FN Meka and the Perils of Synthetic Celebrities
Yes, synthetic personalities can be canceled too
FN Meka still has 10 million TikTok followers. However, when you visit the account, you will see no videos. You may have heard that the synthetic celebrity (i.e. virtual human musician or AI rapper) FN Meka signed a record deal with Capital Records earlier this month. Did you know that contract was canceled less than two weeks later?
The issues were related to FN Meka’s backstory, lyrics, visual persona, and the creators behind the TikTok sensation. FN Meka was portrayed as spending time in prison, using the “n” word in lyrics, is black with a grill and face tattoos that some say portray negative stereotypes, and at least two of the creators behind the synthetic celebrity are not black.
Microsoft’s Tay chatbot was “canceled” by its own creators after it started espousing racist and culturally insensitive statements. This was the result of a machine learning algorithm that some users fed with information to teach it to favor racist and incendiary statements. FN Meka may be using AI to draft some lyrics, but the target here is not the AI. It is the creators behind the most popular synthetic being on TikTok.
What is Synthetic Here
FN Meka is the creation of Factory New, a virtual record label founded by Brandon Le. A co-creator of FN Meka, singer Anthony Martini, cut ties with Factory New last week. But just like there is a fifth Beatle, there is a third collaborator, the rapper Kyle the Hooligan.
Martini and Le had indicated that FN Meka’s song lyrics were created by AI though that is contested by the Hooligan who also provides a human voice for the virtual musician. He says that he wrote and performed the first three songs released by FN Meka and was instrumental in the persona development. He also says he was offered equity and no ownership or revenue has been passed to him to date. A lawsuit is planned.
It is hard to know who is telling the truth here, but it seems likely that some of the lyrics are AI-generated which falls into that synthetic category. The 3D avatar is also definitely synthetic, and it appears the music tracks are as well.
What it Means
A few things are worth noting around this saga.
Synthetic celebrities can be created and accumulate large audiences.
There is generally a team of curators behind these characters. Someone needs to make decisions about what is to be AI-generated and what should be human-generated. In addition, they need to determine of the AI-generated content: what is appropriate, what is aligned with the celebrity persona, and what is likely to be popular with the audience.
Custody of synthetic beings of all sorts is likely to become a more contentious issue.
We saw TikTok sued last year over the use of its popular synthetic voice. Apparently, the company was using a voice actor’s voice beyond the contractual rights. The voice was replaced a couple of weeks later.
The stakes may be even higher for synthetic celebrities. Even when the rights are clear, there is the question of culpability when things go wrong. When an intern issues an insensitive Tweet on a company’s account, the organization can apologize profusely and quietly terminate the employee. That person was probably never known, and their absence is not damaging.
However, if someone has a synthetic celebrity do something that is problematic, that is likely to have far more impact on the social value of the character and stick with the company it represents.
Maybe FN Meka will return. If it was the creation of Capital Records, it seems likely the synthetic celebrity would be fired even faster than the incompetent tweeting intern. But, it’s a virtual record company with the IP. They have not deleted their TikTok account and are likely planning a return to the public square. Is there social redemption for synthetic beings?
Postscript - Join the Synthedia Event
One more thing. We will be talking more about synthetic celebrities, virtual humans, and the broader synthetic media space at the online Synthedia event coming up on September 14th. Register to join us live or get easy access to the recording afterward. I hope to see you there.