Jul 12 • 39M

David Tortolini Goes Beyond IRL Spaces

We talk about the importance of digital connection, and all the ways that communities are built through the internet.

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We learn so much about the world from the internet that it’s easy to forget that this sort of communication is still new—and take for granted everything we have at our fingertips. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to learn more about a new coffee shop, you couldn’t just go on its Instagram page and see what sort of content it was posting. But now, a scroll through someone’s feed can tell you about everything from their menu offerings and hours of operation to their events, workers, and political stances.

David Tortolini is an incoming graduate student at Purdue University who studies food and digital spaces. Last year, he gave a talk about how coffee brands used their Instagram pages following the murder of George Floyd to galvanize their communities, whether by participating in fundraisers or attending protests. David’s work exposes the importance of digital platforms: They are both the fuel that connects communities and the levers that enforce existing power dynamics and create disparities in access to resources.

In other words, social media and other shared digital spaces can be powerful tools. Used well, they have the potential to harness collective action, uplift voices, and help folks find people who care about the same things as they do. Used poorly, they can cause enormous harm. If you use social media to make decisions about the world around you—which, at this point, we all do to some extent—then this is a must-listen episode. Here’s David:


Ashley: David, I was hoping you could start by introducing yourself to everybody.

David: Sure. My name is David Tortolini. I'm an incoming graduate student at Purdue University in the American Studies department.

Ashley: David, did you grow up with coffee in your life?

David: Kinda sort of? My parents drink coffee. They drink maybe two or three cups a day. But for me, I always grew up drinking yerba mate. My mom is Argentinian and my dad is BIPOC from the United States. But growing up for me, it was always mate, mate, mate with the bombilla—I grew up on all that.

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But I didn't start drinking coffee until I was about 25 when I needed a pick-me-up one day—and I don't drink energy drinks—and my friends gave me a blonde roast from Starbucks and it was like an aha moment.

Ashley: Tell me about that aha moment.

David: I always knew coffee to be like, something off-putting for me. But when I had it that time, I just tasted a complexity of flavors and I was like, “Okay, this is why people love coffee. I can see why people love coffee black.”

And I just jumped head first into finding out about specialty coffees, finding flavor profiles, trying to understand where coffee regions are, like the different regions, the varietals, the seasons, how even the amount of rain can change the way a coffee's gonna be roasted the following year.

And then the big, almost music-in-the-background kind of moment was when I had Tandem Coffee’s—they had this coffee with a blueberry note and I tasted blueberries and I was like, “Wow, this is so complex, more than I could ever even have imagined.”

Ashley: It's funny you mentioned the tasting note of blueberries, because I feel like if you took a poll of different coffee folks and their aha moment or their, “Wow, this is something totally different that I didn't expect” [moment], I bet you at least half of them would say that blueberries are part of that journey.

I know for me it is. I had a coffee from, I think it was from Irving Farm.

It was a natural Ethiopia called—oh, I'm gonna get this wrong, but it was a natural Ethiopia. And I remember tasting blueberries in that, and I was like, “This is so different from anything I've ever had.”

But blueberries kind of come up a lot in these tasting notes. I think Veronica Grimm of Glitter Cat actually just did an episode of Soleil Ho's podcast. Soleil is a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has a podcast called Extra Spicy, and I think Veronica mentioned saying the word blueberry like, 23 times [in a barista competition].

David: Yeah, I wonder what it is that why we have such a connection with blueberries and coffee. This isn't part of my research, but I think it could just be maybe the acidity. It could be a similar acidity profile or the tannins of the coffee. Just something about coffee and blueberries—they just mesh so well together.

Ashley: I know you said that this is probably not part of your studies. And I wonder if this is a question that maybe you might know somebody who would know the answer to this, but do you think that blueberries specifically have a distinct flavor that's not replicable by other things?

David: I think so, because when you think of artificial blueberry flavoring, right? It's a manmade attempt trying to make what a blueberry can be synthesized as. And it's totally different than when you're trying to eat or even drinking something with wild blueberries in it, or even farmers’ blueberries.

And I think blueberries are one of those things—at least in the West—because when you look at how flavor is inherently part of a colonial process, blueberries are just like, I don't wanna say a ubiquitous term, but it's just like a flavor term. When you think of a blueberry automatically, you think of the flavors on your tongue.

