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.


  • Kerry Glazer

    Excellent – if somewhat disconcerting – blog, Jeremy. Made me think seriously about my two selves (and how out of control the apparently curated self can get!).

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  • Lynsey

    Canvas8 highlighted the trend for self-curation in our report ‘Brand Me’. There is now an emergence of two selves, with the online self allowing for a greater potential for identity play. (

    On June 20th Andrew Keen will be speaking about the consequences of a world where identity has become the new currency. He’ll offer a unique interrogation of the social media world, which is sure to compel consumers, as well as brands to reconsider the legitimacy – and perhaps even necessity – of their social media presence.

    For more information on the event –

  • Kate Hammer

    Jeremy, I recognise what you describe. The term “curation” to describe the set of strategies, tactics and actions taken by the digital persona is new to me, and I like it.

    The funniest first-hand example of where digital persona and real person diverged was also from FaceBook – my young collaborator Tom left his wall visible and left his flat to get a haircut. In the chair, his mobile rings. It’s his mother, in a huff. For a few minutes he can’t figure out why: eventually she calms down enough to explain that, really, if any son of hers was going to leave London and move all the way to Australia, she expected she’d hear it first from him, not FaceBook. Even then, Tom was lost. It wasn’t til he could see his Wall and, latterly, his flatmate’s mischievous face that he could actually piece together what had happened.

    More broadly, the curation of digital personas feels to me like one dimension of a multi-faceted relationship we’re evolving with digital technology. With others, I’ve begun to frame it up as the need/opportunity for a “Next Operating System”. (See

    This blog piece earns a place in the list of key resources we’re gathering. Would love to include you in the “Nexos” dialogue.

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