“See You in Iran” on Facebook

Authenticity & Tourism

ISBN: 978-1-78754-817-6, eISBN: 978-1-78754-816-9

ISSN: 1571-5043

Publication date: 14 September 2018

Abstract

Iran is considered an emerging destination that remains largely under-toured, even as the recent lifting of strict economic sanctions and new international agreements is making it easier to obtain a visa-on-arrival. The Facebook page “See You in Iran” is used to promote the destination and communicate the “real” image of Iran (with numerous updates daily), with semblances of authenticity portrayed through user-generated content (UGC). UGC allows people to post and explore new places, and to interact with those who have just visited. This chapter assesses UGC using an interpretative framework: authentic inquiry (the need for unknown insight into a new awareness), authentic encounter (through relationships, connections, communitas, and belonging), and authentic production (based on feelings, emotions, and sensations).

Keywords

Citation

Wise, N. and Farzin, F. (2018), "“See You in Iran” on Facebook", Authenticity & Tourism (Tourism Social Science Series, Vol. 24), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 33-52. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1571-504320180000024001

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018 Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Social media is increasingly used to share travel experiences. Moreover, social media is contributing to creative discourses in tourism through user-generated content (UGC) to inform new destination images (Camprubí, Guia, & Comas, 2013; Easton & Wise, 2015; Mariana, Felice, & Mura, 2016; Sigala, 2011; Stepchenkova & Zhan 2013; Yoo & Gretzel, 2012). UGC allows expression of opinions and reactions to a wide audience, and when tourists decide they want to explore a new destination they know little about, they can easily access posts, reviews, and opinions. How tourists come to know about lesser-known or emerging destinations will be shaped by the subjective content through shared images, stories, feelings, and reactions. With this, UGC is challenging more traditional destination image formation and marketing approaches. These experiences reviewed and consumed through numerous online social media platforms go beyond image and marketing to offering much insight into the notion of place and destination authenticity. Employing the term “authentic” often represents attempts to lure consumers by offering a true glimpse, or sometimes faux, representation of what life is like in a given place. Now, in an era of readily accessible UGC, how and what people experience is challenging us to (re-)consider and (re-)interpret our understandings of authenticity. This chapter argues that the travel content individuals share about a destination provides us with contemporary insight into “generated authenticity” based on regular posts highlighting experiences and seeking online interactions to gain new knowledge of a destination.

Iran is considered as an emerging destination and remains largely under-toured, despite recent lifting of strict economic sanctions in 2015 and new international agreements for obtaining visa-on-arrival. However, the Western world still has an image of Iran as a relatively unknown destination. The use of the Facebook page “See You in Iran” (SYI) is an attempt to bring to light everyday experiences, feelings, reactions, and opinions of the country, generated by users who seek answers to their questions or want to share their interactions of local and social life in Iran. Posting experiences introduces tourists to local life by exposing users to their social interactions and everyday culture. Because sanctions initiated by the United States in 1979 (and expanded in 1995) closed the country, this significantly limited the inward mobility of tourists from the West, and as such, the tourism infrastructure and attractions mainly cater to domestic tourists. SYI offers much conceptual insight on authenticity, image, and destination promotion as the site attempts to portray the “real” image beyond the negative media representations. Not only does the site allow users to share experiences, users interact by offering advice and responding to queries to help potential tourists experience Iran.

Authenticity and User-Generated Content

As Mariani, Felice, and Mura note, “the internet has deeply transformed the manner in which travelers access information, plan for and book trips, and subsequently share their travel experiences” (2016, p. 321). Social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and TripAdvisor, have added another dimension to not only how tourists consume destination information online, but also how they request information and interact with other users through virtual travel communities (Chung & Koo, 2015; Easton & Wise, 2015; Hays, Page, & Buhalis, 2013; Mariani et al., 2016; Munar & Jacobsen, 2013). In line with this chapter, UGC presented on Facebook also allows people the opportunity to further explore new places and interact with people who have just visited (or reside in) lesser-known destinations (such as Iran).

