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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

One of Gaming’s Biggest YouTubers Wants to Replace Himself With AI

Jordi Van Den Bussche used to devote every waking hour to building his presence on social media. The gaming creator, better known as Kwebbelkop, would labor 24/7 on his YouTube channel coming up with video ideas, shooting them, distributing them. He did this while courting brand deals and doing the other work integral to his survival on the platform. Five years ago, he ran into a problem. “Every time I wanted to take a holiday or I needed some time for myself, I couldn't really do that, because my entire business would stop,” he says.

It’s an issue known as the “key person problem.” Without Van Den Bussche on camera, the entire Kwebbelkop enterprise didn’t work. He was too busy making videos to think about how to scale his business, and too tired to create videos. He needed a break: Around 2018, like many other YouTubers, he experienced significant burnout.

The burnout sparked a change in mindset. He began thinking about what would benefit him and what would benefit the creator industry—which often relies on milking the on-camera presence of an individual until they reach a breaking point, then finding another person seeking fame and fortune. He came up with a solution: a series of AI tools designed to create and upload videos, practically without his involvement. “I'm retired from being an influencer,” he says. “I've had a lovely career. I had a lot of fun. I want to take things to the next level. And that means making this brand live on forever.”

Van Den Bussche’s AI influencer platform, which launched this week after a suitably excitable level of hype on Twitter from its creator, is his attempt to make that happen. It comprises two versions of an AI tool. The first is trained on a creator’s likeness—their on-camera performances and what they say in videos—and is used to create new content. It appears to be similar to Forever Voices, the controversial AI tool behind the CarynAI virtual influencer, which outsourced maintaining connections with fans on behalf of creators.

The other involves simplifying the act of creation as much as possible by taking simple prompts—such as “turn this article into a video formatted like an interview involving two people”—and producing the end result. (The latter is similar to a tool called QuickVid, which has seen some early adoption.)

Van Den Bussche won’t reveal much about how the tools were built, but regardless of their origins they’re coming at a critical time for generative AI and its impacts on how people work. And Van Den Bussche’s way of doing things could have lasting impacts on creators on YouTube and beyond.

The ideas that went into the AI tools took years to form. Prior to building them, Van Den Bussche had set up a coaching business, where he gave other aspiring influencers his blueprint for social media success. It was through that process that he developed a protocol for how to be a prominent creator. Eventually, though, even his protégés needed time off, and Van Den Bussche realized the fatal flaw in the creator economy was humans.

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“In this industry, it's like you're starting this company, but the company solely relies on this one individual to be able to perform,” he says. “And that is absolutely a horrible business model. It’s way too high-risk.”

Van Den Bussche and his creative team began trying to reverse engineer what made creators successful. “We started testing a lot of theories on this,” he says. “We needed evidence: How much does the voice influence the performance with the fans? How much does the face influence it? How much does the content influence it?”

In April 2021, Van Den Bussche launched a YouTube channel with a virtual YouTuber (vtuber) called Bloo that he developed, powered by AI. Since then, Bloo has gained 775,000 subscribers, with each video watched by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of viewers. “He’s a completely virtual influencer with a protocol and set steps and a bunch of AI and machine learning applications involved in the system,” he says. “Now we’re applying that model to my IP and my friends’. It includes voice cloning, so it sounds like me.”

The Kwebbelkop videos made by AI—the first of which dropped on Tuesday—are powered by models trained on Van Den Bussche’s existing content. “It’s modeled after me and my creativity and my input,” he says. “Everyone thinks I’m retiring as a creator and letting this AI run, but I’m not retiring as a creative.”

While not retiring, Van Den Bussche is happy to replace himself in the creative process with the AI he’s been working on. “We've seen a lot of success with these systems,” he says. “I'm very confident that they can reproduce creativity—so much so that I'm willing to bet my entire business on it.” As of this writing, the AI video he released Tuesday has nearly 3,000 views. He claims to have a wait list of 500 influencer friends within the industry eager to adopt his AI tools, though he can’t give them access until the cost of creating new videos drops to an economical level, which he believes will happen as technology advances.

“This presents an entirely new option for creators to essentially clone themselves and continue without worrying about aging, gaining weight, or otherwise evolving in any way that could alienate certain segments of their audience,” says Lia Haberman, an influencer marketing expert and instructor at UCLA.

However, Haberman isn’t fully convinced audiences will want to embrace AI-generated creators as readily as the creators themselves are. Their appeal “is their humanity and ability to create these parasocial relationships with their audience where people either relate to them or aspire to become them,” she says. “A virtual influencer will only ever present as entertainment, at least until we get to sentient beings.”

Nevertheless, Van Den Bussche hopes that it’ll encourage those who previously stepped away from online video because of the stresses involved. “That’s the one really big use case we’re focusing on right now,” he says. “People who have an existing brand, want to continue this existing brand, but are facing a human problem like the one we had. Every YouTuber and every influencer who has ever retired has experienced that,” he says.

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