Digital rhetoric

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Digital rhetoric is the art of informing, persuading, and inspiring action in an audience through media, and it is an advancing form of communication composed, created, and distributed through multimedia. Rhetoric combines multiple methods such as persuasion, effective writing, and effective speaking to present information in inventive ways.[1] The meaning of rhetoric has changed over time, developing with changes in technologies. Online media are increasingly used as communication and information platforms, and since more text is placed online, there is more opportunity for persuasion through innovative and creative means. Because of this shift in rhetoric, the relationship between writers and readers has changed in form, communication style, and effectiveness. Digital rhetoric is advancing and changing how people choose to communicate their ideas with broader audiences. Both rhetoric and digital rhetoric hold various meanings and definitions depending upon who is looking at it; for example, the online journal Harlot of the Arts holds a competition through Twitter for people to define rhetoric, and the submissions are extremely varied. The 2014 results can be found here: Harlot of the Arts.

Student using technology in the classroom



The term digital rhetoric was coined by rhetorician Richard A. Lanham in his 1993 essay collection The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. In 2009, rhetorician Elizabeth Losh offered this four-part definition of digital rhetoric in her book Virtualpolitik:

"1. The conventions of new digital genres that are used for everyday discourse, as well as for special occasions, in average people’s lives.

2. Public rhetoric,[2] often in the form of political messages from government institutions, which is represented or recorded through digital technology and disseminated via electronic distributed networks.

3. The emerging scholarly discipline concerned with the rhetorical interpretation of computer-generated media as objects of study.

4. Mathematical theories of communication from the field of information science, many of which attempt to quantify the amount of uncertainty in a given linguistic exchange or the likely paths through which messages travel."[3]

Losh's definition demonstrates that digital rhetoric is a heterodoxical field, one that relies on different methods to study various permutations of information: as code, as text, as visuals, as videos, and so on.

Scope of Influence

As the power of technology grows, so too do the uses and scope of digital rhetoric. This includes, but is not limited to, schools offering online classes and test-taking, online news sources including scholarly journals and online editions of newspapers, and how people will search for information online rather than consult a more traditional means such as an encyclopedia. Teachers can use podcasts, YouTube videos, and social media sites like Facebook to facilitate discussions and increase students' interest in a topic. In academia, online journals allow for information to be more accessible due to the use of digital rhetoric. Writers also have more opportunities to write in various formats instead of a traditional linear format. In social media, people come into contact with digital rhetoric on a daily basis whether it be an updated Facebook status, a 140 character tweet, or even the use of Visual rhetoric on websites such as Instagram.


In universities, courses on digital rhetoric are taught at the graduate and undergraduate level as courses in English, Communication, and Media Studies departments. Courses in digital rhetoric “explore the dynamics of digital reading and writing by examining the rhetorical, social, cultural, political, educational, and ethical dimensions of digital texts; to interrogate issues of technology and literacy; and to examine identity (including gender, class, race, and more), subjectivity, and representation in digital spaces.” By studying digital rhetoric in this way, students are able to understand the uses and purpose of writing in general in a more in depth way. They see the importance of audience, the way culture affects writing, how rhetoric can be used persuasively versus demonstratively, and by using the familiar platform of technology, students are less likely to resist studying about how to be better writers.

Scholars like Jeff Grabill contribute to use digital rhetoric by pushing for its use in the classroom. Grabill embraces the age of technology and encourages his contemporaries to do so as well. His backgrounds in English, Education, and Technology and work in those fields make him a gateway between the scholarly field of digital rhetoric and its implementation. Another scholar, Dr. Cheryl Ball, specializes in areas that consist of multimodal composition and editing practices, digital media scholarship, and digital publishing. She also focuses on university writing pedagogy. Ball teaches people to write and compose multimodal texts by analyzing rhetorical options and choosing the most appropriate genres, technologies, media, and modes for a particular situation. During her own education, Ball made significant advances in the digital rhetoric field by completing her school's first electronic and interactive thesis. She also received tenure at another university using the first all-digital tenure portfolio.