Facebook is used to exhibit experiences, creating a source of information and appeal, which refers to stimulus factors or affective dimensions of authenticity (Karrebæk, Stæhr, & Varis, 2015; Mak, 2017; Vilnai-Yavetz & Tifferet, 2015). This chapter is concerned with how Facebook posts generate authenticity and social media platforms allow for such an understanding to be considered – both conceptually and practically. Knudsen and Waade (2010b) discuss phenomenological experiences as encounters which help produce authenticity and seek a new awareness. Experiences are further realized through understandings of interpersonal and intrapersonal experiences and interactions (Wang, 1999). Munar and Jacobsen (2013) highlight that tourists today put trust in social media and communicated experiences. Likewise, such authentic representations create or (re)create place images by posting questions, detailed narratives, descriptions, or photographs that describe or capture unique destination attributes (Smith, 2015). Today, social media’s increasing influence and the generation of creative discourse eases communication and helps establishing representations based on the content posted – producing authenticity. Representations are a “claim about a place’s characteristics” (Dittmer, 2010, p. 47), and because consumption is increasingly becoming more and more interactive and visual (Francesconi, 2014), social media platforms better allow prospective tourists to search content and get some sense of what to expect (Sigala, 2011; Xiang & Gretzel, 2009) and play an important role in making travel decisions (Yoo & Gretzel, 2012). Francesconi further addresses “visual and aural interaction creates an appealing atmosphere that invites further exploration” (2014, pp. 136–137). Therefore, it can be argued that the content in social media discourses help construct authentic imaginaries based on inquiries, productions, and encounters (Karrebæk et al., 2015).

Debates positioning authenticity in the field of tourism are regularly contested, with some suggestions that tourists in the past have generally sought altered realities (McKercher & du Cros, 2002). However, changing consumer demands in recent years has led to demands for everyday (or local, or real) experiences as opposed to commodified experiences (Xie, 2003), and such experiences are now easily disseminated widely via social media platforms (Knudsen & Waade, 2010b; Munar & Jacobsen, 2013). What tourists often encounter in places is an alternative reality, and as Leite and Graburn argue: “knowing that everything ‘on stage’ is put there as entertainment, tourists believe that the ‘real’, authentic parts of the world are to be found backstage, hidden from view” (2009, p. 43). Moving into the next sections, representations from the Facebook page, SYI attempts to bring the “real” Iran to prospective tourists interesting in visiting this opening destination. Linking to discussions above, UGC is helping shape discourses and how people perceive and convey what they believe to be authentic representations of a place and society.

Authenticity and “See You in Iran”

Referring to the desire for authentic experiences, MacCannell’s (1976) insight implies people seek accurate meanings about a place, its everyday social interactions, culture, history, and nature (Waller & Lea, 1998). Considering more contemporary and creative discourses that convey everyday social interactions links to the aim of this chapter. This chapter will address and frame SYI as an informational and promotional Facebook page that showcases the “real” Iran and assists potential tourists to a relatively unknown destination. While this discussion does include examples of UGC in the analysis, it does not offer a wholesale analysis of data from the site. It does offer conceptual directions and understanding of the use of social media and authenticity. SYI’s main website states:

See You in Iran is the foremost platform for future and former tourists to Iran to connect with locals through experience and information sharing. As featured in France 24, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Iran, and De Correspondent, See You in Iran originally sought to counter Iranophobia through presenting people’s unfiltered narratives about traveling to Iran. Since its foundation as a Facebook group in August 2015, See You in Iran has exponentially grown into a community of almost 100k people stretching to multiple social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TripAdvisor) (See You in Iran, 2017).

There are various approaches to interpreting and understanding authenticity, for instance, this case does not relate to “staged authenticity” per se, because UGC accounts for interactions based on experiences. Therefore, any (mis)conceptions can be eliminated by presenting first-hand experiences and encounters.

