On Digital Rhetoric

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I’m pleased to have the opportunity to start our blog carnival on digital rhetoric rolling, and as is my way, I’d like to start out on a serious note, but end with some playfulness (an attribute that is much on my mind as I continue to explore digital rhetoric approaches to computer games).

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about digital rhetoric. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it pretty much non-stop since 2003, when the faculty members in a new program in Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University convinced me that digital rhetoric is in fact what I had been doing all along, from my work with Kairos to my interest in writing technologies and new ways to teach with and about them. It was then that I first thought about writing a book about digital rhetoric—while there were a number of works that addressed digital rhetoric as practice or engaged what I would consider digital rhetoric methods, much of the work that I found most productive only touched on one or two particular facets … there wasn’t anything that could be seen as a comprehensive collection that drew together the definitions, theories, methods, and practices of digital rhetoric in one place.

It has actually taken me quite a bit more time than I anticipated to actually write this book (currently under review with the University of Michigan Press’s digitalculturebooks series). And I find that the burgeoning interest in the subject is gratifying in the sense that I can see the development of an emergent field, arising from an interdisciplinary community of scholars and artists who see themselves and their interests reflected in the idea of merging digital production and rhetorical practice—but it is also problematic, as more and more excellent works that could fit into the umbrella of digital rhetoric are being published, both in print and online. So while I have put together a snapshot of an emergent field in my book, Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice, it cannot possibly cover all of the excellent work that is currently taking off in fields like computers and writing, composition/rhetoric, communications, media ecology, human-computer interface studies, digital arts and media, and Internet studies (to name but a few).

But this is where this project – the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative – comes in: it’s a way to bring together a number of disciplines and scholars and their work that isn’t limited to the time-bound form of the book. It is an instantiation of the ethos of digital rhetoric – the formation of a habitual gathering place for a specific community of rhetors.

In this blog post, I thought I would provide a few brief excerpts that consider the definition of “digital rhetoric,” suggest a reading list of the key texts that have helped me to formulate and refine my definition, and provide two examples (you can decide if they “count” as examples of digital rhetoric — let me know in the comments!).

Toward a Definition of Digital Rhetoric

In Virtualpolitik (2009), Elizabeth Losh traces the term “digital rhetoric” to Richard Lanham”s “Digital Rhetoric and the Digital Arts” (1992), which was an early influence on my own thinking about how one would define digital rhetoric. The next time I encountered the term was in an article in College Composition and Communication by Mary Hocks – her definition explains that “digital rhetoric describes a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts, but it focuses on the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies” (2003,p. 632). From my perspective, there had been a fairly extensive gap between Lanham’s coining of the term and the next attempt to define and use it. But midway through my doctoral program, I encountered Zappen’s article on digital rhetoric, which serves in a roundabout way as a model for this text. In 2005, James Zappen argued that current work toward developing digital rhetoric has thus far resulted in “an amalgam of more-or-less discrete components rather than a complete and integrated theory in its own right. These discrete components nonetheless provide at least a partial outline for such a theory, which has potential to contribute to the larger body of rhetorical theory and criticism” (p. 323); this lack of “an integrated theory” seemed to me a perfect opening for my own work toward understanding, defining, and shaping a vision of digital rhetoric (although I have moved from seeking an integrated theory to articulating digital rhetoric theories – as well as taking a closer look at methods and practices).


The term “digital rhetoric” is perhaps most simply defined as the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances.

I would add, following Zappen (2005), that the primary activities within the field of digital rhetoric include

  • the use of rhetorical strategies in production and analysis of digital text
  • identifying characteristics, affordances, and constraints of new media
  • formation of digital identities
  • potential for building social communities (p. 319)

but I would add to that list

  • inquiry and development of rhetorics of technology
  • the use of rhetorical methods for uncovering and interrogating ideologies and cultural formation in digital work
  • an examination of the rhetorical function of networks
  • theorization of agency when interlocutors are as likely to be software agents (or “spimes”) as they are human actors

Finally, I would note that digital rhetoric may use any of the rhetorical fields and methods that may be useful in any given inquiry, including those of traditional/classical rhetoric, contemporary theories of rhetoric, visual rhetoric, computational rhetoric, and procedural rhetoric – and that as an interdisciplinary field, it may also avail itself of methods drawn from a wide range of related disciplines.

I’m hoping that the DRC site will be a place where we can provide examples of each of these activities, as well as provide resources (tools, stories, potential collaborators) for both theorizing and doing digital rhetoric.