Digital Rhetoric pedagogy has been further developed in the secondary level of education due to support at the university level. This allows for students to create and edit projects simultaneously through the internet. Collaboration is seen as one of the biggest advantages to digital rhetoric, as it gives students and teachers the ability to collaborate and critique anywhere anytime. By being educated in various forms of technology students are exposed to more a multimodal world and teachers foster a more well rounded learning environment. Through digital writing, students can have a broader choice of composing that can fit their needs. Students can have people see their work anywhere, which reflects the accessibility of social media that students are used to in their everyday lives.


Rhetoric to Digital Rhetoric

Rhetoric is defined as the art of discourse, and is the root of digital rhetoric. As technology has changed, so have rhetorical situations.While five canons of rhetoric developed for oratory and recovered for print still apply, they are reconfigured based on new textual forms like the database, the hypertext, the cybertext, and other born-digital texts. Invention,[4] arrangement,[5] and style[6] take on new meanings while delivery[7] is elevated to new importance, and memory comes to refer to textual forms like search engines,[8] archives,[9] and tags.[10] Although the rhetorical canon of delivery once referred to the oral/aural and bodily aspects of delivery, in the age of digital rhetoric, it refers to “Internet-based communication,” and the mediums that are used.[11] While the study of digital rhetoric is not specific to any one technology or era of technology, ideas in digital rhetoric do evolve alongside new technologies such as smartphones, new and easy to use composing platforms like Storify, Pixorial and WeVideo, and techniques such as Ajax. Ideas evolve as technology evolves, because one way of studying digital rhetoric is to trace the ways that technology's affordances and constraints "support and enable the transformation of the old rhetoric of persuasion into a new digital rhetoric that encourages self-expression, participation, and creative collaboration."[12] Many trace the transformation of old rhetoric into digital rhetoric through the classical rhetorical canons.

Shift from Print to Digital

Dennis Baron states, “The first writing technology was writing itself.” While previous writing technologies involved pencils and hieroglyphics, the evolution of communication technology now allows for online and immediate rhetorical conversations.[13] The evolution of communicative technologies started with the chisel, the book and the quill, the greek alphabet, and the pencil, onto more modern technology such as the computer. The origins of modern computing are to be found in the techno-military context of World War II.[14] Just as the pencil was originally intended as a marking utensil for builders and is now used for writing, the computer was originally intended to compute advanced math problems, but is now used for word-processing and a myriad of other tasks. Technology continues to modify itself to meet the needs of people; in the case of digital rhetoric, technology has become more prevalent to match people’s usage of the Internet and computers, which creates a technoculture. Another scholar who highlights the changing landscape from print to digital is Jay Bolter. He argues that the computer is the most significant development since the start of the alphabetic/print tradition and that digital texts will continue to move print to the “margins of literate culture.” [15]


Visual Rhetoric

Visual rhetoric relates to digital rhetoric because they can act together to communicate ideas in a way that is not bound by a linear format. Mary Hocks, a visual rhetoric scholar, states “the screen itself is a tablet that combines words, interfaces, icons, and pictures that invoke other modalities like touch and sound”.[16] By manipulating the tools described by Hocks, a writer in the digital world has access to influence a broader audience, and an influx of modes to communicate their ideas. This in turn creates a way for writers to communicate The use of visual images in rhetoric allows for a writer to convey an idea that may be so abstract that the written linear word will not suffice. Abstract ideas in rhetorical images, as Charles Hill states, that not only are abstract ideas represented in images acceptable but they are prominent, images “do not necessarily have to portray an object, or even a class of objects, that exists or ever did exist”.[17] Images allow for the writer to depict the closest representation of their thought possible since they can blend abstract and tangible thoughts. Hill uses the peace sign, swastika, and the confederate flags as examples of abstract ideas represented by images. Ironically the image of a peace sign, which seems to be universally accepted as a call from the 1970s ‘hippie’ movement, originated as an anti-Christian symbol. The original graphic was used to show an upside down broken cross symbolizing the despair of man and the crucifixion of the Apostle Peter. This shows how visual images can change over time and be adapted in such powerful ways that it actually changes the meaning completely. Images are versatile, and coupled with the motive of the author can provide key components to an argument. By being informed on how visual rhetoric interacts with its different components a reader/viewer can reduce abstract ideas to a more tangible state.