Due to the nature of the content being analyzed in this chapter, integrations are based on existential authenticity (Kim & Jamal, 2007; Rickly-Boyd, 2012c, 2013b; Steiner & Reisinger, 2006; Wang, 1999). Existential authenticity, as discussed by Wang (1999), details intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions, discussed below. What is also considered “hot” and “cool” authentication is outlined by Cohen and Cohen (2012a). The framework for analysis in this chapter is based on data captured at a moment in time; however, social media content is continually unfolding (so it is never complete) as users add new insight, comment on, and respond to posts regularly. This further lends to performative aspects of authenticity and interactions based on three points of interpretation going forward in the analysis section of this chapter: authentic inquiry (the need for insight into a new awareness), authentic encounter (through relationships, connections, communitas, and belonging), and authentic production (based on feelings, emotions, and sensations). This framework for interpretation blends conceptual understandings in the interpretation of the data from existential authenticity (intrapersonal and interpersonal) with authentication (“hot” and “cool”). Because UGC is conductive to the resulting experience and interactions with such content is continual, the notion is “hot” authentication resonates with authentic encounter and production given the presence of “accumulative existential authenticity” (Cohen & Cohen, 2012a, p. 1303), but can link to intrapersonal and interpersonal fulfillment expressed in posts given the focus of the experience being detailed in a particular post. Alternatively, the notion of “cool” authentication is based on proof (or the dissemination of facts) and includes an air of objectivity. This resonates with authentic inquiry because tourists are on a need to know basis and seek valid responses. But because travel in a destination, such as Iran, is about exploring a relatively unknown destination, users depend on quick and accurate information to assist their travels – which is what social media allows.

While there are thousands of posts to SYI, the research presented below analyzes 200 top posts based on most recent from the March 1, 2017. These posts offer a snapshot sample into the ways content facilitates interaction and is disseminated, discussed, and debated on the SYI Facebook page. Descriptive content collected included number of “Likes” (and reactions, recorded in total), number of comments and the type of post, presented. The analysis builds around the types of post, and assesses the textual content posted, comments, images, and number of likes (and reactions) on posts, and discusses similar occurrences in the data. Some posts that were shared to the page were analyzed only if the content was deemed travel related. Unrelated content, such as political propaganda, was not considered in the analysis, because it lacked relation to the points of interpretation concerning Iran as a destination.

Authenticating UGC on “See You in Iran”

The three categories – authentic inquiry, authentic production, and authentic encounter – are further expanded in the subsections below (Table 1 presents number of posts by category of authenticity). Authentic inquiry was the most represented category from the snapshot analysis and most users engage with the SYI Facebook page to propose questions or gain insight from users who can assist their travels. Because of the need for a quick response, this links to “hot” authentication based on other users who know (or have experienced) what the user is seeking to find out, which is why authentic inquiry represents a considerable proportion of the posts. Authentic production and authentic encounter disseminate different content and offer more depth and insight about perceptions of the “real” Iran based on users’ reactions and experiences.

Table 1.

Posts by Category of Interpreted Authenticity

AuthenticCategory Posts Type of Post Comments Likes
# % Text % Image % Video # % # %
AP 50 25 49 25 46 55.5 2 587 31 9,427 51
AE 14 7 12 6.2 9 10.8 4 121 6.4 2,254 12.2
AI 100 50 99 50.5 6 7.2 2 820 43.2 1,025 5.5
AP/AE 23 11.5 23 11.7 16 19.3 5 167 8.8 4,709 25.5
AP/AI 13 6.5 13 6.6 6 7.2 1 200 10.6 1,080 5.8

Notes: AP, authentic production; AE, authentic encounter; AI, authentic inquiry.

Tables 2 and 3 organize and present the top 10 posts based on comments and likes/reactions (with a number of similar posts for each). This shows user engagement and involvement in posts, with inquiry posts as the majority. Building from Cohen and Cohen’s (2012a) theory of authentication, interactions are most common in authentic production posts, because they inform/present elements of nature, culture, tradition, and food. Such posts are more subjective and existential authenticity; emerging from these posts offers insight into the social dynamics of connecting relating interests among users who act with other users – thus producing “hot” authentication. The top 10 posts are also both predominantly image posts, and images are likely to receive more interactions based on social media consumption practices (Mariani et al., 2016; Vilnai-Yavetz & Tifferet, 2015). Images encourage more interaction because they help showcase the destination from the perspective of the user, and when combining the frequency of likes across posts categorized as authentic production, this type of interaction accounts for just over 81% of the likes. In fact, authentic production posts accounted for a combined total of 82% of the image posts (Table 1). While authentic inquiry posts were more straightforward when it comes to interpreting content, there are a number of overlaps in terms of authentic production and inquiry. The frequency of comments and likes is minimal compared to authentic production and authentic encounter. Interpreted as “cool” authentication, authentic inquiry as noted is more straightforward and does not require as much interaction because users are seeking an accurate response to assist them. The advice is still authentic in that users gain from other users who know from experience. Insight can be flexible because interactions do open the possibility of gaining from suggestions that might save time or money. But there is (in general) such a high frequency of questions being proposed, and without the subjective and experiential insight that people expand on through experiences (as they do in authentic productions and authentic encounters), this may explain why likes for authentic inquiry posts yield much lower results – given there is not a need to engage once a user has gained what they requested.