Ashley: Yeah, that's a good point. And also thinking about this reference point as being specific to maybe Western countries, I wonder what would be the analogous flavor call for maybe somebody living in a different part of the world? What's the thing that like this region of the world all associates as this powerful moment together?

Or is there another flavor that so many people have tasted in coffee in a different region of the world that has really opened up their eyes? I wonder if that experience translates.

David: Exactly. This is when I'm thinking instantly of—I hope I'm saying this right—Ārāmse Coffee out of India where they're doing some of the craziest, like most powerful decolonial process work in food in general. That’s something I think is right up their alley because I'm thinking of the James Hoffmann video where they were talking about the de-colonial practices of strawberries.

Ashley: Tell me a little bit about that because I think that I watched that a while ago, but just for people who haven't seen that, can you describe it a little?

David: Yeah! If anybody gets a chance to watch the video, it's riveting, but when we think of flavors and coffee—and it doesn't necessarily have to be coffee, it can be wine, because wine is a big thing that people and academics talk about when it comes to flavors—we look at this using almost a Western lens.

We look at it, thinking like everybody around the world knows what a strawberry is, but not really. Not a lot of people have access to fruits like strawberries. Or they'll say something [tastes] like stone fruit. But not a lot of people know what a stone fruit necessarily is. Like I still get mixed up when I see the word “stone fruit” on a coffee bag.

But when we have collectives and groups like Jen Apodaca with Mother Tongue who says things like gummy bears or peach rings, we all know what peach rings are because peach rings is just—it’s candy. We know, “Hey, it tastes sour like a piece of candy,” or it's gonna taste kind of gummy bear-like. We know that experience globally more so than saying it's gonna taste like Northwestern summer sage.

Ashley: That's a really good point. Like there are certain things that—I'm thinking about this in two ways. Number one: There are certain things that are global, that are international.

Number two, describing things with like really—to be specific so that people can recall them. Like, stone fruit is not specific. Like, is that a nectarine? Is that a plum? Is that a this, is that a that?

But why can't we get more specific? Or, can we identify the thing in that flavor? So, saying sour candies, maybe someone hasn't had a sour candy, but they know what sour is. Like, there are ways to be more specific and intentional with the language that you use to bring more people to the table so they can at least have a reference point to understand what you're talking about.

David: Exactly. It's 100% that, and I think this is one of the reasons why I love the coffee industry so well, is that so many people have been so receptive to trying to change the way that they described flavor and contextualized flavor.

People don't realize that it makes me—I like to say I'm a budding scholar, and it makes people like me who do research on how we discuss flavor and food and food cultures and digital spaces specifically, how are we talking about flavor in these spaces, and when I'm looking at the coffee industry, I'm seeing people talking about experience as a flavor, and then it makes me look at the world a little differently.

It's like, “Hey, how do I experience wine as a flavor? How do I experience something?” When somebody says this tastes very bitter, very bitter could be a good flavor or a bad flavor.

Ashley: Speaking of that, you’re a scholar, you study food and digital spaces. What brought you specifically into the specialty coffee fold, like what drew you to this industry beyond just being an avid fan of coffee?

David: I have so many friends in the specialty coffee industry in Virginia. I have friends who are baristas—and still are baristas‚ friends who are coffee managers, roasting managers, even coffee shop owners.

Seeing and being immersed in their world because—I consider myself an at-home barista. I have the whole setup, I now just got a W60 from Hario. I have the kettle. I have the good grinders. I have access to [all] that. And it was just an interest in the industry. When I had my aha moment, I didn't jump in feet-first. I like, reverse-one-and-a-half-competitive-diving-maneuvered into the coffee cup essentially.

And I’m still swimming in it. I'm still loving it.

Ashley: Yeah, but like, you're not just a person who makes a lot of coffee at home and is really interested in specialty coffee. Like you're part of the discourse.

Recently—not recently, maybe this was like a year and a half ago—but both you and I gave talks at a thing called The Barista League.

And I remember seeing your name. I was like, I don't know who this person is, but you gave this really cool talk about how digital spaces can convey values and how you show true solidarity and commitment to community through Instagram and other social media platforms. And I was like, this is a person who's in it, like this isn't a casual observer.

