Curating identity online. Why do we insist that this is a unique feature of online social interaction?

I’ve been noticing a trend in the discussion of Social Media

In digital research there has been a move towards accepting that the internet is now a mundane and routine part of life, and as such an equal move away from distancing social media and the internet writ large from the rest of everyday life. Most researchers accept that the internet has quickly become routine. Rather than being a sparkly wonder for which we had to schedule time in our day to sit down and literally plug in, it has become accepted, ubiquitous, and demystified.

We have lifted the curtain and found that Oz is just some old white guy.

Research is now accepting that the internet is not a space to escape everyday life but a space in which we continue to project and live everyday life via new modes and new mediums.

However, researchers still seem to want to put some of the sparkle back into the internet; they still want to see it as something special and unique in some way. And in part this is true. The internet offers new possibilities, new ideas, new opportunities, new methods… BUT not everything that happens on the internet is unique and solely found online.

Take for example some of the discussions of identity online.

In discussions of the features of social media there is a tendency to place emphasis upon differentiating social media from ‘real life’ via the many modes of interaction and the social features provided online. Many definitions and discussions of social media focus upon the unique features through which social interaction manifests itself online.

However whilst discussing the context-specific uniqueness of these features there is a tendency to imbue the effects of these features with undue uniqueness. There is a tendency to emphasize not only how the features and modes offered online are different, but to also suggest that the effects of these modes are somehow solely unique to the online realm.

Take for example, Schwartz and Halegoua (2014: 3) who suggest that “‘social media participants present a highly curated version of themselves” using the digital features and objects available online.

This touches at a rather large assumption that seems to be rife in Social Media research; that all Social Media requires a version of offline self, however much it is curated, in order to be deemed social media. This is however largely questionable given the growing diversity of the social media landscape. This type of curation may indeed be true of Facebook, but can we can that a ‘highly curated version of self’ is a key feature of all social media platforms? Whilst PEW data shows that Facebook is indeed the most popular Social Networking Site/App by some margin (2015 figures show 71% of 13-17 year olds use Facebook), The same PEW survey found that a wide majority of 13-17 year old do not use one site alone, and of the 7 platforms they surveyed participants about, 71% said they used more than one of the 7 other platforms.

Facebook’s model and definition of being ‘social’ should not be readily generalized to all social media. The features and expectations of being ‘social’ on Facebook should not be used as a catch-all for any-and-all social media platforms, especially when we consider that there is a fast growing plethora of platforms with different understandings of being social and different expectations for socializing. Take for example Yik Yak, a popular app on university campuses that purposefully keeps users anonymous, often meaning users are not presenting a similarly curated version of themselves.

The same assumptions can be found throughout social media research, for example boyd and Ellison’s heavily cited paper on social media suggest that “the public display of connections is a crucial component of SNSs (Social Network Sites)” (2008, 213). This is certainly not true of all sites and apps, with many choosing to purposefully askew this model. We can say it is a crucial component of Facebook and Twitter, but this should certainly not be generalized to all social networking sites. I should point out here that boyd and Ellison meant something very particular by ‘social network site’, hence the use of the term ‘network’ rather than the more common networking, but nonetheless we should be careful when applying such a broad brush to an increasingly diverse canvas of social media.


However, putting this discussion aside and returning to the Schwartz and Halegoua quote, we equally must be careful in highlighting the idea of curation of self as a unique feature of Social Media. Whilst features such as “digital objects like photos, videos, and self-descriptions” (Belk and Ruvio, 2013: 87) do allow for and facilitate unique iterations and manifestations of curation and reflection, the notion of self-curation and reflection is not online-specific nor unique to the internet and social media. It is the iterations and modes that are potentially unique, not the idea of curation in-and-of-itself.

Goffman (1969) famously intricately discussed the nuances of the curation of offline identity, detailing the minutiae of the presentation of self in everyday life and the effort and consideration that frequently goes into this process in many offline situations. Goffman (1969, 28) highlighted in great detail the idea of the curation and consideration of self-presentation offline, suggesting that:

When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the tasks that he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.

Though online features are used for the curation of a self-image (see Saker 2016 for example), the same has been noted for decades offline. Researchers have noted a range of features and ‘props’ that have been used for the presentation and curation of an image offline which reflect ‘how we want to be perceived by others’ (Ellison 2013, 4). Researchers have, for example, focused upon the use of “desks, academic attire, white coats for doctors…to manage a ‘front’’’ (Clarke, 2008: 512).

Despite this continued discussion of the presentation and curation of self offline, online research and public opinion of the online realm is keen to distance the agentic presentation of self online from the agentic presentation of self offline. A wealth of research has shown that we carefully present and curate our self image online (boyd 2008, Campbell and Kwak 2011, Cramer et al. 2011, Schwartz and Halegoua 2014, Birnholtz et al. 2014, Dyer 2015, Evans 2015, Saker 2016) yet there seems to be a trend to emphasis this aspect of online interaction as a unique feature of Social Media.

Perhaps this is because the self is not ‘embodied’ online. Rather than being physically present within the self that is presenting identity, as we are offline, we are instead projecting ourselves onto a screen in what could be thought of as an out-of-body experience of self-reflection.

Perhaps this extra step of abstraction allows us to acknowledge and be cognizant of the notion of the curation of self, yet decades of research has highlighted this to be present and persistent offline too.

The manifestations of these curation may be unique due to the unique features and modes present online, but the mere presence of self curation is not unique. Research should focus upon how we are curating self online, not that we are curating self online, as this fact is not surprising or unique to the online realm. We need to life back the curtain some more. It’s still the same old guy, he’s just pulling some new knobs.

How this self-reflection manifests itself online may indeed be unique but the mere presence of self-reflection and curation in-and-of-itself is not a unique feature.


One thought on “Curating identity online. Why do we insist that this is a unique feature of online social interaction?

  1. How about posting online as a part of becoming? I write myself into my academic identity through my blog. The students I follow online write themselves into their student identity with every Facebook post. Social Media as a identity processing tool.


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