Table 2.

Top 10 Commented Posts

Rank # Comments Post Description Post Category of Authenticity
1 143 Kale Pacheh – sheep head and brain stew Text and images Production
2 113 Question about vegetarian food Text Inquiry
3 95 Common Iranian meal Text and images Production
4 72 Wild horses in Lorestan Text and images Production and encounter
5 70 Dolme (food) Text and images Production
6 64 Question about doogh Text Production and inquiry
7 42 Question about weather in Tehran and Shiraz Text Inquiry
8 40 Flavor of food – saffron Text and images Inquiry
9 34 Everyday interactions Shared video Encounter
T10 27 Question about type of bread being made Text and images Production and inquiry
T10 27 Persons expressing their visit to Tehran Text and images Production
Table 3.

Top 10 Liked (and Reacted) Posts

Rank # Likes Post Description Post Category of Authenticity
1 2.1k Wild horses in Lorestan Text and images Production and encounter
2 1.5k Common Iranian meal Text and images Production
3 659 Dolme (food) Text and images Production
4 626 Everyday interactions Shared video Encounter
5 558 Different landscapes across Iran Text and images Production
6 545 Desert and mountains Text and images Production and encounter
7 488 Kale Pacheh – sheep head and brain stew Text and images Production
8 391 Amount of snow in Iran Text and images Production
9 389 Food from a restaurant in Tajrish Square in Tehran Text and images Production
10 355 Nasir ol Molk Mosque in Shiraz Text and images Production

Authentic Inquiry

Authentic inquiry is based on the need for insight into a new awareness (Xiang & Gretzel, 2009). Social media platforms are ideal virtual spaces for users to post questions and receive quick responses to help inform those who require assistance. There are guidebooks about Iran, but organizing transport, booking rooms, and making payments are continual challenges tourists face. Based on the sample of posts analyzed, question posts received the highest frequency. Types of questions, however, were vast, presented in Table 4.

Table 4.

Authentic Inquiry Based on Question Types Proposed (N = 113)

Type of Inquiry Posts Comments Likes
# % # % # %
Transport 18 16 121 11.9 524 24.9
Accommodation 14 12.4 90 8.8 69 3.3
Food 8 7.1 278 27.2 470 22.3
Communication 5 4.4 40 3.9 35 1.7
Weather 2 1.7 47 4.6 45 2.1
General travel advice 12 10.6 100 9.8 265 12.6
Language and culture 8 7.1 61 6 176 8.4
Visa 16 14.2 124 12.2 256 12.2
Money and currency 3 2.6 15 1.5 10 0.4
Place specific question 27 23.9 144 14.1 255 12.1

Referring back to Tables 2 and 3, authentic inquiry appears sporadically in top comment and like posts. Given the timeliness of questions, interactions with inquiry posts tend to only get a few comments with the main exception being food-related queries. Food is an integral part of culture and identity, and certainly sparks interest among users – commonly found in related studies (Mak, 2017; Sims, 2009; Stepchenkova & Zhan, 2013). In this case, a number of people were concerned about finding vegetarian (or vegan) food given many food posts show meat-oriented dishes including Kale Pacheh (sheep head and brain stew), as one user posts:

I am planning to travel to Iran later this year for about a month. After seeing pictures of sheep heads as food, I had to start wondering how vegan-friendly the local food is or can be. I have no reference or clue whatsoever. Thank You.

