A blonde woman yells at a relaxed cat sitting at a table at the restaurant. The text "digital landscape" is on the woman's pointed hand, while the words "digital space" is above the cat's head.

I Discussed Digital Rhetoric with My Sworn Rival

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Just when I thought another Doug Eyman reading was bad enough, I had to discuss it with someone who makes the word “arrogant” seem modest. Indeed, Zachary never fails to irk me with his relaxed smart-assery. For years, we argued about the most miniscule concepts. It does not help that I have nearly every class with him this semester. For one class session, we were forced into pairs to discuss the concept of digital rhetoric. It was an arduous task; one of our arguments, in fact, inspired this post’s featured image.

After our usual banter, we (mostly me) managed to produce this definition of digital rhetoric:

“The use of techniques, tools and methods afforded by digital content to convey or convince a point about an idea, belief or concept.”

Digital rhetorician Richard Lanham’s introduction of digital rhetoric to our lexicon marks a pivotal shift in digital theory. It acknowledges how digital environments expand and transform rhetorical practices. We discovered that digital rhetoric is not merely the application of traditional rhetorical techniques through new media. It is an evolution that leverages the unique features of digital platforms to enhance and innovate persuasive strategies. 

After picking each other’s brains, we surprisingly developed plenty of ideas about rhetoric and its influence in the digital realm. Go figure.

Understanding Rhetoric

Traditionally, rhetoric is understood as the art of persuasion through the effective use of writing and orality. Imagine rhetoric as the architect of discourse, constructing arguments and narratives that resonate with the audience. This ancient discipline traces its origins back to the intellectual landscapes of ancient Greece and Rome, where luminaries like Aristotle laid the groundwork for its principles. 

Speaking of Aristotle, Kevin LaGrandeur, an English professor and researcher at New York Institute of Technology, asserts that Greek philosopher Aristotle absolutely cooked when he defined classic persuasion. Aristotle defines rhetoric as the art of finding “in any given case the available means of persuasion”. Ever since his assertion, technological advancements considerably expanded these “available means”, especially with the invention of the computer. 

Additionally, University of South Carolina’s Journalism professor Dr. Keith Kenney points out that classical rhetoric “traditionally was considered to be public, contextual, and contingent”. Fear not, reader, I broke down each aspect for you.

Public

Classical rhetoric is inherently public, meaning it is designed for the public sphere and aimed at engaging with a broad audience. Historically, rhetoric was a tool used in public forums, such as the courts, assemblies or public squares in ancient Greece and Rome, to persuade citizens or decision-makers about certain actions or beliefs. The public nature of rhetoric underscores its role in society as a means for debate, persuasion and shaping public opinion.

Contextual

Rhetoric is contextual, indicating that its effectiveness and methods are deeply influenced by the specific situation or environment in which it is employed. The context includes the cultural, social, political and historical circumstances surrounding the rhetorical act. It suggests that an understanding of the audience, occasion and purpose is crucial for rhetoric to be persuasive. A message that resonates in one context might not have the same impact in another, highlighting the importance of tailoring the rhetorical approach to fit the specific circumstances.

Contingent

Rhetoric being contingent means that it depends on various factors and is not absolute or universal. The effectiveness of rhetorical strategies can vary based on timing (kairos), audience disposition, current events and other variables. This contingency requires adaptability and flexibility from the rhetorician, who must navigate these variables to craft a message that can successfully persuade the audience.

These aspects apply to digital communication. Rhetoric deals with the probable by tackling subjects that have the likelihood of a given event to occur. Digital communication, through its structure and content, navigates what is likely to resonate with its audience. Digital content does not exist in isolation. Rather, it interconnects through links, references and shared contents, making it part of a larger digital ecosystem. 

How Does Digital Influence Rhetoric?

Remember the definition of digital rhetoric that Zachary and I formulated? It encapsulates the essence of digital rhetoric, highlighting the role of digital technologies in shaping how we construct and engage with persuasive discourse online. The digital realm influences rhetoric in various ways, altering not just the medium of communication but its very nature. I identified these five distinct ways below.

