New Media Rhetoric and Wikipedia

I thought I would share my conference proposal for International Society for the History of Rhetoric conference. I have a feeling its probably a bit too contemporary (ie, it mentions computers) for this conference, but there's no harm in trying. The talk would be building off of what I'll be discussing at RSA later this month: though that talk focuses on the complex ways [non-Platonic/Aristotelian] in which Wikipedia establishes credibility. I'll post links to that material later. I guess my preoccupation with wikis extends from their complete "newness"- there's really nothing in history that compares to the magnitude to which they precipitate, harness, and purpose human interaction and thinking. Anywho, here's the proposal:

In We the Media, journalist turned new media proponent Dan Gillmor argues that digital technologies present us with an entirely new form of communication; in addition to “one-to-one” communication (which we can identify with dialectic) and “one-to-many” (rhetoric), digital technologies offer “many-to-many” communication (26). As Gillmor demonstrates through an examination of contemporary blogs, forums, wikis, and social aggregators, audiences are no longer exterior, static entities to be acted upon. They are now far more active agents in a far more dynamic communicative process.

I argue that this developing communicative medium will further push rhetoric to break away from its Platonic / Aristotelian preoccupation with objective truth and persuasion. As audiences gain more response ability, rhetors will have to work with audiences rather than upon them. The dynamism of digital communicative environments, in addition to their emphasis on collecting intelligence, will call for a rhetoric more concerned with fostering collaboration than producing terminal synthesis.

This does not mean that rhetoric should abandon all discussion of persuasion, only that its focus needs to expand to include non-synthetic negotiation of difference. I will offer as example of this dual need a presentation of Wikipedia. The “article” dimension of a Wikipedia entry reflects a traditional interest in truth and knowledge production. But every Wikipedia entry is more than just its “article”: it is a massive collection of pages, including a lively “discussion” section and a history of all changes made to a page. Every knowledge object becomes embedded in a web of social relations. These other, more social, dimensions to each entry symbolize the ways in which “many-to-many” communication is changing our information landscape and suggest how rhetoric needs to augment persuasion with an interest in cooperation.

I will conclude by arguing this transformation is anticipated in the work of Burkian rhetorical theorist Jim Corder. Throughout the mid-1980’s Corder argued that the work of rhetoric extended beyond persuasion to something more akin to “love.” Designed to deal with the intensified wrangle of the digital barnyard, a rhetoric of cooperation builds off of Corder and Burke by emphasizing that the ends of rhetoric aren’t always concerned with persuasion—sometimes they are concerned with keeping the conversation hospitable, active, and inviting.

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