Transport posts tend to receive a lot of likes/reactions given the number of posts in comparison to food. Users interact with transport posts to give advice and discuss any issues someone may encounter getting from one destination to another, for example,

We want to travel from Tehran to Kashan on April the 20th. Sadly the iranrail.net website seems to be offline, can anyone tell us what our best travel options are and how to book them? Thanks!

Given the timeliness that this user needed, they received one’s responses almost immediately to allow them to get the information requested: “You have to go to park Savar in Argentine Square in Tehran and take the VIP bus to Kashan. Cost you not more than 6-10 Euro.” In another post, a group of people needed assistance:

Hello, we (10 persons group) are planning a two-week trip to Iran. We arrive to Tehran Airport (early in the morning) and would like to go to Isfahan at once. Is it possible to rent a bus with a driver for one day? Is it expensive? Any ideas? Thank you.

Again, a short and quick response from a fellow user offered timely assistance: “You can do it at the airport for s.th like 800 tomans per km.” Queries concerning specific destinations solicit more interaction and allow users to explore the range of options brought forward based on other users and local experiences:

Hi there, I’m planning to travel to Hormuz Island in the next few days. I would love to stay on the island but can’t find any information. Does anyone know if it is possible for foreigners? Would also appreciate any tips about the best way to get around there and for Qeshm

Responses followed shortly after the post, with one user tagging another user in the comment asking them to share their recent experience:

[…] its actually really easy to find a place to stay in Qeshm, problem is for us at least it was through knowing someone who knew someone who had a place etc. we ended up going to the first hotel we saw and asking them for vacancies and it worked…but when we called before it was all booked out everywhere […] so being there in person works better. To go from Qeshm to hormoz island is a 1 hour fairy ride, the faily leaves twice a day 7:30 a.m. and i think 15:30 (not sure abt the last one), the island is beautifullll, we didnt stay overnight though so I cant give any tips on that. Its basically easy to find our way around by just talking to ppl if u speak farsi or one of u does, and even if not im sure a lot of ppl will help somehow anyway, good luck [sic.]

Looking at the type of queries presented in Table 4, the range of questions, grouped into 10 categories, suggests various considerations concerning ease of access and mobility. Their range adds to the complexity of needs and demands of tourists. SYI eases communication and allows for timely responses so that travel plans are not halted. It also reduces delay and disruption based on the ability to quickly share tangible experiences or provide local insight.

Authentic Production

The analyzed posts were split fairly evenly between authentic inquiry and authentic production/encounter (with some observed overlap between the two). The latter involves feelings, emotions, and sensations, and most of the posts used images to integrate these interpreted reactions. As already noted, 82% of the image posts were interpreted as authentic production – to help communicate the destination. Although images represent only a snapshot of the destination seen through the user’s experience, they help portray sensations (of food) or the individual’s feelings (in cultural and natural landscapes). Furthermore, the text that appears with the posted images adds emotion to the post. Mak (2017) sees these as affective dimensions that build on cognitive dimensions interpreted in images. In organizing the content, Table 5 breaks authentic production based on the data into eight categories.

Table 5.

Authentic Production Categories (N = 86)

Type of Production Posts Comments Likes
# % # % # %
Place and culture 36 41.9 243 25.5 4,967 32.6
Landscape 15 17.4 71 7.4 1,983 13
At the mosque 2 2.3 19 2 495 3.3
People and family 4 4.7 35 3.7 415 2.7
Food or tea/coffee 18 20.9 477 50 4,265 28
Nature (flora/fauna) 5 5.8 93 9.7 2,745 18.1
Activity 3 3.5 13 1.4 259 1.7
Traditional shops 3 3.5 3 0.3 87 0.6

Authentic production offers a glimpse into everyday life and settings, may this be through images of food or natural landscapes. In producing a recent overview, one user posts:

We have just finished our trip through Iran and can honestly say it has been nothing like our previous travel experiences (I have traveled 25 countries while my partner has visited some 45!). We are already planning to revisit in the future to see what we were not able to this time around. I have but one question! Does anyone have, or can point me towards, a recipe for Esfahan biryani?? I would love to have something at least close to it again at home!

