Virtual Selves – True and False Subject Constitutions Online

Ci Qing/Spider Lillies (2007) Source

May 25, 2012

I came of age on the Swedish Internet forum Skunk, a communal platform where you presented yourself in form of a profile with a front page, thumbnail image and diary, under the screen name of your choice.  Skunk played a big part in the development of my sense of self, and of my identity as a feminist. Reading other peoples experiences, as well as sharing your own, was a mode of expression, belonging and political awakening.

The anonymity of the virtual space inspired a more daring and extensive sharing of experiences, than what was allowed in our everyday reality. Everything from sexual conquests to personal battles with sexism was recounted in the public diary. This outlet was not a pure and direct release of feelings, like a private diary often is, but was, in its publicness, a fine balance between self-expression and self-adaption to the other users of the forum who you knew read your diary, and from which you expected  feedback. In this way the site provided a particular subjectivity which one could join and express oneself through. A language specific to Skunk developed, with internal references and subtle codes (so as to express sentiments to only those who knew them, while revealing nothing to the uninitiated).

Today, I see a similar phenomenon happening on the microblogging and social networking site Tumblr. Here, just as on Skunk, the user has a public diary, or blog, and followers who read each others’ texts, and give each other feedback in the form of comments, ‘likes’ or re-blogs (the re-publishing of someone else’s post). Strong feminist profiles have up to thousands of followers. Vivid debates on sexism, racism, classicism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism make up the majority of the content.

I propose to study how virtual spaces such as Skunk or Tumblr provide an outlet for the self-expression that can’t be articulated in everyday, mainstream, life. Do they enable a subject constitution outside of normative society, and in this way function as a contemporary form of consciousness-raising?

Can Internet forums like these function therapeutically in their facilitation of self-expression and subjectivation? Or do they merely produce new standards, which, although different from everyday life, still consists of norms and regulations? What does Internet presentation do to the self? And is it politically valuable?

True and False Self

D.W. Winnicott takes Freud’s division of the self as a starting point in his theory of the True and False Self. Establishing on the one hand the True Self as internal and instinct-driven, and on the other hand the False Self as extrovert and world-relating (Winnicott 140). The two selves are present in all individuals, but the degree to which they express themselves, and to what extent they correlate to each other, determine whether they’re destructive or healthy.

In healthy development, the mother succeeds in recognizing the infant’s expression and makes sense of it. “A True Self begins to have life, through the strength given to infant’s weak ego by the mother’s implementation of the infant’s omnipotent expressions” (Winnicott 145). Through parental attention the child becomes assured of her own strength.

In contrast, in unhealthy development, the mother fails to acknowledge her child’s expression and substitutes it with her own  perspective that the child has to comply with, and this compliance becomes the earliest stage of the False Self (Winnicott 145).

In the first case the child learns to integrate her True Self into external reality. Winnicott ascribes spontaneity and creativity as stemming solely from the True Self, and in the correct development these expressions become incorporated into the outside world: “The infant can now begin to enjoy the illusion of omnipotent creating and controlling, and then can gradually come to recognize the illusory element, the fact of playing and imagining” (Winnicott 146). The healthy individual learns to use symbols so as to correspond with her inner life and represent it in external objects. With the help of her mother, she gains the confidence to express her True Self’s spontaneity and creativity, at first believing that her fantasy world is real, and then gradually recognizing the difference between illusion and reality – but with an understanding that she can correspond the majority of her own thoughts to the external world through the use of symbols.

When the mother fails to help the infant integrate her spontaneity and hallucinations into external reality, however, the symbol usage does not get started. In this case, “the True Self is so well hidden that spontaneity is not a feature in the infant’s living experiences. Compliance is then the main feature, with imitation as a speciality” (Winnicott 147). Instead of allowing herself to be impulsive, the child learns to suppress such feelings in favor of imitating the adults around her, in becoming what they want her to be.

So rather than obtaining the confidence to express her True Self, the child learns to abide by her mother’s and the surrounding world’s expectations. In this way, the relationships that she forms are affected by her compliance, and through absorbing the others’ perceived demands, she may even succeed in appearing to present a real self.

