Re-theorizing Delivery in Digital Rhetoric

17Mar15

This blog post opens my study of ethos in social media.  I will draw from rhetoric and communication theory to investigate social media’s role as the Agency in creation, mediation, and documentation of self.  My study will electrify rhetoric, making it a tool to answer research questions about online identity.  I will gain deep understanding of rhetoric applied to social media through research and reflection, while developing knowledge that I will share in this blog.

My research begins with the work of University of Miami professor James Porter.  “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric,” one of Porter’s many published articles, won the Ellen Nold Award for Best Article in the field of Computers and Composition in 2009.  In the article, Porter forms a rhetorical theory of delivery for Internet-based communications.

A ubiquitous presence of everyday life is Internet-based communication.  Technology enables us to connect with individuals and networks beyond the one-on-one.  In communicating with each other via the Internet, we make choices about delivery that inevitably shape the messages we send.  Delivery is the fifth canon of rhetoric.  Historically, the canon mostly referred to body, or in-person aurality and nonverbal communication.  How a particular orator would speak and carry himself in an Athenian agora — as well as the tinge and arrangement of his toga — comprised his rhetorical delivery.  Today, delivery has become relevant to much more than this.

Because of the communication we now engage in through digital technology, Porter says the rhetorical canon of delivery must be resuscitated and remediated.  He proposes a theoretical framework for digital delivery emphasizing “how rhetoric theory and critical humanistic thinking contribute to web-based production and design” (Porter, 2009, p.208).  This framework consists of five components:

  1. Body/Identity — concerning online representations of the body, gestures, voice, dress, and image, and questions of identity and performance and online representations of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.
  2. Distribution/Circulation — concerning the technological publishing options for reproducing, distributing, and circulating digital information
  3. Access/Accessibility — concerning questions about audience connectedness to Internet-based information
  4. Interaction — concerning the range and types of engagement (between people, between people and information) encouraged or allowed by digital designs.
  5. Economics — concerning copyright, ownership and control of information, fair use, authorship, and the politics of information policy.

I would like to take the main arguments of Porter’s theoretical framework and connect them to social media.  Social media is unfortunately not addressed in “Recovering Delivery,” yet I believe it engages with Porter’s theory pressingly.

“The machines that we use to write and speak are closely merged with our flesh and blood bodies, if you think about how we are connected to our cell phones and our computers (and our cell phones which have become computers), thanks to the development of mobile and wireless technology,” Porter says (Porter, 2009, p.213).  With this cyborg-like extension of human with technology come the capabilities of such machines.  We gain new abilities with technology.  Our computers and applications on our smart phones open to us innumerable, digitized possibilities.  Social media is one of the worlds we access persistently.  It is not only a place to connect with people who are not present with us, but a place where we can exist richly, remediated into text, images, and videos.

Where, in this digital world, does our body go?

Body/Identity

Porter argues that the body does not disappear in virtual space.  Like an audience might respond to the nonverbal cues of an orator speaking with his hands, an Internet user responds to what Porter describes as “an ASCII textual representation of a bodily act that is used to add nuance to a piece of text”: the smiley face emoticon (Porter, 2009, p.212).  A two-character’s worth of a digital message sent through a Facebook message, for example, is an online bodily action that mimics an actual, physical gesture.  It communicates the same meaning… or does it?

What more, with sharing features that allow us to exchange much more text, can social media do to our “bodily” delivery online?  Who (or what) do we become on social media?  Further research will seek answers to such questions.

Distribution/Circulation

With regard to the second component of Porter’s theoretical framework, distribution/circulation, we social media-users know that a follower or a following can be made at the click of the mouse or the tap of a screen.  Audience, therefore, seems to be a component of social media that we can control.  Porter asks, “What is the most effective way to distribute a message to its intended audiences, in a timely manner, and in a way that is likely to achieve the desired outcome?” (Porter, 2009, p.214).

In delivering content through social media, we keep audience in mind and distribute accordingly.  We make techne decisions to craft ourselves online, knowing (or hoping) that that self will be seen, acknowledged, validated, or even rejected.  It is a rhetorical performance made from choices that must be informed by an understanding of the capabilities of our technologies. We choose, we perform, and then we anticipate the reception and eventual circulation of what we delivered.

Access/Accessibility

A simple test of Googling your own name demonstrates the phenomenon that the Internet has made possible: we are accessible.  Diffused as we are across platforms and databases, we are nevertheless present online, and on social media especially.  Porter’s notion of “access” relates more to “whether a person has the necessary hardware, software, and network connectivity in order to use the Internet,” though we can assume that access has increased for many people since the publication of his article (Porter, 2009, 216).  Can “access” mean something else?

If a desired interpersonal interaction is not possible, what do we do?  If we want to see someone who is not around, what can we do?  Again, the world of social media opens to us several possibilities.  We can “see” and “hear” someone through the photo and video features of Snapchat.  We can “speak” to someone through instant messages or audio-transmitting features of Facebook.  Not only can we  connect in present, or live, constraints.  We are able to access each other’s histories as well.  Content we share through social media creates a technobiography, or data trail, of ourselves.  Should an archaeological urge to discover Chad’s dating history overcome us, we only need to type his name in a search engine.

Interaction

Subsequently, should Chad feel an urge to contact the goddess he met at the Goat Hill last Thursday, he would be able to do so easily.  Porter considers “‘interaction’ as a rhetorical topic pertaining (a) to how humans engage computer interfaces in order to perform various actions, and (b) to how humans engage other humans through computer-mediated spaces.  Like the choices we make to determine distribution, we must make choices to interact that are informed by knowledge of how to do so through our technology.

How users engage interfaces and each other with social media can be understood after first understanding social media’s role as Agency in the drama of our technobiographies.  Social media is first the means of delivering our online selves to others.  It then becomes our means of interacting with those other people.  Literary critic Kenneth Burke described Agency as an instrument.  In simplified rhetorical terms, Agency is the “how” of a deed that is committed.  Social media acts as an Agency for creating and sharing ourselves online.  After identifying social media as an Agency, further research can help answer questions about the Purpose of interaction online.

Economics

I will end with that, because Purpose, or what motivates someone to create their online selves through social media, and what motivates other people to interact with them online, is still a topic to be investigated.  Porter would call this area of interest the “economics of delivery.”  I ultimately aim to discover answers to my curiosities surrounding the purposes of social media use.

Porter, J. E. (2009). Recovering delivery for digital rhetoric. Computers and Composition26(4), 207-224.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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