To produce an image of their journey, this user refers back to her/his experience so that s/he can (re)produce Iranian food at home for interpersonal fulfillment. Another unique theme that emerged was Iran’s landscape diversity. Many might presume the destination is comprised of vast expanses of desert, but posts attempt to offer new insight into the unknown by showcasing reactions in a range of different natural and cultural settings:

Gahar Lake of Lorestan! [image of the natural landscape]

Beyond dreams ♥ #Hengamisland #beautifulIran

Endless beauty [picture of the persons legs and feet looking out at the far stretches of the desert–inter authentic experience enjoying the landscape]

Some more images of Iran [images depict the everyday movements and mobility of local people]

Some color of the Iranian spice from the bazaar in Esfahan [pictures from in the spice market]

Beautiful nature in Iran [led to people asking where this was and interaction among users to share experiences about the place the tourist posted from]

Only in Iran (and maybe a few other countries) you can find all these diversities having assembled under the name of one single country! [landscape images of the desert, skiing on mountains, see (Persian Gulf), green forest, and a cave]

Iran is the first country I have been which I can see snow-capped mountains from the desert/desert from snow-capped mountain. Amazing!” [with two images depicting this]

These last two posts offered similar insights into the uniqueness of Iran’s diverse landscapes. Another post showing a cultural landscape: “Abyaneh village from the other side of the valley [with images of the village and cultural landscape]” encouraged a response inspiring fellow users to visit Abyaneh village in the future: “Haven’t been there yet, seems like a beautiful place to visit!” and “beautiful”.

As commonly observed in posts, production is consumed in most cases through images. Images portray the destination in a new light by detailing emotions and feelings. They also help create a new appeal to overcome negative associations by depicting more contemporary images. Landscape posts showcase this, but as already noted, food and cultural production posts spurred the most interaction among users, for example:

Coolest café only found in Tehran [picture of the café van – 117 Likes/Reactions]

Who wants Iranian food? We call it “Dolme” … Here you go [picture of the food – 70 Comments and 659 Likes/Reactions]

Rasht Bazaar [images of fruit, fish, and flowers from the market – 230 Likes/Reactions]

The social dynamics and interactions in such posts were common in food-related posts across the interpretative frameworks. Cohen and Cohen (2012a) speak to interactions among different practices, and users exemplify this by posting images of food because it is an expression of culture, local rituals and offerings, and community. In this case, and across all the categories listed in Table 5, authentic production was also about overcoming terra incognita, by producing stories that overcome how other people perceive Iran:

When I broke the news that I’ll be traveling to Iran, everyone went bizarre. It included my family, friends, colleagues, students and even my boss. Everyone thought, there she goes being a “rebel” again. Though the thought evolved from a very protective concern. Only a handful researched about Iran, and told me to have fun. My boss thought, she would never see me again […] 1 week after I was gone. This article was featured in the local papers…” [Image of a newspaper with the headline: “Iran is full of surprises”]

Newspaper media can help change and shape place perceptions (Wise, 2011) given the power of media discourse. Users eliciting long narratives allow researchers to gain insight on the use of social media as a creative discourse. Users can become encapsulated in a story and come to interpret a place in a new light, as the following post facets:

I found this city [Shiraz] a colorful paradise and home to breathtaking mosques and religious structures. I first headed to the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque early in the morning. From the outside, the building looks like a traditional mosque but it’s actually hiding a gorgeously colorful secret. You will be blown away by the mosque’s beauty which is best appreciated in the early morning light. Even if you are not a religious person, you may feel your hands coming together in prayer when you see the brilliance of this light through the stained glass. The Vakil Bazaar is the finest and most atmospheric of the many bazaars I’ve passed through in Iran. Absolutely worth a visit and a couple of photos. After visiting Vakil Bazaar on my way to Vakil Mosque, I spent few hours in Vakil Mosque. It was built in the early 18th Century and includes a massive outdoor prayer hall decorated with beautiful plain stone columns, spiraling masonry domes and arches, and extremely detailed tile ceiling with Islamic colors. The nearby, formerly a public bath house, the Vakil Bath is adorned with dome-style ceilings and intricate mosaic tiles. For those who have never seen an old hammam, I suppose this could be an interesting place to visit. I also visited Tomb of Hafez in the evening, a very popular place for Iranians to visit. It is a lovely site to wander around and chat with Iranians who sitting and reading Hafez’s poems in the garden. I have also visited Narenjestan Garden and Zinat-al-Mulk House late afternoon and you can find few shots from these places here. If you like Iranian people, you will love Shiraz. This city is full of good vibes and positive energy. I met some lovely people there, and made two good photographer friends (Hadi and Milad) which I have used one of their shots in this album. I felt like we were good friends by the end of the few days we spent hanging out together. If anyone would like the details of these guys who showed me around then send me a private message and I’ll pass on their details to you. I expected Shiraz to be amazing city and it surpassed my expectations. Let’s put it this way: It was just “MAGICAL.”

