Social media and the needs of the self.

# The social web is a place of conflict and excess where we can both hide behind usernames and computer screens to be feared and hated or present ourselves as masters of our art to be loved and revered. What part does 'the mind' play in our social interactions? 

When I wrote that participation on different types of social service may be constrained by our own vanity Will Berard directed me to a post where he compares our behaviour and needs on social networks to our needs and wants with regards to food.

While the side of our social interactions governed by vanity is, generally, undesirable it can be said to mirror our food consumption habits where we are repeatedly brought back by our cravings:

very much like eating, nature chose its wiring in the most basic fashion, associating the reward not with the actual thing that's good for you (a healthy, balanced intake of calories/meaningful construction of social relationship), but with a "shortcut" that works just as well (the taste of sweet/fatty foods, or superficial social validation).

This connection and our attitude toward the rewards from social media immediately brought to mind the battle fought within ourselves in Sigmund Freud's model of the psyche.

The Freudian mind

MindFreud proposed that the mind is composed of three 'constructs': the id, the ego and the super-ego which control aspects of our behaviour and are often in conflict.

The id

The unorganized part of the personality structure that contains a human's basic, instinctual drives. It is unconscious by definition and drive us according to the pleasure principle as we seek short-term, instant gratification.

The ego

The ego acts in accordance with the reality principle and serves to satisfy the needs of the id in realistic ways. It looks for longer term satisfaction and sets up defensive mechanisms to keep us from harm. It is very much the piggy-in-the-middle, coping with the real world around us whilst trying to temper the animalistic urges of the id and the ideals of the super-ego

The super-ego

The super-ego strives for perfection and is our narcissistic drive. It aims for us to realise the image of ourselves that we want to become and introduces a sense of guilt when we do not achieve it.

The social mind

We can equate each of Freud's constructs with elements of our conduct on social services:

  • Id - instant gratification, the need for Likes, +1s and ReTweets, the desire for "affection" regardless of the consequences - "everybody friend me"
  • Ego - longer term planning, building a community to act as a foundation from which we can achieve those Likes and ReTweet's, having to interact with those in our community and relate to them as individuals so as to maintain those friendships
  • Super-ego - the part that only wants to talk about ourselves, the aspect that drives us to create, to blog so that we can achieve the state of perfection in our craft irrespective of others

As in our offline lives, we must achieve a balance in order to function within the generally accepted "rules" of the social web. We cannot endlessly seek out new friends online to satisfy the needs of our psyche so how can we relate all this to our normal relationships?

What of Dunbar?

Our ancestors had a physical need to gather in trusted groups for more effective hunting and greater protection. Base instinctual needs of these groups were consistent with the id-controlled mind: eat, reproduce, survive - all requiring instant solutions. As they evolved and settled so survival became easier and the relationships between individuals altered and started to become more social than functional.

The relative luxury of modern life and technology means that we no longer have this physical need for grouping (although as a species we still need to reproduce) but, instead, we have more a mental need to connect to avoid the psychological and emotional effects of isolation - we are social animals after all.

As children we are born with an id-controlled mind, instinct tells us to feed, to grow, to survive. As we become more cognisant so we learn, and are taught, that society demands the more ego-driven approach to social interaction and we each undergo our own mini evolution.

As we have previously seen, our capacity to create strong, intimate bonds doesn't scale and our relationships are more fleeting the larger our social circles extend. Consequently, the type of connections we establish with others via a social network will resonate with a different aspect of our personality.

Our closest relationships, described by Dunbar as existing within the smaller Circles of Acquaintanceship, are regulated very much by the ego as we seek to make and maintain those friendships by empathising with others, tolerating their views and interacting with them as equals.
Circles of Acquaintanceship

On a more frivolous note we can cast the net of our informal connections much wider and achieve the core, instinctive needs of the id via these extended connections; the selfishness of wanting others to like us (receiving +1s, and ReTweets) allows us to cultivate this form of affection without offering anything in response.

Our vanity sometimes gets the better of us and the super-ego takes over which triggers the notion that some may not wish to be absorbed by a topic and lose their sense of self. In such a scenario it is felt that the super-ego hits a wall and the id is denied direct gratification.


It is the role of the ego to show us that "social gratification" can be achieved in a controlled, measured way without the bingeing and any subsequent feeling of guilt (thus placating the id) and that by volunteering ourselves to the greater good we can, potentially, achieve a sense of perfection by using the platform of the topic to improve on our creative skills but within its framework.

The different social platforms available will serve to feed the requirements of each aspect of our psyche:

  • the quick-fire social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Google+) supply instant gratification with Likes, +1s etc. and the selfish gathering of as many friends as possible or gloating over a high Klout score
  • blogs are traditionally the realm of the super-ego where we exist in our self-made playground to do what we will and perfect our vision of ourselves - or at least our works.
  • the new breed of service such as Branch and Medium, however, serve to bring us back to the rational ego, the middle ground where we can still hone our craft and receive the plaudits of our peers but in a more controlled, and less narcissistic, environment.

It is undesirable to obsess over follower numbers, influence measurement and number of re-shares so, while these things can be useful, we should aim to keep the id in check and not let them govern our social experience. Similarly, it is good to write and share our opinion but the narcissisic super-ego must not be allowed to control our behaviour or we will find our 'friends' drifting away.


As individuals, and as a species, we have gone from the instinct driven, id-controlled behaviour once essential to the survival of our ancestors to the more ego-controlled mindset required by modern society. We are still, however, at the mercy of both our instinctual urges and the perfection of self required by Freud's super-ego.

As we try to resist the base urges of the id and achieve a sense of ease with stepping out of the limelight then, perhaps, we can truly say that both we, and the social web, have truly evolved.

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