James E. Porter defines avatar as a “virtual body”.[18] With developments in technology, there are new ways to present oneself online. This online presentation of one’s own identity is an avatar. While scholars such as Beth Kolko hoped for an online world without physical barriers, making it a “realm of ideas,” there are still social issues, such as gender discrimination and racism.[19] Beth E. Kolko believes that an idealistic online world would be a “realm of ideas,” without definitive factors such as gender, race, or age. Kolko argues that a non-gendered online world would not garner enough attention, because individuals could not relate to each other without gender identity.[20] Victoria Woolums found in a study of the video game World of Warcraft that the gender identity of the avatar affected behaviors of other characters, showing a bias even in a realm where gender identity of an avatar may not be physically accurate to its user.[21]


Circulation theorizes the ways that texts and discourses move through time and space. Any kind of media can be circulated. A new form of communication is composed, created, and distributed through digital technologies.

Rhetorical Velocity

Rhetorical velocity is the concept of authors writing in a way in which they are able to predict how their work might be recomposed. With the advancement of technology, there is no limit to the speed and distance at which an author’s work is able to travel. Therefore, it is important for them to be able to predict how their audience will recompose their works. Jim Ridolfo and Danielle DeVoss first coined this idea in 2009 when they describe rhetorical velocity as “a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party”.[22]


Multimodality means having several modes, modalities, or maxima—in simpler terms, it is a form of communication that uses multiple methods (or modes) to inform audiences of an idea. It can involve a mix of written text, pictures, audio, or videos. Online journals often embrace multimodality in their issues and articles by publishing works that use more than just written text to communicate the message.


Digirhet was first coined in 2002 during a reading under a Sugarberry Tree.  The term digirhet was communicated to a scholar 
who then began research and the practice of digital rhetoric.[23]


Invention, derived from the Latin word invenire, "to find” concerns finding something to say and figuring out how to say it. When brainstorming, certain common categories of thought are used, in order to brainstorm effectively. These commonly used categories (places = topoi in Greek) are called the "topics of invention." They include, for example, cause and effect, comparison, and various relationships. The use of the topics of invention is just a starting place for writers, invention is a flexible canon that allows for writers to pull inspiration from anywhere.[24]


Arrangement concerns how one orders speech or writing. In older forms of rhetoric, arrangement referred solely to the order to be observed in an oration. However, the term has broadened to include all considerations of the ordering of discourse, especially on a large scale. Arrangement is believed to be organized into six steps. Writers should start with Introduction and move into a Statement of Facts. Next the writer would divide the material in order to express all formidable sides of the argument or information. The fourth step is to provide proof that the scholars belief is factual and the most unbiased. Fifth, a writer should give reasons to refute or argue the main points of others ideas of the topic and disprove their beliefs. Last the writer should conclude the piece, rephrasing all given information. Often in the conclusion the writer restates the thesis and main argument in order to make the point definitive.[25]


Style concerns the artful expression of ideas. If invention addresses what is to be said; style addresses how this will be said. Style names how ideas are embodied in language and customized to communicative contexts.” Style can been organized into four categories: Virtues, Levels, Qualities, and Figures of Speech. Style discusses the ways that something is communicated through speech/text as well as how the information is presented.[26]


“At first, Memory seemed to have to do solely with mnemonics (memory aids) that would assist a budding orator in retaining his speech. However, it clearly had to do with more than simply learning how to memorize an already composed speech for re-presentation. The practice of storing up information or other material arrived at through the topics of invention can be called for in a given occasion in order to redistribute information that is already known or given. The canon of Memory also suggests that scholars consider the psychological aspects of preparing to communicate and the performance of communicating itself, especially in an oral or impromptu setting. Typically Memory has to do only with the orator, but invites consideration of how the audience will retain things in mind.” [27]


For the general scholar, the term delivery means the way in which a form of information is conveyed to a particular audience or group of people. These ideas of delivery could mean hearing information spoken at a conference or reading the news paper. The forms can range from podcasts to videos, pictures to text, or even songs and news papers. Delivery is the modem in which information is given in order for the topic to be best understood and related to. The term "delivery" is often aligned with the term "performance." The Forest of Rhetoric states that delivery is not only the fifth canon of rhetoric, but it is also a translation of the word "hypokrisis" or, acting. This Greek word was translated into delivery in the standpoint of spoken or recited information rather than news papers or essays. Performance of plays, speeches, skits, etc. turns into the delivery of information in the piece being performed or spoken. This is the same as a piece of Literature or Rhetoric delivering its information through word choice, layout, and structure.[28]


Collaboration in digital rhetoric does not mean a co-authorship directly, even though this could be constituted as that as well, but collaboration looks more like an outlet that scholars can share their work and receive feedback as well. Instead of using solely the individual and their work, scholars use each other to spur on each other’s ideas and build their concepts upon another.


