New Media Rhetoric

The first paragraph of George Oates' recent A List Apart article "Community: From Little Things, Big Thigns Grow" reflects something I've been trying to articulate for a few years:

People don’t like being told what to do. We like to explore, change things around, and make a place our own. Hefty design challenges await the makers of websites where people feel free to engage; both with the system itself and with each other. Embrace the idea that people will warp and stretch your site in ways you can’t predict—they’ll surprise you with their creativity and make something wonderful with what you provide.

I've been writing the theoretical chapter of my dissertation, a chapter that focuses on Levinas' rejection of Cartesian consciousness, the primacy of ontology, and the fetish for Being. Along the way, I've come to recognize why Levinas (and myself) distrust Platonic / Aristotelian rhetoric: it presumes a rhetorician acting upon an audience. Audience members are framed at best as deliberating judges or at worst as passive receptacles.

But, by empowering audiences, equipping them with responsibility, new media technologies oppose this imposed passivity. For better or worse. Perhaps we will lose patience. Perhaps we won't listen long enough before we begin to speak. Or perhaps we will. I admit I only read the first few paragraphs of the article before I felt compelled to write a post, to respond, to create, to link, to contribute. And what we need is a rhetoric that focuses on these dynamics--group dynamics. A working with rather than a working on. In Oates' article we hear a call of what such a rhetoric might look like:

Any community—online or off—must start slowly, and be nurtured. You cannot “just add community.” It simply must happen gradually. It must be cared for, and hosted; it takes time and people with great communication skills to set the tone and tend the conversation.

When Flickr was born, Caterina Fake and I spent many hours greeting new members personally. We opened up chat windows with each new visitor to say “Hi! I work here, and I’d love to help you get started, if you have any questions.” We also provided public forums where staff were present and interactive. Those decisions proved crucial, because apart from creating points where we could inject a certain culture, it was all so personal.

If you want to stir your audience on a rapidly growing community site, take advantage of what we learned—hire a community manager. Or two. You’ll need a clever communicator with a lot of experience being online to help welcome people and provide ongoing support as your community grows. Show your personality and be available. Flickr’s tone is not necessarily suitable for every community, but the point is, the tone is evident everywhere you look.

I like that, in describing Flickr's origins, Oates states that they were looking to construct a culture. Rhetors can still have a purpose, they can still seek to act upon, to persuade (to use a word that I consider quite dirty). They retain a sense of agency. But "action" is framed as dialectical- or, and we don't have a word for this yet- plural-ectical. Multiple? Complex? Rhetoricians are clever communicators; clever [digital] communicators are those who generate discussion among persons; discussion, interaction, contact: the basis of a functional community.

For a few centuries, or millennia (?), intellectual activity has been primarily identified as an individual activity, even if the end result of this activity contributes to a society of scholars or Great Conversation. It would seem we are approaching a new era in which intellectual activity, while at times still very much a singular experience, is also at other times very much different from this tradition. Here's the idea I've been tripping over: might our new media come to represent a bridge between two long opposed intellectual traditions: rhetoric and dialectic? Is this the explication of Dan Gilmor's claim that the internet, for the first time, provides us with many to many conversation? Excuse the questions, but this is one of those ideas that I realize I should have put together awhile ago. Its one of those ideas that I've been teaching to long before I could articulate.

Tools such as del.icio.us and Google Docs are beginning to reshape our intellectual landscape. I am interested in the development of rhetoric (and composition) pedagogy that addresses these possibilities; and I believe we can turn to other disciplines, conversations, people (such as Oates) to see what kinds of preparation could benefit 21st century citizens.

No comments: