Meet ‘Sylvia’: A Project Challenging Ageism in the Digital Space

Ziv Schneider is a creative technologist at The Brown Institute for Media Innovation based at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Schneider is breaking barriers in the sphere of Virtual Influencers. Virtual Influencers are computer-generated characters that exist on social media and appear as real humans – yet completely ignore the reality of aging. Like the construction of the many virtual and physical spaces we inhabit, this phenomenon perpetuates ageism.

We know that ageism has direct effects on older adults’ health and well-being1. Ageism is highly prevalent but differs from other forms of discrimination in that it is socially accepted and normally unchallenged2. Schneider’s project is up to the task of critiquing the widespread usage of age-defying characters.

Enter Schneider’s creation above: ‘Sylvia‘, the first virtual influencer to age. ‘Sylvia’ is an experiment that challenges the exclusion of aging from the construction of virtual beings. Launched in July 2020 at the age of 30 on Instagram, Sylvia is designed to age at an accelerated pace. Instagram onlookers watch Sylvia’s life unfold before their eyes as she ages five decades over the course of five months. As Sylvia’s image changes, so do her captions. ‘Sylvia’ combines AI-generated captions created by training language models on influencer posts by people of different ages.

Second-year master’s student and student in the Columbia Aging Center’s Health of an Aging Society certificate, Alexa Fleet (MSPH ’21), is assisting Schneider with aging and life course research to correlate Sylvia’s life to the realities of aging today; Caitlin Hawke, the Center’s Senior Science and Strategy Officer is advising on the project.

Through Schneider’s novel project, Sylvia will embrace the experiences that come over her adult life course; and the project will push onlookers to examine their own ageist assumptions and biases in both the virtual and real worlds alike. Watch her life unfold here and follow Sylvia: instagram.com/myfriendsylvia.

We’ll be sharing more documentation and insights from this project as well as an announcement of the project’s exhibition in the upcoming weeks.

1Nelson, T. D. (2016). Promoting healthy aging by confronting ageism. American Psychologist, 71(4), 276.
2Aging and life-course. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018. Available from: http://www.who.int/ageing/ageism/en/ [cited 2020 August 29].