A remix is a work that is created by appropriating and/or altering an existing work. Remix is a concept that is within digital rhetoric because it is another tool for communication which digital rhetoric employs. The usage of remixes helps digital rhetoric to reach a broader audience and ties one scholarly work to other works that exist in the wider world of the internet. In turn, digital rhetoric has caused exponential growth in the usage and scope of remixes by giving people new reasons to create and use remixes. They are linked by the rise of technology and new media.


In the digital age most everything is considered appropriation. Scholars pull their information from a myriad of sources and are constantly redefining terms in order to apply them to the digital world. Appropriation carries both positive and negative connotations. In some ways appropriation is a tool that can be used for the reapplication of outdated ideas to make them better. In other ways appropriation is seen as a threat to creative and cultural identities. Social media receives the bulk of this scrutiny due to the lack of education of its users. Most “contributors are often unaware of what they are contributing.[29] which perpetuates the negative connotation. Many scholars in digital rhetoric explore this topic and its effects on society such as Jessica Reyman, Amy Hea, and Johndan Johnson-Eilola.


Electracy is a term developed by Gregory Ulmer describing the emerging digital age.[30] Electracy is often discussed as being in transition, advancing along with Digital Rhetoric. Electracy explains the full communicative potentials of new electronic media.


Kairos is commonly defined as catching the opportune moment. It is imperative that the speaker knows when and where to place the argument and if it is appropriate. Kairos is a concept that is related to Ethos, Pathos and Logos. This rhetorical concept has been put on the rhetorical back burner. Digital Scholars like Jim Ridolfo are on the forefront of reviving the concept of Kairos and implementing it into the classroom.[31]



There is controversy regarding the innovative nature of digital rhetoric. Arguments opposed to legitimizing webtext are Platonically-based in that they reject the new form of scholarship, web text, and praise the old form, print, in the same way that oral communication was originally favored over written communication.[32] Originally some traditionalists didn’t regard online open-access journals with the same legitimacy as print journals for this reason; however, digital arenas have become the primary place for disseminating academic information in many areas of scholarship.[33] Modern scholars struggle to “claim academic legitimacy” in these new media forms, as the tendency of pedagogy is to write about a subject rather than actively work in it.[34] Within the past decade, more scholarly texts have been openly accessible, which provides an innovative way for students to gain access to textual materials online for free, in the way that many scholarly journals like Kairos , Harlot of the Arts , and Enculturation are already available through open access.


Referred to as the digital divide, issues of economic access and user-level access are recurring issues in digital rhetoric. These issues show up most prevalent in computers and writing circles. Access can refer to inequality in the access of information, access to a reading public, and access to means of communicating. For those that teach digital rhetoric in schools and universities, student access to technologies at home and in school is an operative concern.[35] There is some debate about whether mobile computing devices like smartphones make technology access more equitable.[36]

Open Access

Open access has removed the barriers of fees associated with accessing a work and restrictions of copyright and licensing. The matter of eliminating fees is most prevalent to digital rhetoric, because it allows for more access to works. Open access and digital rhetoric do not eliminate copyright, but eliminates restrictions by giving authors the choice to maintain their right to copy and distribute their materials however they choose, or they may turn the rights over to a specific journal. Digital rhetoric involves works that are found online and open access is allowing more people to be able to reach these works.

Copyright Issues

Copyright controversies in online and digital texts affect the way Digital Rhetoric is utilized. Many of these arguments deal with the problem of cost for the publishers and consumers of scholarly text. Copyrighting materials is an expensive task, especially when the materials can be translated into many other forms of digital sources that are freely found by the public. Because of this ease of transformation, copyright laws are undermined as scholars lose predication in their online materials through maneuvers as simple as copy and paste or translating hyperlinks. In James P. Zappen's piece "Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory," he refers to transferring material in ways that create misapplication of a work that a scholar has written. "A media database, for example, can produce an almost infinite variety of end-user objects, which can be customized for different users, manipulated through hyperlinks, periodically updated, and scaled upon demand." Zappen's statement of "infinite" is in no way subjective or an over statement. Many digital pieces are infringed upon, stolen, or misused by the avoidance of copyright. These many forms of copyright avoidance lend to the controversy of digital rhetoric and media as a whole.[37]

