The Curated Self – how social media creates the ‘virtual self’

The word ‘curator’ derives from the Latin curare meaning ‘take care’, and is commonly used in the context of cultural institutions; galleries, museums etc.

Over the course of the last year or so the term was increasingly used in conjunction with digital marketing, particularly social media-based campaigns. For fast-paced, content-driven comms planning, agencies would talk of acting as the ‘curator’ for the brand. In other words, deciding what content, stories, reactions, conversations and touchpoints to release at precisely the right time.

Now I think it can apply to the very nature of one’s digital identity itself.



With people constantly adding to, tinkering with, amending, reinventing and fragmenting the components that constitute their identity in digital terms (think everything from individual tweets to Instagram photos), they themselves are becoming curators of how their ‘virtual self’ appears to the world.

It’s almost as if there are two selves: the real one and the curated one. The real one is, of course, represented through digital channels in terms of reputation, friends and professional networks, but it’s something that we, as human beings, have become fairly adept at reading: when you meet a new person, you instantly deduce what sort of person they are. Their personality, mannerisms, approach to life, voice, appearance, wit, perceived intelligence, spirit – you read all of these things instinctively.

The curated self, however, is an altogether tricker beast. Yes it’s made up of photos, videos, status updates, tweets, blogs, check-ins, comments, likes, emails and texts – whatever form of digital comms a person uses. But there are, I believe, two things that define it: a) it’s harder to read the ‘signals’ from someone’s curated self to get an immediate, instinctive idea about who they really are. (Lots of people project a version of what they want to be into their social channels.) And b) The curated self is, to a large extent, able to be controlled, even manipulated. Simply move the building blocks around a bit, or alter them, and the curated self instantly changes too. Altered perceptions will follow.

However, I mention ‘to a large extent’ controllable, because the irony is that others can have a hand in influencing your curated self too.

For example, when a friend of our Innovation Director checked him into a snowboarding resort recently using Facebook, before he had even arrived, it made the point that perceptions of his identity had been influenced without his say-so. What if he has missed the plane? Would the rest of the group have wondered if he had taken leave of his senses? It’s only a small example, but it makes the point nonetheless: identity can now be managed, or overseen. Both by ourselves and others.

Further to this, I believe the more time people spend with their curated self, the faster they will migrate towards it. By that, I mean they will begin to be defined by their virtual self much more than their real self. This is already happening to a large extent. But I believe there is a lot further to go.

In many ways, the curated self is far more nailed down than the real one. You can’t say, ‘It wasn’t me, guvnor, I was paying attention,’ if your boss knows you’re in a meeting and you tweet ‘I’m bored beyond belief’. It’s dated and timestamped with inarguable accuracy. being bollocked by the BBC and the press for constantly tweeting throughout The Voice is a case in point – in effect, he’s curating his virtual self to the detriment of his real one in the here and now.

So why the addiction? Well, it’s almost as if people are able to control the path and character development of the protagonist in the narrative of their own lives. Human beings always love a good story, we always have done, and being able to steer the main character (think of each tweet, shared photo, blog entry etc as a new sentence, paragraph or plot twist that drives the narrative further forward) is irresistible. (You can read more about this theory here.)

Eventually, we may spend all our time in the digital world, and thus be 100% defined by our curated selves. Your reaction to that last sentence, and whether you were horrified, completely unsurprised or excited, depends on many factors: your digital usage habits and the type of interactions you keep with friends and family amongst them.

Suffice to say, not everyone is comfortable about this ongoing digitisation of the self. There’s an interesting piece in this month’s Wired by the self-professed ‘Anti Christ of Silicon Valley’ and professional tech sceptic Andrew Keen, in which he states: ‘Rather than a second life, social media is becoming a life itself – the central and increasingly transparent stage of human existence, what Silicon Valley VCs now call an “internet of people”‘.

But, I guess pretty much no one is immune to ‘The Curated Self’. If you have a digital presence, you have to curate it, and take care of it, right?

Even Andrew Keen. He may be an interesting, engaging, articulate person in real life – I saw him (the real him, and not his virtual self) speak at the PICNIC creative conference in Amsterdam a few years ago.

But, his curated self is as strong as anyone’s. The TED talk that he pulls into his website, and his 18,000 Twitter followers and 10,000 tweets to date, to name but two examples, attest to that.