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The Life and Death of the Instagram Influencer Who Never Was

The Life and Death of the Instagram Influencer Who Never Was

Instagram is full of wannabes, but there was only one Sylvia. Describing herself as a “coffee-operated robot living her best life,” Sylvia was born in May 2020, made her online debut on July 4 at the age of 30, and passed away last week at the grand old age of 80.

Sylvia made a lot of friends in that brief window of time, saw a lot of people sliding into her DMs, and experienced everything a woman could in cyberspace, from protestations of love from middle-aged men to innocent requests for boy advice from 13-year-old girls. Much of this surfaced at an emotional online wake for Sylvia, which was held online as part of documentary festival IDFA’s new media strand, after Ziv Schneider’s art project had its world premiere in the DocLab Competition for Digital Storytelling.

One of the inspirations for Schneider’s creation was Lil Miquela, a 19-year-old Brazilian-American girl who appeared out of nowhere in 2016 and quickly amassed over a million followers on Instagram before modelling for luxury brands like Calvin Klein and Prada and branching out into music, releasing a single just a year later. The fact that Lil Miquela had, in such a short space of time, joined the ranks of the internet’s controversial “influencers” wasn’t what drew Schneider’s eye, it was more that she managed to achieve so much simply by being young, pretty and without aging a day. “My issue was primarily with the design of the virtual influencers,” says Schneider, “and, as we start to see more virtual beings among us, what that means about how we will start to perceive our own bodies, our own aging, and our own human experiences.”

Variety talked to Schneider in the virtual space that DocLab created for Sylvia’s memorial…

What was the starting point for this project?

I work as a creative technologist and a researcher at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University [in New York], which has been very supportive. We’re based in the journalism school, and my work there is mostly tied to journalism. For this project, we’ll be writing and drawing conclusions about it, but it’s not directly tied [to journalism]. However, I am looking into immersive technology for journalism and also synthetic media, so those are two areas that I’m very interested in. When I began, I mapped out everything that I was interested in, and I saw that virtual influencers were something that I was really interested in looking into in a more in-depth way. I’m really fascinated by this world—and not so much in a positive way.

Why not?

A lot of virtual influencers are presented, in a misleading way, as robots and AI, and they’re completely not. They’re rendered, puppeteered CGI characters. And another thing is the issue of how they’re being portrayed. I guess the idea behind this, the business model, is that you can design a human being and use them to promote brands and basically make money off them forever. None of them had age designed into them. They were all designed to be very young, and none of them were changing. And I was just really curious about that: what would happen if we tested out this idea, first of all, of an older virtual influencer? That’s where it started.

So what is Sylvia?

She’s a hybrid. Her visual side is designed the way all other virtual influencers are, using Daz 3D and assets from that 3D modified with ZBrush, and garments rendered by Marvelous Designer—the whole process is the same. Her writing is partially generated, so every other image has computer-generated text that’s modeled on influencer writing—to progress the story in a way that makes sense, it’s my writing [that’s] actually portraying her, but when she’s looking at the world, the way she talks about it is computer-generated, essentially. [For that] we created a language model tweaked by the language of influencers, in general, that we collected. We scraped their texts and then created this [algorithm] that can write like an influencer, essentially. But it’s also curated, in the sense that I generate a lot of different texts and then I select the one I’m going to use. But that’s how a lot of the generative stuff is being done these days.

Lazy loaded image

Courtesy of Ziv Schneider

Why did you decide to make Sylvia age so quickly?

I wanted to do an experiment where you would see her age before your eyes—so you noticed the difference. I mean, we hardly ever see a whole adult life in one place, because we switch from one platform to another. The specific pace of that aging was impacted by the connection with DocLab and building towards [our exhibition slot in] November, because the idea of aging her then led to the idea of her dying, I decided that we could work in this time span to age her and then get to the point where she would die in November. That was the experiment that I decided on, partly because I also don’t have a whole lifetime to [spend on this]. But it’s also a comment on the fact that virtual influencers are chosen to be made super-real. There’s all these tricks and illusions to make them seem real, but they’re all going to live forever—none of them age.

Was it intended as a satirical comment on that world?