Do you know what I mean?

David: Yeah, definitely. I think what brought about my interest in that discussion I gave was I'm a minority. I'm a proud minority. There's no way that I hide it. Every day where I walk, I'm a proud minority. And when the murder of George Floyd happened, it hit me just like it hit everybody else.

It hit me hard, and I was fortunate enough to have amazing friends around the world who were posting these powerful messages. And like I said, my friends are coffee shop managers, and they actually own shops and roasteries now. And I saw how they were engaging with it and then I saw how the coffee industry was engaging with the discourse happening.

As a scholar—because I was still doing my master's research then—it just piqued my interest. Like, “Hey, how are my friends creating discourse and change in our com—” I don't wanna say “little community” because the Tidewater region and Richmond are massive communities, but how are their posts changing our communities?

I actually got to see it happen. Like my friends organized fundraisers, they organized protests. My friends even organized essentially like a rallying point at their coffee shop where people were given free cups of coffee as donations for helping out.

Ashley: Right, that makes sense. Let’s backtrack a little bit because I wanna talk about your research and what you're studying to give people a framework for how you've been able to use that lens to kind of look at the coffee industry. So can you talk a little bit about what you're studying and what your background is?

David: I was at Old Dominion University. I graduated from the Institute for the Humanities, and my focus of research is looking at how we discuss food items and flavor in digital spaces and how it affects minority populations. How can we say something like—my mom is Argentinian and culturally raised Argentinian—how can somebody say somebody like, “All Argentinians eat rice and beans” online, and it becomes almost canonical in some of these online spaces?

But … we don't really eat rice and beans in Argentina like that. Or you could say something like, “All chorizos taste the same” when all chorizos don't taste the same.

I'm a chorizo aficionado, I love chorizo, give me a choripán [and I’m the] happiest person in the world. And I can tell you all chorizos don't taste the same, but when you go on these online spaces, they're like, “Yeah, they all taste the same.” Or stuff like, “Dulce de leche tastes the same” when it doesn't, there are variances. There are different ingredients. There are different complexities.

And another example is empanadas, not all empanadas are cooked the same. Every country has its own different version or variation of the empanada. So don't say, “Hey, my mom fries empanadas,” when we don’t fry empanadas in my house, we bake 'em.

Ashley: So it seems like you—let me see if I can try to summarize it: So it seems like you look at how essentially we create ideas of like, what is true and what is not about food via digital spaces. Like, are you specifically looking at how that happens online?

David: For my main research, yes. I also think it's part of the continuation of the historical discourse we've seen in cookbooks, we've seen in food television shows, we've seen in reality television.

I'm thinking of reality shows popping into my mind where a cook from overseas cooks a dish from where they're from, and they're being told, “Oh, well, people aren't gonna like it because it's too weird. It's too different.” One show that I'm thinking of in particular is from the U.K. They were like, “You have to kind of like, Anglicize it a little bit, kind of like gussy it up for the British audience.”

And in a way it's like, it can also be seen almost as a form of violence as a way to say, “Hey, your food's not good enough to be eaten in this country unless you do X, Y, and Z. And then we'll say it's good, but we're gonna wait for hipsters to start eating it, for them to start liking it before the general population will want to.”

Ashley: That's so interesting. It seems so wild how much we look for validation of a thing to be good or not based on very specific populations, and we just write off the taste and the interest of other countries, like other huge populations of people where this is a very standard food, or this is a very accepted way for someone to eat.

And it's also like, not even testing the thing to see if it's like—I don't know. Like that just seems, that seems so complex and layered, and I imagine this must be frustrating, but rewarding research in a way.

David: It is, it really is. I feel like there are moments where you just want to scream in frustration when you see some of the television shows or apps, or even Instagram or TikTok, the way they describe minority food cultures and or minority cooking.

But then you see moments where in the coffee industry where we see Ārāmse and other—I don't wanna call 'em “barista activists,” I just wanna call them the straight-up, general activists who are trying to fight this discourse and trying to make things more equitable and fair. So at the same time, it's like, I see both sides and it’s just—I love it. I'm always excited by it. And I'm just so passionate about this.

