Miku: Japan's virtual idol and media platform

Miku: Japan's virtual idol and media platform

On Saturday July 2, I attended an unusual live show, the US debut of a virtual idol from Japan. I think she can tell us something about civic media.

Miku Hatsune performed at the Nokia Center in Los Angeles, part of the festivities at Anime Expo. The sold-out concert drew over 4000 fans, many in costume, who screamed and waved glowsticks as Miku rose out of the floor, a “human size” image projected on stage alongside live musicians.

Miku crooned and pranced along the length of a 20’ long parabolic mirror, never breaking a sweat, as she tore through her set of mostly frenetic techno-dance pop. Video close-ups of her and other band members were projected beside the stage. She made a little small talk: “I’m Miku, nice to meet you.” She introduced the band (guitar, bass, keys, drums) and a six-piece orchestral string section. We cheered her on.

“We’re making history,” a young women sitting next to me said to her friend. It felt like it. And it forced me to rethink what I thought I knew about politics and about pop.

Everyone was cheering, but at what? There was no one there, on stage, at the center of our attention, just a virtual avatar. And of what? Of whom? Of us.

Miku shows that pop culture, like politics, often appears premised on a leader on stage (or projected on a screen), but impact, and often creativity itself, whatever that means, emerges from broader, distributed collective actions. Miku hints at a world of untapped possibility, a model of crowd-sourced mobilization, and an instructive instance of a media platform that is part software technology (Vocaloid) part cultural idea (the character Miku).

Miku began as a voice on a music synthesizer software package called Vocaloid, created and sold by Yamaha starting in 2004. Vocaloid lets you make music by specifying instruments to play, like Garage Band, but with the added feature that you can write lyrics with melody as well. A separate company, Crypton Future Entertainment, released the Miku voice add-on in 2007, along with a cartoon image and biographical features (16 years old, height, weight, etc.).

Importantly, Crypton decided not to assert copyright control over the image, thus freeing up the character to have a life of her own, or rather, lives of our own. It’s as if we could all write songs for Lady Gaga, and she would perform them for us. Does it matter that Miku’s not real? How “real” is Lady Gaga anyway?

Fans responded by posting hundreds of thousands of music videos online, with a variety of shared costumes and images (e.g., a green onion / leek). In the years since, Miku’s star rose thanks to the energy of the fans amplified through uploading and commenting on the Japanese video-sharing site Nico Nico Dôga. So-called “Nicodo” is like YouTube except user comments scroll by as you watch a video, thus adding an additional layer of participatory viewing.

Nowadays, top MikuP (“producers”) sell their work online, and karaoke spots in Japan let you download and sing along with favorite Miku songs. Crypton has a site online for facilitating collaboration and licensing through a system, Piapro, which they say mimics Creative Commons. Fan work sells through other channels as well. In November 2010, I was one of 7000 attendees at a sold-out fan convention in Ikebukuro, Tokyo shopping from 500 fan groups who gathered to sell Vocaloid-related music, posters, DVDs, illustration books, video games, jewelry and more (see http://ketto.com/tvm/).

Given such fan excitement, it is small wonder that big business wanted in on the act. From 2009, Sega created video games for Miku under the Project Diva title, both for handheld devices and for arcades. Toyota is now using Miku for a series of ads as well, and they even showed a commercial prior to Miku’s Los Angeles debut (drawing some boos, but probably more good will). Ultimately, however, Miku is animated by the energy of fans, and that’s why watching Miku’s steps into commercialization will be interesting.

Miku reinforces some of the lessons for civic media that we’ve heard before: people need to feel a genuine openness to participate; sharing and dialogue are key to building a community; free culture is more generative than controlled-IP systems; cooptation and commercialization are always risks, especially as popularity increases.

But Miku offers a particular schema of distributed creativity, different than both Wikipedia and human celebrities. Miku lacks a back-story. She has no pre-defined personality. She doesn’t exist in a singular made-up fantasy world. This Wikicelebrity makes old-fashioned human celebs look like appliances, when the future is platforms.

Might this provide alternative ways of thinking about democracy and participation as well? If the social realities outside leaders themselves are what generate action and popularity, then questions of media should turn less on representational content, and more on the nature of platforms, how open they are, what forms of creativity they allow.

The president of Crypton, Hiroyuki Itoh, will visit Comparative Media Studies in October 2011 to discuss Miku and related projects, including a projected English-language version. He sees the phenomenon as a chance to rethink entertainment industries. “It’s a different form of creativity,” he said when we met briefly in LA before the concert. “We are reinventing the process of making content.” Miku works because of the commitments of a distributed group of fan-producers. Perhaps it's the end of pro-sumers and the rise of fro-ducers.

I believe that pop culture can illuminate social dynamics that can be of use in analyzing and designing civic media. Pop culture need not only be a vehicle for political participation, but can provide models for grasping to how ideas flow and have an impact, especially in terms of prompting people to act.

In my study of anime, I’ve come to see virtual characters as platforms of generative creativity in their own right. Miku demonstrates that there are likely to be many more kinds of platforms out there, waiting to created, built upon, shared, distributed, remixed and extended. By thinking about Miku, it is my hope that we can imagine new approaches to creating communities of action for the future, too.