Winnicott classifies five degrees of False Self organization, the most extreme being one where the False Self masks as real, and the True Self remains completely hidden and unacknowledged. In the less extreme organization the True self is recognized in its existence and has a secret life, carefully defended by the False Self. The somewhat healthy False Self is one whose main task is to find conditions in which the True Self can express itself. The slightly more healthy False Self is that which is built on identification, and, for example, closely tied to childhood environment. The healthiest organization is “the polite and mannered social attitude,” which represents the individual in circumstances the True Self cannot express itself in (Winnicott 142-143).

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Virtual self-presentation – True or False?

The intended effect of blogs as an extension of self, then, would theoretically be a way for the individual whose True Self never was sufficiently integrated into surrounding reality, to establish that healthy correlation and find the symbols to do so. For it to have political implication, or be consciousness-raising, the failed acknowledgement of the infant’s expression need not be dependent solely on the mother, but also on the normative society in which the initial meeting with reality has taken place. And even if Winnicott himself did not extend his concept of the selves to what it means in a larger societal context, one can imagine that if the False Self is a means to comply with parental and environmental demands, it is also a way to cope with societal norms, and protect one’s True Self from being exposed to the cruel judgement of narrow-mindedness.

When looking at Tumblr through the lens of Winnicott’s selves, one has to ask if the identities that are formed online are expressions of the True Self, or different versions of False Selves. In some cases the online persona is corresponding to the False Self as defense – an imitation of what the user thinks the rest of the forum wants her to be. The online profile then functions as a surface directed outward to protect the True Self from being exposed, and can function as an additional presentation of what the user’s social circle believes is her actual self. In a hypothetical scenario, this would be a closeted lesbian who in maintaining the image of herself as straight, continuously posts pictures of naked men on her blog (so as to deflect all suspicion of her homosexuality).

The False Self as organized through identification can easily be found in online personae in the act of showing what kind of culture one consumes. The movies, TV shows, music or art that you post on your blog becomes synonymous with who you are as a person. The current 1990s revival on Tumblr (expressed in a whole aesthetic evolving around the Spice Girls, Courtney Love, platform shoes and belly shirts (The Real 1990s)) by people who were born in the end of the 80s or early 90s, is a clear example of this. Through reviving the aesthetic of which you only have a blurry childhood memory, a sense of realness is found, as it was in the original meeting with this style that you last felt in touch with your True Self. It is as if these cultural artifacts themselves possess a part of you, or at least the key to integrating the True you into the outside world.

According to Winnicott only a healthy connection to your True Self can provide you with a sense of being real, and the experience of not existing is the criteria he most frequently finds in his patients that live completely through their False Selves (Winnicott 151-152). It is through openly acknowledging the patient’s feeling of non-existence, that the analyst can establish a communication with the patient’s True Self.

Can self-representation online function as a means to expose the false nature of one’s real life self? If the risk-free opportunity to explore oneself on the screen leads to acknowledging that one is more comfortable, more real there than in everyday life – is the Internet presentation then not a direct communication with the True Self, obtained by recognizing that it’s being neglected in real life? And can, in this case, the online self be classified as the somewhat healthy False Self, whose main task is to seek out the conditions in which the True Self can express itself?

Life on the Screen

In Life on the Screen, clinical psychologist and Sociology professor Sherry Turkle examines the psychology of online life, with particular focus on identity and self, and the possible therapeutical effects of virtual presentations of self. Even though Turkle is writing about an Internet that is significantly different from the one we live with today (the book was published in 1995), the points she makes about our relation to life on the screen are still relevant.

First of, she compares online activity to the psychoanalytic encounter:

“Online personae have something in common with the self that emerges in a psychoanalytical encounter. It, too, is significantly virtual, constructed within the space of the analysis, where its slightest shifts can come under the most intense scrutiny” (Turkle 256).

