Do you know the difference between you and your online persona? Do you believe you are who you pretend to be? You probably know that you’re not quite as filtered as your Instagram posts imply, as extroverted as your Twitter feed or as family-orientated as your Facebook timeline. Do you really believe everything you tweet, or do you sometimes post just to fit in? Is your online persona as a critical theorist, a beauty influencer or a staunch nationalist the real you? We’re losing the distinction between what’s real and what isn’t. And the more time we spend on social media, the more the line between the virtual us and the real us is becoming blurred beyond recognition.
Recently, I removed Facebook and Instagram from my phone because of Netflix. I’d just finished the new, critically acclaimed documentary The Social Dilemma, in which Silicon Valley renegades discuss the dangers of social networking and surveillance capitalism, likening our iPhones to pocket Vegas-style slot machines. “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users,’” computer scientist Edward Tufte tells the camera, “illegal drugs and software.” The film touches on the consequences of our social media overdose: from damage to our collective mental health to the influence of online tribalism on our elections. Some have criticised the movie for its apocalyptic feel, smirking at the tech experts who describe humanity’s greatest existential threat not as devastating wildfires, deadly droughts or asteroids hurtling towards the Earth, but Instagram. Others, myself included, have been disturbed by the doomsayers. They led me to start thinking about the theatrics of social media through the lens of analytical psychologist Carl Jung.
It is “a kind of mask,” Jung wrote of the persona in an essay entitled “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”: “Designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” A pioneer in depth psychology, Jung held that the human psyche is tripartite: composed of the conscious ego (the self); the persona (the personality we perform in public); and the subconscious shadow (the dark side we conceal). Arbitrating between our consciousness and the external world, our persona is driven and consumed by what others think about us. By presenting the most desirable versions of ourselves, it helps us fit in with society, hiding our ugly animalistic impulses beneath a civilised exterior. For every social performance, we have a superfluity of personae to choose from, and they’re hugely important. We certainly wouldn’t want to turn up to a first date or interview without one.
To participate in social media, you need a persona. A prerequisite of entry into the digital world is to first carefully curate your online image, by, for example, choosing a username, selecting a profile picture, writing a bio and adding a few relevant interests—each designed to represent the very best version of you to others. Online, we’re judged not by our authentic character but by the pixels of our avatar, the content of our posts and the amount of attention all of this receives. And so, naturally, social media platforms have become home to our artificial personalities. Take a quick scroll through Instagram and you’ll be greeted by an idealised version of human life: swathes of pristine relationships, smooth and streamlined holidays, job promotions, angelic virtue-signalling and fantasy family lives. Here, our personae thrive.
But something very strange is happening. It seems that we’ve all forgotten that we’re partaking in a lie. I assume you don’t mistake your Twitter icon for your reflection in the mirror. But there is some sort of collective neurosis going on, in which we’re losing sight of our individuality. Putting on a persona is normal, but a healthy persona should be superficial, temporary and contain flickers of your true personality. It should be a part of you, not the whole you. Yet today, we’re dangerously overidentifying with our digital facades. A nauseating amount of our time is spent perfecting and chronicling the lives of our two-dimensional avatars, with carefully thought-out statuses and meticulously selected filters. A recent study by Common Sense Media found that the average daily screen time for American eight- to twelve-year-olds is 4 hours and 44 minutes, with an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes for teens (excluding time on screens for schoolwork). With all this time spent as our online personae, no wonder we’re losing track of our true selves.
Suppressing Our Shadows
“Another like!” shrieks the influencer, grinning down at her edited photo, captioned with a quotation from a book she’s never read and adorned with fake comments from strangers and bots. Like an algorithm, she keeps refreshing, editing, posting. And she gets this very real sense that she’s popular and envied, this very real rush of dopamine, despite the reality that she doesn’t have many real friends and doesn’t quite look like that in the mirror. Time and time again, we’re told the dangers of exposing ourselves and our children to this world of fakery, but rarely do we consider the effects of being complicit in it. What does posting only your best moments, editing your photos and living as a fake persona do to your psyche?
In the words of Helmholtz Watson, “Did you ever feel … as though you had something inside you that was only waiting for you to give it a chance to come out?” In fact, a lot of us feel that way, particularly online. That’s because, Jungians hold, hidden deep behind the persona lies the shadow—our dark side, encasing all our flaws and insecurities. Goodness and virtue are only a slice of our psyches, and when we feign constant perfection, we repress the rest. In Jung’s 1958 book Psychology and Religion, he writes, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Worse still, “if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” When we hide our fallibility, stencilling over our real selves with an idealised digital version, our shadow writhes and rises inside. And, as Jung warns in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, “man cannot get rid of himself in favour of an artificial personality without punishment.”
Our punishment is becoming clear. In The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff discuss the rise of safetyism in American campus culture and argue that the social media bubble is destroying adolescent mental health. In his appearance on The Social Dilemma, Haidt gives a sombre account of the statistics. The number of teenage girls, he argues, admitted to hospital in America because they cut or harm themselves remained relatively stable until numbers shot “way up” around 2011:
it’s up 62 per cent for older teen girls; it’s up 189 per cent for the pre-teen girls. That’s nearly triple. Even more horrifying, we see the same pattern with suicide. The older teen girls … they’re up 70 per cent compared to the first decade of the century. The pre-teen girls, who had very low rates to begin with, they’re up 151 per cent.
Haidt blames social media and the fact that the Gen Z kids, the cohort born after 1996, are most likely to fully conflate the online world with reality.
