Today, it may seem a little bit reductive, but Freud’s “tripartite psyche” still gives us a model of the psyche that most people can relate to. No, you cannot find these three “psychic agencies” inside the brain as discrete areas (though some neuroscience does point to various processes described by them), but we can all relate in general to the idea that we have at least three conflicting aspects to ourselves. These conflicting agencies of self are reflected in the online social networking sites that we use. The three parts of the psyche are:
The Id (literally “the it”): The seat of our passions and aggressions, largely unconscious and generally socially unacceptable in their raw form:
As defined in The Language of Psychoanalysis: “the instinctual pole of the personality; its contents, as an expression of the instincts, are unconscious, a portion of them being hereditary and innate, a portion repressed and acquired . . . the prime reservoir of psychical energy [in conflict with] the ego and superego” (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973).
The Ego (literally “the I”): That part of the psyche that navigates between our internal world and our external world, mediating between id and superego. That which we understand as our subjectivity, our “I-ness”:
The Superego (literally the “over I” or overseer of the I): This is our social consciousness, or morality. It sits above our ego and performs self observation, usually in a judgmental expectant style, it is “constituted through the internalisation of parental prohibitions and demands” (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973).
The architecture of various social networks enable particular agencies of the psyche to express themselves:
Let’s start with ego which has its online representation in Facebook.
I have gone to great lengths in my book to show how psychodynamics operate through online social networks, and have taken special pains to show how particular social networks like Facebook operate particularly on the outward facing aspects of the ego (you can see my video presentation on this subject and previous blog posts for more detailed information).
Simply the notion of “liking” on Facebook is akin to an ego need. The ego, as a rule, seeks to be liked and admired. It’s main job is to convert id desires into socially acceptable outcomes because it mediates between the internal world and the external world. For Freud, the id-energy was primarily libido (sexual energy) – the ego, rather than acting on the id’s need for sex, would convert that raw desire into something more socially acceptable, like making oneself attractive to others while wooing or seducing the other into sex, rather than taking them against their will. Today, we have expanded our notion of instinctual desire beyond just sex towards a more global desire to relate to others. Facebook does this like no other social network. It utilises the agency of the ego to create and sustain relationships with others online.
It does this notably by creating an environment where we create an image of ourselves as we wish others to see us and as we ideally wish to see ourselves.
This is why Facebook appeals to the outward manifestation of the ego, at the expense of more inward expressions of selfhood which contain aspects of ourselves (our vulnerable or shameful bits) that we don’t wish to share with others.
LinkedIn resonates with the dynamics of the superego:
LinkedIn is a professional networking site that induces us to display our accomplishments. It is, in a way, the most “adult” expression of ourselves we find on online social networks because through it we are asked to display our professional qualifications and link with others who we hope will see us as professionally valuable. The superego is all about accomplishment and achievement — often deployed in ways undigested from the expectations of our parents or our culture. Our superegos expect us to succeed, and can be very harsh to our poor suffering egos when we judge that we are not exceeding or being successful.
The superego is largely responsible for “negative comparison” — looking at others and judging ourselves to be less than (we do this of Facebook too). In response, our superego will push us further to succeed, often to the detriment of our egos and more complete selves (the superego’s demands are often one sided). Linked In provides the space for superego expression to “build your professional identity.”
Id expressions tend to be over anonymous social networking sites that aid online disinhibition allowing our our passions (both aggressive and sexual) to engage in the world more easily:
Today’s blog was inspired by an article in today’s Observer entitled Silicon Valley’s anonymous gossip apps whip up storm of ambition and jealousy. While “jealously” is clearly a word that resonates with the id, it can be argued that “ambition” is super-egoic. In fact, much of the power of the super-ego comes directly from the id, and those impulses to get people out of the way in order to sate ambition are very much id-like. These apps, “Secret” and “Whisper” enable an anonymous space where individuals can bring each other down through gossip — it is, in a sense, an attack of one’s reputation – a kind of psychological murder.
The Observer article quotes Andrew Bosworth, a senior VP of Facebook who was attacked by way of the app, who says, “This is just hurtful without being helpful. It’s invective without accountability.” It is the lack of accountability that enables such apps to enable id actively so clearly. Without an identity attached (identity is ego), the id can act without constraint, projecting its invective without the consequences sticking to the source of that invective – it’s like getting away with murder. Id isn’t all about aggression, though, it’s also about sex.
Other semi-anonymous sites like Grindr and Tinder (I’ve written about them here) also enable the more libidinous aspect of the id a more direct outlet, though in this case the sexual and relational instinct is released more so than the aggressive one.
It’s not a perfect model but:
To be fair, the id, ego, superego model is a rather old one and today it’s seen as rather simplistic. It does, however, in its simplicity retain a relatively accurate descriptive essence of how we human beings operate between our instinctual urges, our attachment to our identities, and the ways in which we judge ourselves as members of a certain culture.
The comparisons I made above are not as neat as I argue them here (it is, after all, a blog post — if you want more complexity, please do read my book), but it’s a nice starting point. We do, as a society, create cultural artefacts that reflect the psychic processes of ourselves (see, for example, my review of the film Her). The more we can relate psychological thinking to technology and online social networking, the better we can come to understand the unconscious dynamic factors that reside under them; that way, we come to better understand both our technology, and ourselves.
More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.
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Reference: Laplanche and Pontalis. (1973). The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.