There was definitely a satirical element. I think the people that followed her at first thought that she was a parody, and there was definitely a lot of that. But it was also important for me that she would seem like just any other influencer, which is what the virtual ones are trying to do as a business model—seem like other [human] influencers, but computer generated. But the idea with Sylvia was that, slowly, you’d see that something was different, and slowly you’d see that she was starting to change—and then all of a sudden you’d understand that she was aging. There was definitely a satirical element in her, and especially in what she chose to post, but she wasn’t just that. She was also people’s friend. She was someone that we designed with a lot of love.

Is the project completed now? Are you done with Sylvia?

Yeah. Aside from signing out of her account and putting together a landing page with all the information, I think that the only part that I still want to do is write and reflect on it. I’m not going to do anything else with her. No reincarnation, no ghost animations.

Ziv Schneider would like to thank the team behind Sylvia:

Styling and Art Direction: Odie Senesh
Character Artist: Halime Maloof
Celebration Director: Bethany Tabor
Natural Language Processing: Alex Calderwood
Digital Installation Design & Development: Tong Wu
Music: Philippe Lambert
Aging Researcher: Alexa Fleet

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Stephen A. isnt feeling the Thanksgiving love from the First Take team after Cowboys debate topic – ESPN

Stephen A. isnt feeling the Thanksgiving love from the First Take team after Cowboys debate topic - ESPN

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BREAKING: Reports of Active Shooter at Mayfair Mall in Wisconsin – NewsNOW from FOX

BREAKING: Reports of Active Shooter at Mayfair Mall in Wisconsin - NewsNOW from FOX

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Theres No Such Thing as a Worthless Degree

Theres No Such Thing as a Worthless Degree

Illustration for article titled Theres No Such Thing as a Worthless Degree

Photo: Yuttana Jaowattana / EyeEm (Getty Images)

There’s a school of thought in the United States that says the only practical path through higher education is to earn a degree that immediately makes money. Or, at least, one that forges the beginnings of a successful career. In a certain, siloed way, this makes sense: It’s good to not spend outrageous sums on tuition or take on burdensome debt if you’re studying a field with no prescribed career track. Subscribing to this logic, though, is to view the pursuit of knowledge on single-minded terms.

Recently, the conversation surrounding the U.S.’ skyrocketing student debt crisis has regained momentum, with some critics heaping scorn on the possibility of president-elect Joe Biden forgiving the first $50,000 of any loanee’s outstanding bill via executive order. Many critics of the plan are wedded to the idea of education as a pragmatic tool for scaling the economic ladder—that is, a degree’s worth is based on how well it prepares you for the climb. This argument, which is nothing new, asserts that many of the loanees comprising Americans’ $1.6 trillion debt chose to accrue mountains of debt, only to receive “worthless degrees” in return.

Bluntly speaking, this idea—that a degree in the humanities is inherently worthless if it doesn’t eventually guarantee a salary commensurate with that of a doctor or corporate attorney—is a farce. There is no such thing as a worthless degree. In fact, there’s plenty of data out there to grant assurance to any English major that studying Shakespeare has value that can be translated into longterm professional success.

Liberal arts degrees are valued by tons of employers

Learning how to think critically, form analytical arguments, and write persuasively are just a few of the skills honed from studying history, English, or philosophy, and the corporate sector understands that. According to an exhaustive 2018 survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in which a thousand executives and hiring managers were asked about qualities they look for most in employees, the results were an unequivocal validation of a liberal arts education.

The report found that hiring managers value “oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge” above all else.

Again, in a study from 2018, conducted by labor market analytics firm Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 100 million online professional profiles, resumes, and other data points were analyzed to help glean a sense of what employers look for in prospective liberal arts majors. Across the board, the report found that “human skills—like leadership, communication, and problem solving—are among the most in-demand skills in the labor market.”

These skills, which in some ways form the bedrock of an education in the humanities, “help liberal arts grads thrive in many career areas, including marketing, public relations, technology, and sales,” the report found.

A humanities degree doesn’t mean you’ll be broke

Perhaps the prevailing argument against a liberal arts degree is that it will never pay for itself, but again, data shows how this is largely false. While writing code for a Silicon Valley juggernaut almost guarantees a lucrative salary, even at the starting level, humanities majors aren’t exactly cash-strapped, perennial job-hunters.

