Introduction to Leigh Meredith


Depending on your standards for digital expertise, you’d probably consider me a digital amateur. At least in my personal life, that is. I could blame this on my age – which has me teetering on the edge of Millennial but not quite making me “digital native.” When I was in eighth grade people still had long, boring, phone conversations when they were supposed to be finishing their algebra homework instead of long, boring text conversations. Alternatively, I could blame it on my speaking style – I tend to gesticulate emphatically, which obviously doesn’t translate that well to text. It’s not that I’m a total Luddite: I occasionally use Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest; I Skype with my parents and Google Hangout with my college friends. It’s just that I prefer actual facetime to Facetime, I’ve never used Snapchat, and I’m not totally sure what YikYak is. But I prefer to justify my ambivalence (and sometimes ignorance) in terms of my research interests, which center on the relationship between forms of digital communication and notions of identity.

This is because what I hear over and over again from family, friends, and colleagues is that many (if not most) people tend to feel “bad” at communicating digitally. Social media, in particular, seems to make people feel like they don’t know the rules for self-representation online, the right language, or where to draw the line between virtuality and reality. I like to think that my own ambivalence helps me to identify and analyze how digital media is getting used and made meaningful in ways that often feel partial, incomplete, and unnerving to “users” (itself a somewhat unnerving term).

In his introductory post earlier this month, my fellow DRC fellow Nathan Riggs talked about how people are now not only literate but also “electorate,” or fluent in digital languages and practices. I’m interested in gaps in this “electoracy,” moments when digital fluencies falter, have yet to develop, or when various online and offline fluencies collide. In particular, I’m interested in how these gaps and conflicts in our “digital rhetoric” challenge the fluency with which dominant notions of identity and subjectivity are also reproduced. These moments of fracture and conflict in digital rhetoric, and the ways they begin to dismantle or reconfigure individual and group identities, are what I currently investigate as a PhD candidate at Northwestern’s Rhetoric and Public Culture program. They are also part of what I hope to explore via various DRC resources, such as Webtext of the Month, which provide an opportunity for both close reading and contextual analysis.

In turn, I am drawn to digital rhetoric, and the ways in which it’s being illuminated by the DRC, in part by the indeterminacy of the field itself. As the DRC has noted since the inception of this site, so many questions remain about what digital rhetoric is (its histories, definitions), what it is not (its limitations and exclusions), and what it does for us as rhetoricians, teachers, users of digital technologies, and participants in digital culture. One way to ask these questions is: what are the “affordances” of digital rhetoric?

The notion of “affordance” has become integral to the way we talk, across disciplines, about the intersections between the material qualities of technologies and their uses. It’s both an analytic tool and a rhetorical marker, a sign of familiarity with the lexicon of digital rhetoric. Take this site as an example; enter “affordance” in the search box above and practically every post comes up as a hit. And, although its placement is admittedly an artifact of alphabetization, the entry for “affordance” is both the first and one of the most extensive articles in the DRC Wiki’s section on “Threshold Concepts in Digital Rhetoric.” At the same time, the term is (almost) so assimilated into mainstream talk about technology that it’s no longer simply a term of art. So “affordance,” like “curation,” becomes part of another form and formulation of digital rhetoric, not just a tool of scholarly analysis, but also part of popular and public discourse about digital technology.

To me, the DRC represents a unique opportunity to map and remap the “affordances” of digital rhetoric in both senses – both as a set of tools for rhetorical analysis and as an object of rhetorical analysis itself. The DRC’s Wiki entry for “affordance” refers to Janet Murray’s definition of the term as “the functional properties of objects or environments—the properties that allow for particular uses.” This notion of “affordance” shares many affinities with a traditional definition of rhetoric as “language for use.” In investigating the affordances of digital rhetoric, we can ask how the very idea or category of “digital rhetoric” allows for “particular uses”: how it enables and constrains the arguments we make, as rhetoricians, about the meaning of technology or particular technologies (and even how it expands and reshapes the field of rhetoric itself). On the other hand, it helps us ask how digital rhetorics work “on the ground” – in the classroom, the news, and popular culture – to shape public technological knowledge, values, practices, and histories. With this dual focus on mind, I hope to both expand the DRC Wiki catalogue of digital rhetorical tools, and to continue the archive that the Blog Carnivals are building around digital rhetorics in context. And, to bring it all back to my initial admission of digital ambivalence or amateurism, I’m interested in using the latter to explore how that kind of partial fluency is itself a kind of digital rhetoric, one with its own “affordances.”

Finally, I want to express how excited I am to begin this year as a DRC fellow. I am honored to have this chance to collaborate with scholars within and outside of the DRC. I hope, in the process, to explore and expand the affordances of the DRC as a scholarly resource, and my own affordances as a scholar and participant in digital culture.

About Author

Leigh Meredith

Leigh is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University. Her research and teaching interests center on digital representation, subjectivity, and intersections between old and new media.

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