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Jungian Persona in Cybersocializing

Updated on February 19, 2011

Am I a butterfly, dreaming that I am a man...or am I a man, dreaming that I am a butterfly? ~ Zhuangzi

Psychologist Carl Jung identified four major archetypes (models of people, behaviors, or personalities) that include the persona.  Persona is derived from Latin and means "mask" or "false face," and originally referred to the masks worn by actors on the Roman and Greek stages.  According to Jung, the persona is the figurative "mask" we wear to present ourselves to the world.

Jung also referred to the persona as the "conformity archetype" because, according to Jung, it is that which in reality one is not, but when oneself, as well as others, think one is.  Everyone, whether they know it or not, has a persona.  Aside from being the mask worn to display ourselves to the world, it is also a mask we wear to hide our true selves from society, and it is the vessel through which we view and/or navigate the "outside" world.

The Jungian concept of persona definitively comes into play when relating to social networking, cybersocializing, or interacting with others through any online medium, whether it is a chat room, online role-playing game, avatar-based social site (such as IMVU or Second Life), or even an internet-based blog.  Even more so than in face-to-face interaction, in the online realm a person can practically recreate their identity and become someone else.  Some people choose to amplify their personality, others tone it down, and yet others completely change themselves into what would otherwise be a total stranger.

Via a persona in the online world, some people can experience social interaction that might otherwise be beyond their capabilities in the "real" world for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps someone is so shy and withdrawn that even imagining having a face-to-face conversation makes them physically ill.  Or someone might be physically disabled to the point where it is impossible for them to venture out of their homes and interact with other people.  Socializing online allows these people to engage in conversation and activity with others with very few restrictions or limitations.

Everyday situations sometimes cause people to put on a persona in order to function without feelings of anxiety or other mental, emotional, or personality issues.  As a social role, the concept of the persona is useful in allowing an individual to move in and out of relationships without being too vulnerable.  Interaction can begin or stop when that person wants it to, and they aren't forced to engage in social situations that might be awkward or uncomfortable to them.  They don't have to make polite excuses to extricate themselves...all it takes it a click.

A disparate online persona is not always a positive or beneficial recreation of one's self, however.  Modern society has seen a dramatic increase in online predators, who usually approach their intended victims while pretending to be someone they're not.  A 45-year old man with a fetish for underage girls might enter a "teens only" chat room pretending to be a 13-year old girl.  A deviant with the urge to rape or torture women might present himself as a wealthy and handsome "lonely hearts club" member, complete with a fake picture, to entice women into meeting him.  A "black widow" might look for her future ex-husband online using a false identity.

Aside from the predators who use a persona to injure or victimize other people in some way, a persona only becomes a problem (or unhealthy or potentially dangerous) when a person becomes too attached to it and cannot put it aside.  This type of situation is most prevalent in online gaming, where a person experiences an alternate realm via a visual medium through the creation of an avatar (graphic representation) and interacts with others in an immersive multidimensional setting, as opposed to text-based communication and interaction.  As we begin to play a certain role (our persona), our ego gradually comes to identify with it.  This process is central to personality development but it is not always positive.  As the ego identifies with the persona, people start to believe that they are what they pretend to be.

Ideally, the persona represents to truest reflection of the inner ego.  Complications present themselves when an individuals' inner selves are in opposition, directly or indirectly, with their exterior persona.  The maxim "to thine own self be true" from William Shakespeare could be seen as a cautionary quip to those who present a false persona to the world.

One should certainly be cautious when engaging in social interaction via the internet with other people.  You never know who you are really talking to.  Your foundation for forming an opinion is primarily built on what you have been told, and that may be nothing more than what someone wants you to believe.

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