This post details both authentic production and authentic encounter, based on intrapersonal and interpersonal narration. The above quote detailed the individual’s personal reflection in Shiraz but later integrated her/his encounters with locals. This individual is authenticating this experience by reiterating what made the journey most significant. It is the narration that presents objective insight while one’s responses help transform what is detailed in the posted images.

The next section addresses authentic encounters. There are a number of observed overlaps because authentic productions can result from authentic encounters. Aiding the discussion presented by Wang (1999), existential authenticity disseminated via SYI’s Facebook page transcends interpretations of self and others. Authentic production and encounter both involve meaningful interaction (Stepchenkova & Zhan, 2013). Production is a matter of the individual posting and sharing how one views Iran based on her/his intrapersonal experiences – with most of the posts linking specifically to the category of authentic production (25%) or this category and another category (another 18%) (Table 1). Facebook as a social media platform supports this notion of intrapersonal authenticity because it is individual desires people consume (based on their own and other experiences), which are part of the authentic self-making priorities. Cohen and Cohen question “who has the power to endow tourist attractions with authenticity” (2012a, p. 1296), and what this research shows is that social media is putting users in control of authenticating a place using their authentic encounters to alternatively display a sense of authenticity with and among others, showcasing bonds and ties with friends, family, or the community.

Authentic Encounters

A sense of community or communitas (Wang, 1999) was observed through users showcasing relationships, new connections and ties of belonging in a new place, or as Stepchenkova and Zhan highlight the “tourist’s desire to experience a commonplace, everyday, and authentic life of local people” (2013, p. 598). To help position and place a greater sense of community (Wise, 2015), SYI users show a range of encounters with family and/or friends. Although the tourist is mobile, the impression one makes in a post connects one to an encounter embedded in the time of the experience. The types of authentic encounters detailed in Table 6 are similar to Table 5 (the one difference being “traditional shops”). While authentic encounter categories were similar to authentic production, it was the basis of interpreting communitas and interpersonal authenticity that differentiated such posts.

Table 6.

Authentic Encounter Categories (N = 37)

Type of Encounter Posts Comments Likes
# % # % # %
Place and culture 14 37.9 105 36.7 2,600 37.3
Landscape 3 8.1 14 4.7 230 3.3
At the mosque 1 2.7 14 4.7 123 1.8
People and family 1 2.7 2 0.7 161 2.3
Food or tea/coffee 6 16.2 23 8 616 8.8
Nature (flora/fauna) 6 16.2 112 38.9 2,799 40.3
Activity 6 16.2 18 6.3 434 6.2

One post, for instance, showed an image with the user and her/his parents with a vista of Lahijan in the background, posting: “Beautiful Lahijan, Guilan, Iran with mom and dad.” While this particular post was based on familial links, others detailed their experiences with friends and family or desires to connect with locals:

We are 2 brothers from Malaysia. We’ve been to central part of Iran such as Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, Kerman, etc. We’re at Queshm [sic.] now, planning to hitch hike all the way to Armenia through the west of Iran

Salooom [sic.] Dustanam. Me and My friend staying until Saturday in Tehran. We are two Germans looking for some nice company to explore the city. See you in Tehran

