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Friday, October 12 • 2:00pm - 3:30pm
Economies Of Authenticity

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To date, research on authenticity has mainly focused on its discursive construction. Some academics seek to develop a precise, analytical definition of the concept. Others engage in a pragmatic approach to explore how various social groups define authenticity or cognate terms. Both approaches consider how a person or entity performs authenticity, as well as how a person's or entity's authenticity can be evaluated and judged. Internet researchers have been at the forefront of this work, examining how practices of authenticity appear on social media, within online communities, and across the online/offline distinction.

Our panel, while acknowledging this previous work, adds in a relatively new emphasis: on the political, symbolic, and cultural economies of authenticity. In other words, after authenticity is discursively constructed, how is it transformed into forms of value and currency? Clearly, being labeled authentic allows for an entity to benefit from this status, perhaps by selling it (think of YouTube beauty vloggers being sponsored by cosmetics companies) or exchanging it (think of cross-disciplinary academic citation practices). We can also consider some of the more exploitative practices of authenticity, such as appropriation (think of politicians donning hardhats to appropriate working-class symbols) or delegitimation (by labeling someone else as "fake" or "inauthentic", one implicitly performs one's own authenticity and status of belonging). Finally, new entrants into authenticity practices may make claims to inherit the authenticity of previous practitioners (consider musicians who draw upon previous musical styles).

Throughout all these cases, authenticity can be trafficked into new domains marked by economic, social, or political capital. To put it bluntly, authenticity is extremely valuable. But of course, its value is often contingent on the very denial of crass economic incentives or underlying motives; that is, there is always a danger of "selling out," being seen as trying too hard, or being seen as co-opting someone else's hard-earned authenticity.

Indeed, our panel takes the perspective that social and economic valuations of authenticity are largely context-specific; yet, collectively, they index shared social ideals along with prevailing cultural anxieties. The panelists thus explore conceptions of authenticity across a diverse range of internet (sub)cultures and contexts: social engineering, Instagram taste-making and influence, video game commentary, and social media entertainment.

The first paper reveals the dual function of authenticity in the largely covert domain of social engineering. Social engineers seek a form of contextual authenticity that can withstand a vigilant vetting process in organizations. After exfiltrating information from those organizations, the social engineers often move to another context, such as "bragging rights forums," where they create power hierarchies transforming the previous authenticity into symbolic capital. Efforts to delineate authentic from inauthentic performances are also central to the arguments in the second paper, which explores how social media creators project patterned ideals of realness and sincerity on Instagram against the backdrop of the platform’s ostensible “authenticity paradox.” The authors highlight the strategies professional Instagrammers deploy to inoculate themselves against accusations of crass commercialism or narcissistic self-indulgence—in other words, fakery. The third paper offers a broad conceptual framework within which to understand the profound valuation of authenticity discourses in digital culture. Drawing upon their in-depth research into “social media entertainment” as a sprawling but emergent proto-industry, the authors highlight how authenticity functions relationally and dynamically as content creators struggle to maintain the authenticity-community-brand relationship. The final paper functions as a critical rejoinder to authenticity discourses. Specifically, it draws on two years of analysis of video game communities on Youtube, including analysis of workshops dedicated to the construction of authenticity as a spectacle, to place authenticity discourses into the larger context of digital capitalism.

Together, these papers address the stakes of the conversion of authenticity into economic and social currency. This is all the more pressing as digital cultural production increasingly hinges on that conversion amidst larger discussions of what's real and what's fake.

Friday October 12, 2018 2:00pm - 3:30pm EDT
Sheraton - Drummond West