Where are they now? Tea and authenticity

Sep 29, 2023 | Fellows, Transformations (Issue 10), Where are they now?

Professor Katrin Tiidenberg, IAS Fellow 2022/23

Where are they now? Tea and authenticity

Professor Katrin Tiidenberg

In January 2023, to the slight bewilderment of my friends and family – because ‘who goes to Northern England in January?’ – I stepped off a plane in Newcastle. The friendly driver the IAS had thoughtfully sent to collect me promised Durham would be lovely. I had to take his word for it, because it was too dark to see anything. In the car, I googled “Hatfield College” – my home for the coming three months – and the image search offered up pictures of solemn brick and cheerful young people in Potteresque gowns. What had I gotten myself into? Probably a very quiet time. Maybe I’d finally make a dent in that “to read,” pile. I’d go on long walks. Maybe I would become a connoisseur of tea. Certainly, this would be a window into authentic British (academic) culture.

Instead, it turned out to be what we, with the other IAS Fellows, jokingly called ‘winter camp for academics.’ An inspiring and energizing time of expanding horizons, learning new things, meeting new people and basking in that special glow of gelling into an intellectual community. For me, the fellowship also functioned as an antidote to burnout, which while seemingly ubiquitous in today’s academia, still tends to feel like personal failure. Being able to openly discuss – both with fellows based internationally and colleagues at Durham – the experiences of frustration and tedium that the winding academic career path and the idiosyncrasies of our home institutions evoke, and to talk about what we do to manage it, how we still find pleasures in it, offered not only a sense of solidarity, it also suggested alternative pathways within one’s chosen vocation. I am very grateful for having had the opportunity.

As for that plan to gain a greater appreciation for tea and to experience the authentic British (academic) culture – whatever that may mean – the jury is still out. Authenticity, however, became a central keyword in terms of the research undertaken. With Durham University’s Rille Raaper and Mariann Hardey and the IAS Fellows Philippa Collin and Robert Hassan we worked on the project ‘Risks to Youth and Studenthood: Commodification, Temporality and Digital Identities’. It explores how students enact their (student and otherwise) identities and belongings in the context of image-rich social media, with a particular focus on student-influencers. While student identities and transitions are not my area of expertise, social media practices and cultures are. I have been studying why and how people use social media, and how they make meaning with it for over a decade. Right now, in late August, sitting in my home office in Estonia, the other file open is the final draft of the first article from this project. Among other things, we are thinking about authenticity, taking seriously students’ agency and emergent literacies of navigating content creation, student ambition and vulnerabilities within the context of social media’s attention economy. Analyzing the interviews and social media accounts of the study participants, but also thinking about the fascinating identity and boundary-work engaged in by Durham University students and staff around belonging to one college and not another, questions of authenticity became ever-present.

We can think of authenticity as of a culturally and temporally specific social norm, which, while slippery to define, continues to have enduring cultural (and within the context of influencer industries also monetary) value. Social media practices are intertwined with notions of authenticity, although research has shown that on social media, authenticity is less about truthful, accurate self-presentation, and more about curated and relatable performances. In other words, people consider authentic that which is situation-appropriate, expected and normative. Not actually-make-up-less selfies, but selfies of faces wearing “natural” make-up, not emotional-vomit like self-disclosure, but self-presentation that aligns with gendered standards of relatable sincerity. Similarly, for content creators, a situational sense of authenticity, perhaps best articulated as ‘authentic enough,’ is what affords a narrative of integrity while generating attention and goodwill. Quoting Brooke Erin Duffy and Emily Hund, it can’t feel like “selling out,” but it has to still be carefully presented and maintained to allow one to manage the impressions one gives off, to manage one’s privacy, to manage one’s professional, status or monetary goals. Authenticity on social media is a glimpse into the backstage that reinforces, rather than undermines the curatorial self.

Beyond thinking about student and student-influencers, another IAS Fellow, David Kneas and I started collaborating on a project regarding social media representations of sea-glass. While beach-combing cultures are David’s project, our collaboration focuses on beachcombing content on Instagram. Lo and behold, here too, it seems to all be about authenticity. We are currently exploring the ubiquitous visuals of hands holding sea-glass as gestures of authenticity – locating and witnessing the discovery, the beachcomber identities, the beaches where the glass was found, imbuing what is otherwise often framed as waste(land), with value.

Finally, while at Durham, I was just starting a three-year research project with colleagues from UK, Austria and Finland. Trust and Visuality in Everyday Digital Practice (TRAVIS) focuses on how trust is experienced and enacted in image-rich social media interactions focused on everyday health and wellbeing. Here too, we are increasingly finding, that while talking about trust, our interlocutors need to talk about authenticity.

There’s a folder I have – like many of my peers, I presume – for plans, dreams and ideas for all the things I am one day going to write. Books. Articles. Manifestos. The notion of authenticity has haunted those files like a ghost in the machine. I’ve postponed it as I’ve often felt it to be too contradictory, too convoluted, too big of a journey to embark on. I guess that is why one goes to Northern England in January. To suddenly find oneself on a path that would have remained untaken without fellows.

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