Ashley: Let's shift back to the conversation that you had, or the talk that you gave for The Barista League. So you gave this talk about digital spaces and you looked at Instagram to kind of parse out different ways that coffee companies—from the small level, like maybe a shop manager or a small coffee shop, to the bigger level, to businesses and media companies.

And you talked about how they essentially share community and share their values via social media. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the premise of that talk and what some of maybe the findings were of that?

David: Yeah, definitely. So like I said, the premise of that talk was I was spurred by my friends in the specialty coffee industry and their reaction to the murder of George Floyd. I was spurred on by looking at how—because I've taken digital media classes, I was spurred on by looking at how scholars like Dr. Christian Fuchs and Dr. Safiya Noble talk about how places like Instagram TikTok, and even Google are always gonna be inherently zones of power struggles.

How can community be built, destroyed, and rebuilt essentially in these digital places where power isn't equally shared? We always want power to be equally shared online, but power isn't.

There are so many different theories and ideas and schools of thought about it. But I was looking at how power is created and shared in terms of helping out social activism movements, or giving reverence and credence to minority bodies during a turbulent—and it still is a turbulent—time in the United States.

And I looked at, for example, with the local roaster: How did somebody who's a coffee shop manager, how did he create discourse mainly with his customers and friends and family groups? How did he create discourse to help shed light on the plight of minority baristas or how minorities are mistreated? How did he create space?

And when I looked at the local coffee shop, they did a fundraiser. So I looked at how they created a discourse by creating a fundraiser at a shop level. Then I did a roaster that's nationally known, but essentially regionalized.

And then I looked at the media because the media is always gonna be a key point, of course in just life in general. So I looked at—how did the coffee media react? How did the coffee media give space and credence and change their ways to help marginalize and minority bodies create and build community?

Ashley: Why was this important for you to look at? Or what did you want people to take away from this conversation?

David: I think it was important to look at because it showed how community is created.

Ashley: Mmhmm.

David: I also want people to know that these digital spaces online are always gonna be unequal. That people who have 1.5 million followers are gonna have way more voice, credence, and power than somebody who has 879.

Ashley: That's a good point.

Can you talk a little bit about that idea of digital spaces and power? Because I don't know that those two things—I think when you say it like that, that makes sense. Like, of course, somebody with 1.2 million followers is gonna have more power than somebody with like 837. But I don't know that that tie is necessarily intuitive.

David: No, definitely. I use this analogy of the high school cafeteria. I like to think of some of these apps, it reminds me of high school and I think of fashion. When the really cool, really popular kid in the school wears this avant-garde shirt from a band that they discovered from a friend of a friend, but the band is something like, I wanna say LCD Soundsystem, my favorite band.

But then you have this skater punk or this indie kid who’s been wearing that same LCD Soundsystem shirt for the last two years every other day. But everybody's like, “Oh yeah. Now you're copying the cool kid.” And this kid's like, “No, this is the shirt I've been wearing for the last two years.”

But everybody's like, “No, no, no, the cool person's wearing it. So you're following them.” And that's the kind of power struggle I think of is like—you have these big brands, these influencers, these people with a ton of power, or it doesn't have to be people. We even noticed that even nations have power in these digital spaces that they're using their voices and the whole entire world is listening.

But then you have people who are activists, scholars, even community members who have been like, “We've been saying that for the last 15, 20, 50, 100+ years, and now y'all want to listen to this.”

Ashley: That's really interesting. I think that analogy, number one, was incredibly powerful, but two, how do you rectify something like that? I don't know that there's an answer to it. But is it that cool—like going back to the analogy—is it that cool kid saying, “Oh, I wasn't wearing this shirt first. Like that guy over there was wearing it first.”

But what if that kid didn't even like—I'm just trying to think of, how do we distribute power in digital spaces in a way that does feel more equitable? Again, I don't know if there's an answer to that, but...

David: I don't think there's a real answer just yet, because I've seen, we will see some things where somebody will tag somebody, will tag the person they got the outfit from.

I'm thinking of somebody like Kim Kardashian who might tag or mention saying, “Hey, this is a person's brand I got this from,” it could be a small shop owner, and then next thing you know, they're gaining power and their shop is blowing up, but we're not seeing it enough with everything else just yet. I think it could slowly start happening, but this is not getting enough traction.

