Our Online Masks, What Jung Wants you to Know About them

Picture of Carl Jung.
What would Carl Jung have to say about the online masks we wear today? Perhaps that they reflect a self twice removed. (Photo, World History Archive.)

As someone who considers himself to be a very amateur Jungian, I kind of smile when I hear, or read about, people who suggest that our offline personality is our true self, whereas our online personality–our online masks– is a persona.

Nancy Baym, in Personal Connections in the Digital Age, suggests (although she doesn’t exactly articulate it this way) that in the early days of the Internet some believed that assuming an online presence would be in effect to remove our masks so that our true selves could shine through. Baym writes, “On a societal level, [online] anonymity opens the possibility of liberation from the divisions that come about from seeing one another’s race, age, gender, disabilities and so on.”

I don’t believe that this has happened. In fact, some might even argue that the internet has further divided us.

Baym also points out that our mediated self is perceived by many as unreal. I agree with this, but what it presupposes is that our offline selves “in the real world” are our true selves. This is not entirely true, according to the Jungians.

In fact, Carl Jung believed that the everyday face we present to the world, i.e. our persona, is quite distinct from the Self—which encompasses the totality of the psyche.

In Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Jung makes it clear that the persona, or mask, represents an arbitrary segment of the collective psyche; it is, he writes, “a mask of the collective psyche, a mask that feigns individuality, making other and oneself believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks.”

Jungian scholar June Singer makes it clearer in her book Boundaries of the Soul. Singer argues that the persona mediates between the person and society. The persona aids in the formation of connections, but it is only the true Self (which encompasses the unconscious and conscious world of the individual—the persona is associated with ego-consciousness only) that solidifies them.  The persona, Singer makes clear, is oriented toward societal expectations. We hide our true Self when articulation of it might, for example, cause embarrassment or conflict. What speaks in such situations is the mask, or what society deems is appropriate.

Theatre masks.
Do our online masks reflect our true selves? Is that even possible? (Drawing by Ikiyuzlu)

Jung says of the persona, “it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, exercises a function, he is this or that. In a sense all this is real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality…”

Baym argues that it seems people are more honest online than off, but she acknowledges that it would be naïve to think that people don’t lie online. For example, Baym says some people “filter” their profiles by not, for instance, admitting to have embarrassing hobbies or interests. People also may lie for safety reasons. Baym also argues that, when online, some people present an ideal self of who they want to be.   It seems that all this falls under the province of the Jungian mask. In a sense, it is not really about being dishonest, but about protecting our true Self from being observed.

If we wear masks in our public life, I believe that they stay firmly in place when we are online. If I am wrong then the online world truly is a magical place. But I don’t think I am wrong. And perhaps, if Jung was still alive he would say that our online persona is a persona of a persona, an online mask of a mask, the Self twice removed.

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