Another survey by the AACU in 2014 considered the long arch of professionals with a background in the liberal arts. Citing census data, the authors found some alluring data points that might dissuade you from joining that coding bootcamp, such as this insight:

  • At peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields. These data include all college graduates working full-time, including those with only a baccalaureate degree and those with both a baccalaureate and graduate or professional degree.

And while graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields tend to enter the job market on higher salaries than humanities graduates, various studies have shown how the gap often closes. As the Chronicle of Higher Education distilled in 2018:

Bachelor’s-degree graduates in engineering and the sciences earn roughly $10,000 to $30,000 more, but humanities majors catch up over time — and humanities majors more effectively close the pay gap between younger and older workers. What’s more, the college debt that humanities graduates carry is about the same compared to other majors.

Degrees aren’t marketable, people are

No company or person is hiring a piece of paper emblazoned with a university crest. They are hiring people, who have to be amenable to a job’s challenges, but also decent human beings to work with for 40 hours a week or more. While a degree is a relative measure of your academic pedigree, it says very little about how you adapt to change and take direction from the people tasked with managing you.

It’s likely that fresh cohorts of graduating seniors are likely to follow in the footsteps of millennials, who’ve been forced to navigate the rocky economic playing field by changing jobs more than any other previous American generation. That said, it’s best to study what you want, because much of what you’ve heard about the paltry longterm career prospects of humanities majors likely isn’t true.

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Dont Throw Away Your VHS Tapes

Dont Throw Away Your VHS Tapes

Illustration for article titled Dont Throw Away Your VHS Tapes

Photo: ullstein bild (Getty Images)

Technology has taken us from tapes to DVDs to digital streaming in just a few decades. But while a teenager today may have no idea what a VHS tape is, many of us who were around between 1977 and the rise of DVDs in 1997 might still have old VHS tapes laying around and taking up space. If you’re ready to get rid of them but don’t want to fill a garbage can (and, later, a landfill) with your closet full of bulky hardware, here are some things to consider.

You shouldn’t throw them away

The casing of a VHS tape is plastic, but the inside is actually a magnetic strip coated with a material called mylar, which is toxic when left to degrade in landfills. Since you can’t—or, at least, shouldn’t—mindlessly throw them away, VHS tapes are another form of techno trash that need special considerations. And you can’t simple toss them with your bottles and cans, either.

VHS tapes aren’t your regular recyclable

Because the magnetic strip can’t be refurbished, VHS tapes are recycled differently. The recycling company Green Disk will accept your VHS tapes and other techno trash to handle them as needed. As explained in their frequently-asked questions: “Material that has no further operating life is broken down to its smallest components (metals, plastics, etc.) and used in the manufacturing of new products.” 

They also offer a techno trash can of varying sizes and costs for individuals and businesses to dispose of their outdated technology safely, with less worry if they’re disposing of their trash correctly. Green Disk vows that “almost 100% of the material that GreenDisk collects is reused or recycled,” so you can feel better knowing your favorite movie isn’t becoming toxic fertilizer.

Your VHS tapes probably aren’t worth money

There’s contention over whether VHS tapes are worth big money. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence or expertise in the value of outdated tapes. As with anything, there might be someone who will pay for it, but your closet of Disney films are unlikely to be worth a fortune. A single tape can be found on eBay being offered at $1,200, while a collection of similar titles are listed for $29.99.

Still, if you want to try, you can list your old tapes on eBay, Amazon, Facebook, or anywhere else you might try to sell your old things. If you’re lucky, collectors may take interest, but keep in mind that even rare items need to be in good condition: As Investopedia notes, “The price for a particular collectible usually depends on how many of the same item are available as well as its overall condition.” If your tapes are in good condition and still have the original box, you might earn a little money while sending them away to a good home.

You can upcycle VHS tapes into other things

If the tape has a special place in your heart, you can keep it: The casings can be made into a coffee tables and shelves, or the tape can be braided into bracelets and knitted into hats. The site Mental Floss provides a list of ideas to repurpose VHS tapes in creative ways, ranging from pompoms to a USB port. Artist Jasmine Murrell even turns them into abstract installations. You may not play your VHS tape anymore, but if you want to be creative you can turn it into something else.

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