Ashley: Right. I think earlier you also said something about community-building. And I think that that's an important term because I think it's really easy for people in the coffee industry to talk about the word “community” as a given, as opposed to a thing that you build and your digital space is part of that too.

David: Yeah. Oh yeah. I think having a digital space that represents the shop, the idea, the values is very important in the coffee industry and in the food industry. Pretty much almost every business in general.

For example, I'm thinking of, when I look up a shop, I look up new shops to go to when I'm traveling to a different city for conferences or for fun, I immediately look at their Instagram page to say, “Hey, is this the vibe that I'm looking for? Is this the kind of drink that I like?”

Because somebody can say, try this shop. Somebody could say, try Shop Oli—I'm just using Oli because my dog is right next to me. They say, “Try Shop Oil,” but they may have a ton of drinks that I may not necessarily find appealing, but somebody else could say, “Go to Chester's Place,” and Chester's Place could have the wildest drinks imaginable that are mind-blowing, pushing the coffee industry, but they only have like 15 followers cuz they're brand-new.

Ashley: How would you make a decision in that situation? And I guess that goes back to the essential question: How do you know a coffee shop is quote-unquote “good”?

David: Yeah. Of course, it's a little bit about trying, but it's also like, is this a community that I wanna be a part of?

Ashley: Do you think that people are conscious of how much decision-making they make based on a person or a brand or a place's digital presence?

David: I think we are now.

I think this pandemic has definitely shown how much credence we've given to digital spaces and digital trends and digital footprints, because I'm thinking of—look at all the dance trends we saw in the early days of the pandemic, like how people were like, “Hey, I'm basing what I'm doing, I'm basing how am I having fun based on what I'm seeing on digital spaces.”

I'm actually working on a really cool project with another scholar. We're looking at like feta-baked pasta on TikTok. How is this influencing the way we look at Mediterranean [cooking], especially Italian dishes?

Ashley: Something that I think I lament about a lot in coffee—I was just reading a book about the history of brunch from one of the colleagues that you actually recommended I talk to, and we'll probably have a conversation with her in the upcoming weeks.

But I was reading this book about brunch and I realized that coffee is not as good at talking about its own history, but with this digital footprint that we're leaving we will have a history that's recorded in just a very different way.

David: Yeah. Yeah. I think we're seeing better, especially in terms of minority voices, we're seeing more, I'm seeing more and more minority voices in marginalized communities speaking in the coffee industry than before.

I'm thinking of people like getchusomegear who have created a community for marginalized and minority coffee and baristas and that's a community being built. That’s people who have connections and are building friendships based on that.

Ashley: Right. And it's completely outside of any physical space or any need for, let's say, capital to buy a building or rent a space for a coffee shop or something like that. Like it's allowing more people into the conversation because the barrier to entry is so much lower.

David: Exactly. I think of cosplay when it comes to these community-building spaces that—I don't wanna say niche, but are a little bit smaller than what we typically would consider. Because look at how cosplay—this is so dating myself…

Ashley: I’m ready.

David: When we're looking at like Xanga, Livejournal, and even early MySpace, where we would see cosplay communities build these fan pages for either their community or just for individuals and how people were able to build friendships and relationships.

People have been married based on them meeting through cosplay groups online!

Ashley: Right. I think I just saw a chart recently that was tracking how people met their spouses over like the last hundred years. And like, I was so surprised—this is maybe silly for me to be surprised by this, but I was so surprised by how many people in like the 50s, 60s, 70s were married to their neighbors.

I can't even imagine that now because we grew up in a digital era, but I think about being online, growing up in the digital era, getting on Facebook for the first time in like the early 2000s and so much of the connections that I've made since then, as an adult, have been through digital spaces.

That chart showed that now, like almost, I think half of people meet their spouses online.

David: Yeah. These digital spaces are integral in our life.

Companies, all companies, have realized it now, but I remember when these digital spaces were being created, like early Instagram and stuff, and people were like, “Oh, it's just a trend. It's not gonna really happen. It's not gonna go down like that.”

And it's totally has. Think about how much of our everyday lives we can do online. Now we can do groceries. We can do our doctor's appointments online now.

Ashley: Right.