One of those resources is the DRC wiki, which we can populate with resources such as reviews of key texts in digital rhetoric. My list of key texts includes (but is not limited to!)

  • Bogost, Ian. (2007). Persuasive games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Brooke, Collin G. (2009). Lingua fracta: Toward a rhetoric of new media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  • DigiRhet.org. (2006). Teaching digital rhetoric: Community, critical engagement, and application. Pedagogy, 6(20): 231-259.
  • Hocks, Mary E. (2003). Understanding visual rhetoric in digital writing environments. College Composition and Communication, 54(4), 629-656.
  • Lanham, Richard. (1992). Digital rhetoric: Theory, practice, and property. In Myron Tuman, (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers (221-243). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Losh, Elizabeth. (2009). Virtualpolitik: An electronic history of government media-making in a time of war, scandal, disaster, miscommunication, and mistakes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Prior, Paul, et. al. (2007). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A Cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 11(3): http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html
  • Warnick, Barbara. (2007). Rhetoric online: Persuasion and politics on the World Wide Web. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Welch, Kathleen E. (1999). Electric rhetoric: Classical rhetoric, oralism, and a new literacy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Zappen, James P. (2005). Digital rhetoric: Toward an integrated theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 14(3): 319-325.

Finally, I’d like to share two examples that I think provide occasions for examining productions that engage and use digital rhetoric and that can be theorized in terms of multimodal (not just multimedia) production, networks of circulation, and appropriation and remix. I won’t offer a full analysis here, but would like to suggest that one of the ways we can use this site is to collect and contextualize a wide range of examples from different genres, discourse communities, and fields—from political persuasion in digital form to less obviously argumentative works, such as the two I present below.

The first is an example of machinema, where users appropriate the digital context of an online role playing game (in this case, it’s World of Warcraft), choreograph and record actions within the game context but set to music in order to create a DIY music video. If we look at the practices of production, we can see examples of rhetors at work, taking advantage of multiple media and creating new works through the transformative use of others’ materials (I’d link this to the classical canon of invention):

The second is also a case of appropriation and remix, although the first iteration is truly multi-modal. In January of 2007, Clemens Kogler, Karo Szmit, and Andre Tschinder posted “Le Grand Content” to YouTube, describing it as an examination of

the omnipresent PowerPoint-culture in search for its philosophical potential. Intersections and diagrams are assembled to form a grand ‘association-chain-massacre’. Which challenges itself to answer all questions of the universe and some more. Of course, it totally fails this assignment, but in its failure it still manages to produce some magical nuance and shades between the great topics death, cable tv, emotions and hamsters.

The graphs and Venn diagrams that provide the content for “Le Grand Content” were originally published in Jessica Hagy’s blog, Indexed (http://thisisindexed.com/), which features scans of diagrams that she draws on index cards.


I’ll end with a question or two: how do you define digital rhetoric? What examples would you point to to explain it to folks in other fields? This is the place to ask and answer those questions.

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  1. Pingback: Join the blog carnival: “What does digital rhetoric mean to me?” — Digital Rhetoric Collaborative

  2. in terms of tracing a history of digital rhetoric, to what extent should we consider the term “new media rhetoric,” as we see, for example, in Collin Brooke’s book. They have been largely overlapping, I would think, and maybe still are, though I suppose the digital can’t remain “new” forever. That perhaps also raises the question of whether or not all things digital are also media, or, more to the point, if rhetoric views the digital in terms of media/as a form of mediation.

    The question that interests me as a digital rhetorician lies somewhere in there. Rhetoric has largely defined itself as the study of symbolic action. Putting “digital” in front of it doesn’t necessarily change that: it might just suggest studying symbolic action undertaken in digital form. In which case, digital IS a (new-ish) media/medium. But what if rhetoric was more/other than symbolic action? What would digital mean then? More later/elsewhere.

    • I think this second question (and Jim’s response) is the more productive, but I also want to comment on the relationship between digital rhetoric and new media (in the book I spend some time looking at this and at the connection and tensions between DR and DH, DR and new media, DR and critical code studies, and others). My short answer is that “new media” as a term is even more contested than “digital rhetoric” (both “new” and “media” are problematic in different ways — and here I’m looking at the conversations in new media scholarship)…and “New Media” as a field comes from fields that focus primarily on the visual (historically), so it brings certain contexts and perspectives that inform but do not constrain the ways the digital rhetoric considers new media (as both object and field). To be honest, I think Collin’s work is far more situated in “digital rhetoric” (field-wise) than “new media studies”). But part of the issue (and one we should take up here at the DRC site and in the DRC book series) is the question of definitions and communities/networks.