See also


  1. Burton, G. (n.d.). What is Rhetoric? Retrieved December 3, 2014, from What is Rhetoric?
  2. "Public rhetoric". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Losh, Elizabeth (2009). Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (PDF). MIT. pp. 47–48. Retrieved 24 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Delagrange, Susan. (2009). "Wunderkammer, Cornell, and the Visual Canon of Arrangement." Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 13(2). [1]
  5. Yancey, Kathleen Blake. (2004). "Looking for sources of coherence in a fragmented world: Notes toward a new assessment design" Computers and Composition.
  6. Brooke, Collin. (2002). Enculturation: Special Multi-journal Issue on Electronic Publication 4(1).
  7. Porter, James E. (2009). "Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric," Computers and Composition 26:207-224.
  8. Anne Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc. Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Salt Lake City: U of Utah Press, 2003
  9. Jeff Rice. (2012). Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  10. Brooke, Collin Gifford. (2009). Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
  11. Porter, James E. (2009). "Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric," Computers and Composition 26:207-224. Computers and Composition
  12. Zappen, James. "Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory" (2005). Technical Communication Quarterly 14(3):319-325.
  13. Baron, D. (n.d.). From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology. Retrieved January 1, 2014, from
  14. What is Digital Rhetoric? Retrieved from, YouTube Video What is Digital Rhetoric? (2011)
  15. Bolter, J. (1991). Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.
  16. Hocks, M. (2003). Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments. College Composition and Communication, 54(4), 629-656. Retrieved from JSTOR.
  17. Handa, C. (2004). Reading the Visual in College Writing Classes By Charles Hill. In Visual rhetoric in a digital world: A critical sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.
  18. Porter, James E. (2009). Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric, Computers and Composition 26:207-224.
  19. Kolko, Beth E. (1999). Representing bodies in virtual space: The rhetoric of avatar design.Information Society. 15(3), 177-186
  20. Kolko, Beth E. (1999). Representing bodies in virtual space: The rhetoric of avatar design. Information Society. 15(3) 177-186
  21. Woolums, V. (Fall 2011). Gendered Avatar Identity. Kairos, 16(1). Retrieved from
  22. Ridolfo, J., and Devoss, D. (2009). Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery. Kairos, 13.2. Retrieved from Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery
  23. Newton,K. (2002) Living Witness
  24. Burton, G. (n.d.). What is Rhetoric? Retrieved December 3, 2014, from What is Rhetoric?
  25. Burton, G. (n.d.). What is Rhetoric? Retrieved December 3, 2014, from What is Rhetoric?
  26. Burton, G. (n.d.). What is Rhetoric? Retrieved December 3, 2014, from What is Rhetoric?
  27. Burton, G. (n.d.). What is Rhetoric? Retrieved December 3, 2014, from What is Rhetoric?
  28. Burton, G. (n.d.). What is Rhetoric? Retrieved December 3, 2014, from What is Rhetoric?
  29. Reyman, J. (2013). User Data on the Social Web: Authorship, Agency, and Appropriation. College English, 75(5), 513-32. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from
  30. Electracy is to digital media what literacy is to print -Gregory Ulmer .
  31. David M. Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony J. Michel ( March 19th, 2012) . The Available Means of Persuasion: Mapping a Theory and Pedagogy of Multimodal Public Rhetoric : Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press.
  32. Borgman, Christine. Scholarship in a Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, p.78.
  33. Dunham, Gary. “What are Trends in Scholarly Publishing?” Retrieved from <>.
  34. Ball, Cheryl E. (2004). Show, not tell: The value of new media scholarship. Computers & Composition, 21(4). 403-425.
  35. Reynolds, Thomas J. and Charles R. Lewis. "The changing topography of computer access for composition students." Computers and Composition 14(2). 1997.
  36. Hea, Amy C.K., ed. (2009). Going Wireless: A Critical Exploration of Wireless and Mobile Technologies for Composition Teachers and Researchers. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, pp.15-33.
  37. Zappen, J.P. (2005). Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 14(3), 319–325. Retrieved from

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