Interactivity

Traditionally, rhetoric involves a speaker or writer conveying a message to an audience with limited direct feedback. Digital platforms facilitate a two-way interaction between content and audience, allowing audiences to engage with content in dynamic, participatory ways. When replying to a Twitter (now X) thread, for example, audiences can comment, share and contribute to the discourse in real-time. This interactivity enhances persuasive power by fostering a sense of community and engagement, encouraging audiences to become active rather than passive participants. 

Multimodality

As mentioned before, classical rhetoric relied on oral and written texts, with an emphasis on effective language use. Digital rhetoric embraces multimodality by incorporating text, images, video and audio to convey messages. This diversification of modes allows content to appeal to various sensory experiences, enhancing the emotional and cognitive impact of its message. The use of visuals, for instance, makes complex information more accessible and memorable. Audio and video adds a layer of personal connection and immediacy. 

Hypermediacy

Historically, rhetorical works were linear, guiding the audience step-by-step through a structured argument. Eyman identifies hypermedia as “the linking of separate media elements to one another that create a trail of personal association”. This non-linear approach allows audiences to navigate through interconnected texts, videos and images, creating a personalized path of inquiry. Hypermediacy encourages more active engagement with content, as users follow links that interest them. This potentially deepens their understanding and persuasion by exploring multiple facets of an argument. Zachary succinctly explains how intertextuality, as a form of hypermediacy, uses hyperlinks to deepen an audience’s understanding. 

Global Reach

In the past, rhetorical acts were limited in their reach by physical and geographical constraints. If you led a presentation on global warming for a class, for example, only class members were influenced by your presentation’s effectiveness. Now, digital platforms offer an unprecedented, instant global reach, allowing messages to be shared and accessed worldwide. This enables voices and ideas to be amplified beyond traditional borders, facilitating more diverse and inclusive discourse. The global reach of digital rhetoric also means that messages can resonate with a broader audience, increasing the potential for persuasion on a global scale.

Ephemerality 

Originally, rhetorical communication was designed for longevity. Audiences pondered and revisited what they read or heard. The digital landscape characterizes itself on ephemerality, or lasting for a brief period of time. Content can quickly become outdated or lost in the vast sea of information online. Due to this, digital rhetoricians craft messages that are persuasive, concise and impactful, so that they are capable of capturing attention in a fleeting digital environment. The speed at which information spreads also requires adaptability and responsiveness, as the context and relevance of rhetorical messages rapidly shifts. 

Through these five aspects, we see how the digital sphere reimagines rhetoric in an interconnected world. This challenges us to engage more deeply, thoughtfully and inclusively than ever before.

Reimagining Persuasion in the Digital Space

In the digital age, rhetoric takes on a fluid and adaptive form, leveraging the unique affordances of digital platforms to convey messages and influence opinions. Picture digital rhetoric as a versatile toolbox, equipped with an array of digital tools and techniques. From social media campaigns to interactive websites, digital rhetoric embraces innovation and creativity to navigate the ever-changing landscape of online communication.

University of Iowa scholar Kathleen Welsh carries a similar sentiment to mine; she views classical rhetoric as a “comprehensive system of discourse theory”. She further explains how this discourse blends “the interdependent and intricate relationships between articulation and thought”. Digital rhetoric, in this light, becomes interdisciplinary. It draws from theories, methods and literacies from multiple disciplines while maintaining the foundation of true rhetoric.

. . .

Whether traditional or digital, rhetoric remains a potent force in shaping human discourse. It is a dynamic interplay of language, technology and human psychology, where the art of persuasion evolves to meet the demands of the digital age. By understanding the rich tapestry of rhetorical principles and embracing the transformative power of digital technologies, we can navigate the complexities of modern communication and harness its potential to engage with the world around us. 

Despite our constant contention, Zachary and I managed to use our intellect to build our understanding of our digital landscape. 

I suppose he is not bad for a constant nuisance.


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