Vulnerable to Ideology
So how does all of this affect our political climate? Well, by repressing your flaws, something happens to the real you. Beneath an overindulged persona, as Anthony Stevens puts it, you develop a “shallow, brittle, conformist kind of personality which is ‘all persona,’ one with an excessive concern for ‘what people think.'” Having surrendered your true nature to conformity, you’re left with the shell of who you once were, shaped by trends and by what society expects of you. Soon your behaviour becomes obsessive. You become constantly conscious of how you look and come across online, to the point at which you spend more time perfecting your Instagram than your real life. Admittedly, I often find myself on a kind of cathartic deleting frenzy, in which I feel the urge to purge and restart my online accounts in search of perfection, cleaning out anything slightly vulnerable or non-conformist. But this is a dangerous path. “The fact is,” Jung warns in his book Visions, “if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the shadow descends into hell and becomes the devil.”
An undeveloped shadow leaves us malleable to influence. That’s when ideology creeps in. Of course, political affiliations, values and identities are important to most of us, and contain glimmers of our real traits: we can be feminists, nationalists, Republicans or Democrats—but these remain just fragments of our psyche, like our favourite colours and albums. They don’t define us. But those possessed by the tenets of the far-left or the alt-right can hardly conceive of themselves as distinct from their ideological beliefs. Whether they are on the radical woke left or are extreme ethnonationalists, their political identities subsume them. And that’s the problem, Jung writes: “the danger is that (people) become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice.” Ideology hands those with a fragile, conformist disposition a ready-made identity: a flat-pack of beliefs, ready to be exported into any situation and used to deflect any criticism. If you identify as left, you must be progressive on all issues. If you identify as right, you must be conservative on all issues. You’re no longer an individual but a critical theorist; no longer a person, but a dogmatic evangelist. Maybe you’re uneducated on a certain political topic and you know that deep down, but online you call out others for their ignorance, furiously typing Educate yourself! because it’s a suitable refrain for your activist persona. By this point, you’re completely unaware of any distinction between you and your social role.
Overidentifying with our personae has given rise to a collective hysteria. Our political discourse has become completely detached from reality. Online, we’re no longer at war with each other, but with each other’s personae. We forget who we’re arguing against, convinced we’re battling a radical third-wave feminist on Twitter, when really we’re up against the digital persona of, say, a sixteen-year-old girl, who may be a little introverted and insecure in real life. But tribalism blinds us, and we lose the part of ourselves that treats humans consciously and individually, until we’re bitterly defending positions we don’t really know if we believe against people we don’t know anything about. Glued to our various isms, we hand over our ability to critically think. For instance, on a Joe Rogan podcast episode of 2018, conservative commentator Candace Owens proudly announces that she doesn’t believe in climate change, while also professing to know nothing about the subject. “I don’t believe this, like, at all,” she giggles, looking blankly at the statistic that 77% of scientists agree that climate change is a serious threat. When Rogan questions Owens, it becomes obvious that her opinion is automated—tied to an ideological line, rather than a conscious reaction to the external world. This is happening everywhere. When we’re presented with data that goes against our ideological default, we risk malfunction. We believe that we must always play the part we’ve been assigned, and play it flawlessly.
Anyone who doesn’t conform to the utopian ideal, or whose flaws are exposed online, is at the mercy of cancel culture. Preyed upon by overinflated personae, real people are being no-platformed, ostracised and kicked out of lifelong careers. Those at the forefront of vigilante campaigns of public-shaming really do believe they are who they pretend to be online: righteous people who can do no wrong. But this widespread repression and dismissal of our imperfections, whether it is expressed as a flawless life on Instagram or as full-fledged ideological possession, can’t be sustained long-term. Our shadows yearn to come out—and perhaps that’s what we’re seeing. I suspect Jung would diagnose the current political climate as symptomatic of enantiodromia, a concept he defines in Aspects of the Masculine as the gradual emergence of repressed individualism from beneath the social mask. Having spent years as empty conformists and ideologues, we’re now seeing explosions of mass violence, protests, misinformation campaigns and destructive nihilism. By masking our identities, we lost our civility.
As I Am, so I Act
What, then, is left of the real, authentic you? Do you even remember her? Do you ever let the real you grow, develop and respond to information before your persona does? The miserable 2020 has been the year of warring personae: mask-wearers vs. anti-maskers, pro-lockdown vs. pro-freedom, pro-BLM vs. anti-BLM. But what use is all that? None of that defines the real us as individuals. On our deathbeds, we won’t be radical activists, patriots or zealots. We’ll be men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters—rounded, complex and imperfect people.
A healthy persona is part of the vibrant symphony of human personality. Constantly acting as if you were flawless online and adhering perfectly to a social role is not real. I’m not saying we must give up social media, but we would all do well to follow Jung’s mantra: “As I am, so I act.” Find congruity between your real and virtual selves: synthesise the two. It’s hard to be authentic online, but just ask yourself: Is that something I think or that the persona designated by my username, thinks? Am I sharing this for me or to gratify my audience? Remember, your real character is not your public moral stance, your profile picture or your complicity with trends: it’s a beautiful matrix of individual attributes, both light and dark. If we can become conscious of our shadow, it won’t be projected onto others; and we will be able to accept the failings of other people, if we acknowledge our own. To do so, we must stand by what we really think, and not play into the fakery. We must take some distance from our online selves and remember when we’re wearing a mask—if we still remember how.