Salam everyone, Hi, I already book a tour tomorrow with private taxi in Kashan to Abyaneh village, Fin Garden, Holy Shrine, Sand Dune and Salt lake for 40 euro and I’m looking for another 1 or 2 traveling partners so we can share the cost (20 each or less) and have fun together. If someone is interested please pm me

The latter two posts could also be interpreted as authentic inquiry, but instead of proposing a direct question, they simply sought company among others to explore places with. A shared post presented a video depicting encounters between locals and tourists in Tehran with the caption: “You don’t need to know English, French, German, etc. People are always welcoming ….” Such a post attempts to ease fears of the unknown by showcasing authentic encounters and the helpfulness of locals who welcome international tourists to Iran. Other encounters attempt to promote immersion. Another post showed Iranian teachers and international students who just completed a course as an attempt to advertise a language and culture class: “… Are you interested in Persian culture and Farsi language? Join us, get your certificate and be one of us.”

Encounters are also disseminated through post-trip reflections detailing encounters in Iran and highlighting experiences:

The best trip of my life!! Iran is fantastic!! Hello from Italy [person reflecting on their trip and showing picture highlights of architecture, bread making, and interactions with locals and friends]

My story with Iran started years ago through fascination with its culture and people as well as fear of the unknown due to political and historic issues. Being an Egyptian was a challenge cause we don’t have full diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran […] but I believe in the cultural links and people understanding as my main line of protection […]. For two weeks and bit more I toured the Persian land (Tehran, Qazwin, Tabriz, Zanjan, Rasht, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz and little places in between) it was amazing trip part of which was with my Italian friend and part was on my own. I took public transport, met with locals, prayed at their mosques, ate food with them, drink tea with taxi drivers, was invited to students’ dorms and house to meet families or help them improve their English

The second post here is an overall reflection about this individual’s excitement and encounters further disseminated images of architectural highlights, bread making, and interactions with locals and friends. The third post also included 47 photos of this individual’s encounters with friends and locals as described in the narrative. While the above posts reflected past encounters, the next two examples detail meetings shortly after the experience occurred:

A big crowd & a long wait in the Bazar to taste this traditional unique tasty meal at “Haj Mahmood Beryany” in the pleasant company of the Isfahanians

A must try … (at least once …)

Wild horses in Lorestan [images of horses walking next to a river with boulders and rapids], comment: Actually they are not wild they belong to Nomads who live there from Fall to the end of Winter

Both provide local insight to not only show authentic production, but provide context based on encounters to clarify points and initial interpretations. Referring back to Knudsen and Waade’s (2010b) work, the phenomenological insight produced in authentic production and encounter posts signifies the role of how UGC helps (re)create place perceptions and imaginations and allows for interaction to inspire future tourists.

Conclusion

This chapter offers a snapshot of content posted on SYI’s widely used Facebook page. It can be argued that once tourists intervene in a destination, the authenticity is lost as cultures and landscape are commodified. But because Iran is still a relatively unknown destination for many prospective tourists, insight from those who propose questions or post their experiences on Facebook represents an attempt to highlight the variety of possibilities and guide them in the right direction when needed. UGC displayed on the Facebook page does not seem to cater or provide special treatment, so one could argue, when visiting Iran, Westerners can expect to experience everyday life and see the destination from the perspective of an Iranian tourist – since most tourism infrastructure accommodates domestic and regional (Middle East) tourists. Images of the destination help produce and capture an imagination (Vilnai-Yavetz & Tifferet, 2015; Wise, 2011) in an attempt to alter perceptions of the destination that are not always favorable in the mainstream media.

Insight outlined in this chapter link to the need to maintain the level of authenticity portrayed through the Facebook page to further promote Iran as an emerging destination, without losing that everyday appeal of the country. Take-away points from this chapter are geared toward promoters of tourism and businesses, who must also be careful how they engage and interact with UGC to ensure they maintain the level of authenticity that SYI has promoted since its inception. There is a need to ensure SYI remains user-managed to continue conveying authentic experiences of first-hand encounters in different destinations. Proposing questions also allows future tourists to gain local insight and from a practical standpoint future can get a sense of what to do and where to go by reviewing past content posted on the site giving them a glimpse into “real” encounters in Iran.