke. This is deeply linked to the Otaku subculture, which to define very broadly is the manga and anime fan community. Japanese Vtubers are not just anthropomorphic beings that will tell you to “like and subscribe” in an attempt to be “real” YouTubers, they will go a step further to conform to the expectations already set by their anime-counterparts.  

It may be troubling for anyone foreign to the Japanese anime culture to understand, but this is a recipe who has been proven to work. Not only are Japanese AI extremely popular, but Japan and AI go way back. In 2007 already, the world was witnessing the birth of Hatsune Miku, the “voice of the future.” She is the moe anthropomorph of a Vocaloid software (voice synthesizer software), basically like a mascot! She became a huge figure of Japanese pop-culture and her hologram already performed several world tours in huge venues. Take that Whitney Houston!

Hatsune Miku concert

When Virtual flirts with Reality

Yes, YouTube is an online platform, but it’s not virtual: it’s made and populated by real people. By taking a step on a land that used to be humans – and cats – only, Virtual Youtubers blurred the lines between the virtual world and reality. They are the virtual elephant in the real room and it’s hard to ignore them. They are on YouTube and they also invade the real world. Ami Yamato vlogs her travels in real environments, filming people and city landscapes. She interacts with real people, gives a call to fellow YouTuber TomSka and orders coffee over the counter. She even adapts to her environment accordingly when, for example, she is interrupted by passersby while attempting to vlog.

Virtual Youtubers what's the appeal
Ami Yamato vlogging in Tokyo

She doesn’t seem to realize that she’s animated, and she merely engages with what life has to offer. Like any of us In fact, she could well be reading this article. If you’re reading this Ami, please quote me in your next video! Yes, I just indirectly interacted with a Virtual Youtuber. Because it wouldn’t be fun if you couldn’t interact with them like real Youtubers, would it? You can comment on Vtubers videos, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an answer. But interactions don’t stop here. Many of them also organize Q&As, collaborations with other YouTubers, and even face camera meetings with fans, like this video where a Vtuber sees humans for the first time.  It’s fascinating.

So, what’s the appeal?

Virtual Youtubers what's the appeal
Pickles from Bojack Horseman vlogging about her day with Mr Peanutbutter

Throughout this article, I have evoked many elements that push people to actively watch and engage with Virtual Youtubers: technical prowess, curiosity, cultural familiarity or overall fascination. But I’d like to make one last point. I don’t watch Vtubers because I enjoy knowing it’s fake; I enjoy it like I would enjoy a cartoon or an animated show: because I am invited to engage in an entertaining story. It is a natural extension of this form of art.

For a kid nowadays, I know that watching a Barbie movie wouldn’t be any different from watching a Barbie vlog. The only distinction being that this time, Barbie will be talking directly to them. Honestly, Barbie has been everything from a doctor to a flight attendant, it was only a matter of time before she became a Youtuber.

Overall it is creating more proximity than has ever been possible. I see AI on YouTube as a natural extension of two domains: animation (and every technology it encompasses) and YouTube. Both had to meet at some point. The same way Pickles in an episode of Bojack Horseman will pick up a camera and start vlogging about her day with Mr Peanutbutter, Barbie will tell us about her meditation routine and Kizuna AI will make ASMR. It’s all about creating entertaining narratives. Virtual Youtubers answer an ever-growing desire for new forms of entertainment.