  3. In my “Digital Rhetorics” course this semester, I encouraged students to keep circling back to this question: Is digital rhetoric just rhetoric that happens to occur in digital spaces, or is there some “native” digital rhetorical theory? The goal was never really to answer this question but to keep asking it, and I don’t imagine I’d ever land on an answer to it. But keeping the question top of mind does force me to continually rethink the term “digital rhetoric.”

    In recent years, I have been focusing on the potential of procedural rhetoric. For me, this is the closest I’ve seen to a theory of digital rhetoric that is “native” to the digital. That is, it is best exemplified through digital forms. I’ve also theorized and practiced remix (most recently in a Computers and Composition piece called “Composition in the Dromosphere), but remix has so many precedents in print culture. It’s difficult to think of remixes or mashups as native digital rhetorical theories.

    But even procedural rhetoric leaks out of the digital, and Bogost argues in Persuasive Games that he intends it to be a general theory (not just a theory for video games). While I am interested in seeking out these native theories, I also want to be careful not to dismiss certain work as “not digital enough.” As valuable as I’ve found Persuasive Games, I do think Bogost makes this type of argument when he suggests that most flavors of digital rhetoric don’t address the procedural affordances of the computer. I wouldn’t want to present it as more digital than any other theory since this risks excluding new ways of imagining digital rhetorical theory.

    Still, if we’re going to have a theory of digital rhetoric, we do need to consider what specific theoretical resources are best suited for the digital. Alex points to Collin Brooke’s Lingua Fracta, an excellent place to start. Though, my focus would be less on tracing the history of the terms “digital rhetoric” or “new media rhetoric” (this is Doug’s project, it it’s hugely important), and more on mining the rhetorical tradition for resources as we make digital rhetorical theories. This is what Collin does with the canons, and I would imagine the more work we do in this vein the better.

  4. One of my very slow-stewing projects has been to revisit my dissertation, which was basically about rhetorical situation. See http://www.emunix.emich.edu/~krause/Diss/ if you’re curious. What I was trying to suggest way back when was the double-edged sword of how the speed of situations in digital mediums. By “immediacy,” I meant the potential for both intimacy/closeness and also speed/suddenness, which leads to chaos. What I’ve been thinking lately is trying to re-vision this project by revisiting some examples of various sorts and tracing out through those examples the way rhetoric works differently when mediated through different technologies. I’m interested in the sort of thing that Jenny Edbauer-Rice did in her essay “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies,” for example.

    I don’t know if that’s digital rhetoric, but I guess what I think is interesting is to see how technology (digital and otherwise) change the way rhetoric works.

    • Steve-

      If you haven’t seen it already, my recent piece in C&C might be of interest: “Composition in the Dromosphere.” In that essay (and it’s accompanying video mashup), I’m trying to perform and theorize a dromological rhetoric–one that is attuned to the problem of speed.

  5. Great post to kick things off, Doug!

    I hadn’t seen Le Grand Content yet, but now I see the genre of slideshow poetry (as the content has quite a few poetic turns in it!) that Holeton showed in Kairos back in 14.2. This is why I rely on you to keep me up with the memes.

  6. Pingback: Digital Rhetorics: Simply Too Complicated a Phenomenon — Digital Rhetoric Collaborative

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  11. Doug, I’ve come late to the party, but I’m grateful for the post & host. I love your book!

    About your definition, when I read a definition of “digital rhetoric” that hinges upon the term “application,” I have a visceral response that’s something like a shallow breath. I see the pedagogical value in defining “digital rhetoric” as an “application” of rhetorical theory in digital spaces, but something about “application” frustrates me.

    For myself, I start from Diane Davis’ notion of an immersive experience of “rhetoricity” toward a definition that looks like this:

    “Digital rhetoric involves creative enactments of perceived rhetoricity. From these creative, often polyvocal, multimodal events, texts, utterances, and performances, we experience a range of affects that may be associated with awareness, critique, frustration, pleasure, and hope. The critical work of digital rhetoric invites us to remediate these creative enactments for alternative performances that might further validate or alter a performance toward a new understanding of the moment. Ideally, digital rhetorics surface potential for identity, identity alteration, group associations, and the emergence of digital collectives that might challenge and work toward the good in both digital and ‘real’ spaces.”

    Okay, that’s rough, but you can see that I’m trying to get at something that goes beyond a prior agreement (which “application” implies) and toward something experiential and dynamic. I suppose that in many ways, a “creative enactment” made with attentiveness to rhetorical theory could be considered an “applicaiton,” but I’m struggling with it.

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