David: For me, that's mind-blowing. Cause I, I would never have done a virtual doctor's appointment 15+ years ago, but now I'm like, “Oh, okay.”

Ashley: I was watching an old episode of “30 Rock,” like maybe season one or season two. And that's a show that I would consider pretty modern, but they had flip phones in the first two seasons and I was like, “Oh, like this was not that long ago that we wouldn't have had access to Instagram on our phones.”

We wouldn't have had our emails on our phones. Maybe some people had Blackberries, but now I'm like, you know, after this phone call, I'll probably check my email on my phone, even though my computer's in front of me. But it's just interesting to see how much of—not just how our connection to digital spaces has changed over time, but how influential it's been to our everyday lives.

I'm wondering, as we're kind of thinking of last thoughts in this conversation, what are ways that coffee shops can—or any coffee brand really—think about their digital footprint? Like, do you think that people are taking them seriously enough? Or do you think that there needs to be more investment and…I don't know, that's kind of like a loose question there.

So take it in whatever direction you want.

David: I think it's 50-50, to be honest, I see some shops that are very proactive with their digital footprints. They're honest and talking to their targeted audience. They’re honest when it comes to saying, “Hey, this is what we're doing.” They're essentially showing their everyday lives, their everyday shop-to-shop running—online.

And then other shops are just using [social media] to post a picture, just to hope that somebody's gonna cruise through the shop.

I think it's a little bit of 50-50, where we see some shops still have this mentality that [social media] is kinda like putting a picture in the newspaper, like back in the day we just did newspaper advertisements—they’re using it as that, but other shops are like, “Hey, we can actually build a community and engage with our favorite customers and engage with people who want to ask us questions.”

Ashley: Yeah, it seems like—maybe I'm wrong in this, but it seems like people seem to know that they need to have, like, let's say an Instagram account, or they need to have some sort of digital platform, but it doesn't necessarily seem like everybody has taken that next step mentally to say like, “Oh, but this means something. What I put on here means something beyond just like, ‘Here's a latte, please come in,’ or ‘Our hours are seven to six.’”

David: Yeah, definitely. It's I think—it's just changing the way shops are being run. Now look, shops have changed so much within the last five years that it's almost mind-blowing.

While the way we see stuff, like how point-of-sale is happening, how small, independent shops are doing essentially drive-through services or pickup counters. We're seeing that happening, but I think it is a lot of change happening in these shops. Some people are kind of putting the digital spaces as an afterthought when they need to put them into the forefront.

Ashley: Yeah, I would agree with that because so much can be conveyed through what you see online, but also like it helps identify your—not necessarily your mission. I don't wanna get too preachy, but like what you're about, like what you want people to know about you.

I don't even think we talked about it in this conversation, but something I think about a lot is how we differentiate ourselves in the market. Sometimes I think people are like, “Specialty coffee is oversaturated,” and I would disagree with that. I would say that it's not that we're oversaturated, it's that we're all the same. And there are ways to differentiate who you are versus like who your neighbor is—as long as you think about it, as long as you really say, “This is who I am,” or, “This is what the shop is about. And I need to find ways to communicate that.” And I think having a really strong digital footprint is part of that.

David: Yeah, that’s exactly it. You just have to be you. People are trying to keep up with the Joneses, but I come from the punk DIY scene where people love to express themselves. Self-expression is tantamount in the scenes.

And I think I'm seeing more and more coffee shops having that kind of ethos. So like, yeah, this is us. This is our community. We're a part of this neighborhood. These are some of the community members that are walking through. So let's be part of the community. Let's talk more about a community versus let's trying to act and look like everybody else.

Ashley: David. Is there anything you want people to know about you or listening to you that you'd like people to take away from this conversation?

David: That digital spaces—of course, we all know they're here. That power is always gonna be a little different in them, but like Dr. Safiya Noble talks about in Algorithms of Oppression—the book—is that they're always gonna be almost unequal. But what we're noticing now, especially in the specialty coffee industry, is that people are by being themselves, by having a voice, to give them voices to the marginalized, to minority communities…

And we're starting to see that it's not even a trend. I essentially call it almost like a mini-revolution of change that I'm super excited for. And I can't wait to see what happens in 10 to 15 years when I reflect on today's conversation.

Ashley: David. Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

David: Of course.