Both of these situations allow for complete focus on the one who’s creating herself. In therapy you have paid the analyst for his/her expertise in listening and focusing only on you for 45 minutes, without demands for reciprocation. Online, you are the sole creator of your self-presentation, and an infinite amount of time can be spent on adjusting and tweaking your own image. At the same time, they both invite intense scrutiny. In therapy, through the act of analyzing every feeling and event, and online in the infinite attention given to the details of a profile or a text, both by yourself and by others. “Having literally written our online personae into existence, we are in a position to be more aware of what we project into everyday life” (Turkle 263). In creating ourselves online, we can become aware of aspects of ourselves that we previously weren’t aware of, just as a therapist can help us understand sides of ourselves that we can’t fully grasp on our own.

Turkle also suggests that online life offers extended opportunities for self-expression. In reference to one of her informants who valued the possibility of displaying multiple selves online, Turkle writes: “In real life, this woman sees her world as too narrow to allow her to manifest certain aspects of the person she feels herself to be. Creating screen personae is thus an opportunity for self-expression, leading to her feeling more like her true self when decked out in an array of virtual masks” (Turkle 185). For this woman, the Internet gives her the courage to explore sides of herself that are inhibited by the normativity of her physical surroundings.

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Turkle further develops the explorational aspect of virtual communities in her analogy to what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called “psychosocial moratoriums,” which are integral parts of teenage identity development. Turkle writes that “the adolescent moratorium is a time of intense interaction with people and ideas. It is a time of passionate friendships and experimentation” (Turkle 203). It is, in other words, a time for unconditional testing of boundaries with permission to do so before the consequences matter too much, and it “facilitates the development of a core self, a personal sense of what gives life meaning” (Turkle 203). Looking at Internet communities as moratoriums, one can argue that they provide a space for this kind of experimentation through which aspects of oneself that cannot be expressed in everyday life, get to be tested. And it is the experimentation with different representations of yourself online, that allows you to develop a stronger, and ‘freer’ identity in real life as well. Or, in Winnicott’s terms, it allows you to create the conditions under which your True Self can express itself, both online and offline.


As a means to rework the relation between the True and False Self, online subject constitution can indeed be therapeutical and liberating. In its anonymity, and its disconnect from everyday life, the Internet forum may provide a safe ground to test/feel out how the True Self can express itself. The forming of self in the virtual space can thus become a vital means of surviving in a rigidly normative world, where the True Self is strictly inhibited. And it is here that the political value of the subjectivation on these forums can be found.

The topics of “feminist narcissism” and “self-care as resistance”(KaraJ), frequently recurring in Tumblr discussions, clearly illustrates this point. The logic behind the statements is that you have to love yourself to be able to love others. This presumes that marginalized and oppressed individuals aren’t able to develop a healthy self-love in mainstream society, as societal norms stigmatize large parts of themselves (genderqueer identities are the most obvious example of this). Being self-assertive and narcissistic then becomes an act of resisting the norms that have limited you in all other areas of life.

The therapeutical and subversive effects are not self-evident though. The online persona as a defensive and protective False Self may very well be a reinforcement of a set of maneuvers employed to keep one’s true nature hidden at all costs. And Turkle states that, although virtual life has genuine potential for being psycho-therapeutical, in helping the individual feel better as well as heighten her quality of life in general, there is also endless room for unproductive repetition and navel-gazing without resolutions. She writes that “the outcome depends on the emotional challenges the [users] face and the emotional resources they bring to the [forum]” (Turkle 200).

Online subject constitution does not provide a fail-safe route to either mental health nor emancipation, but it does provide a great alternative for those who find that the physical reality they’re stuck in has no room for them to express and create themselves, and as such it has political potential worthy of further scrutiny.


Works Cited

KaraJ. Web. 25 May 2012.

The Real 1990s. Web. 25 May 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone, 1995. Print.

Winnicott, D. W. (Donald Woods).”Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self.” The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, 1965. 140-152. Print.

This paper was written as a final paper for the class “Psychic Life of Media,” taught by Professor Ben Kafka, Spring 2012 in the NYU Media, Culture, and Communication department.

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