Musings on Digital Rhetoric: Multimodal Literacies and Social Medias as Rhetorical Tools

rhetoric_largeOne of my interests as a writer is understanding how people use different technologies to communicate with one another, to create identities, and as tools for shaping social contexts. When I was an undergraduate at San Diego State, one of my classes I had to take for my BA degree was a Digital Rhetoric course. I learned a lot about how literacies have advanced discourse through the developing technologies over the centuries. Before the invention of literacy, there was the oral tradition where stories were told through public memory. Homer’s The Odyssey comes to mind when I think of oral traditions which relied on this type of public memory for information to public consumption. The invention of writing as a new technology changed the way we communicated with one another, and gave way for the evolution of multiple literacies that focused heavily on writing. Often today, when we think of the word “technology,” we most of the time (sometimes without realizing it) think of machines such as computers, cellphones, tablets, etc. when thinking of technology, but as I have mentioned with the invention of literacy, the intention of writing was a new technology that eventually grew to replace public oratory and memorization as the primary source of communication for various cultures.

writeAs a technologically driven species, we constantly continue to refine and invent new technologies, most often for a rhetorical purpose. Certain forms of rhetoric often rely on certain literacies and technologies in order for the rhetoric to have an effect. Prior to the invention of the radio, newspapers were the dominant source of information (as well as communication) for societies to learn what was going on in their communities. Newspaper writing as a technology shaped the rhetorics of their societies because it was one of only sources of information available for people. The invention of the radio in primitive forms in the 1800s (thanks in large part of the early attempts at developing the technology of the telegraph) eventually evolved in the early 20th century to where it became a strong an undeniable force in how the general public received information. Television eventually replaced the radio as the primary source of information for the general public in the 1950s, and with that, technologies began to evolve more rapidly to take advance of this new form of communication. This rapidly evolving technology not only became a dominant source of information for people, but as an avenue of communication which shaped and influenced the rhetoric that would become ingrained into the public consciousness. An example of this how in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the Vietnam war in the 1970s was one of the first wars to be reported on national television, influencing public opinion on America’s involvement in Vietnam, and in Gulf War in the 1990s being considered the first war to be broadcasted on Live television.

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Fast Forward to the 21st century (as of writing this in 2015) and we have the Internet as a form of technology that has replaced television as the dominant technological, rhetoric producing social tool, shaping the way we not only get our information, but also how interact with and influence others. Emails, text messages, Instant Messaging services (such as Skype), and social media websites have changed the way we use and receive information. People have taken advantage of the tools of the internet to write and use images for social purposes such as connecting with family and friends, receiving news, watch videos on YouTube, write blog posts using websites like WordPress or Blogger about their daily lives, and even online dating with various online dating websites such as Match.com or OkCupid. This is technology that did not exist prior late 20th century, and it as evolved dramatically as tools for social interaction.

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As a rhetorical tool, it has become an area of interest of mine to talk about not only how it has changed, but how literacies from the past have came together to be taken advantaged by the (relatively) new technology as tools for rhetoric. Social media has become a fascinating phenomenon which has shaped the way we communicate with one another, how we develop and present our social identities, and how it has influenced social contexts. In the class I took as an undergrad, one of my assignments was to keep an online blog keeping a record of my responses to various readings on the topic. This blog I am writing now, Jacob’s Dialectic, is a successor to the blog I did in that class (you can access the old blog here). In the old blog, I kept track of assigned readings that talked about how different forms of literacy evolved over time to what we have today. As mentioned earlier, writing eventually replaced oratory as the primary source of communication. Today, we now have a conglomeration of various forms of writing that include writing, speaking, visuals, video, text, graphic design, and countless other forms of literacy to influence and shape what we would call digital rhetoric. An example of this conglomeration of these different literacies coming together to develop and use digital rhetoric would be the online presentation software Prezi.com. Prezi is a perfect example of a type of multimodal digital rhetoric producing tool which many people take advantage of to produce projects, often with the intention of informing, influencing, or persuading others. I myself did that in Fall 2014 semester for a Visual Rhetoric class I took where I used Prezi to make an argument about the Rhetoric of Welfare in the United States (if you are interested in seeing that Prezi as an example of how multimodal tools shape the way digital rhetoric comes into play, you can access the Prezi here).

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Digital rhetoric is often defined as a type of rhetoric that influences or persuades others usually through the use of media, often being build on the past literacies of yesteryear. In the 21st century, I would include multimodal aspects of media outlets as part of that outlet that makes use of digital rhetoric. The internet as a primary source of communication today has developed forms of rhetoric which would have been incredibly difficult to process without the existence of the multimodal avenues of social media. Thanks to video sharing websites like YouTube or Vimeo, a video can now go viral and be seen by millions of people around the globe, something that would have been impossible 30 years ago. In the aftermath of the horrible Charlie Hebdo massacre almost a month ago (which I wrote about here), social media not only spread news of the tragedy in an instance, it also made viral the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan that brought global communities together as a stance against terrorism. This tool for digital rhetoric has become an observable and fascinating phenomenon, especially for someone like me.

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A reason why it has become fascinating to me is because of my reflections when I was younger using the internet. Born in 1988, I was born in a generation which was just starting to see the internet really take off. I am old enough to remember as a young kid to see all he rapid changes the internet went through, from the early days of dial-up, to broadband becoming the standard, and to even seeing the advancement of social media. When I was in High School in the very early 2000s, I remember MySpace and how popular it was. It was only when I began college in 2007 that I really started to see the changes in how the internet was used by people to communicate with each other. Facebook eventually replaced MySpace as the dominant social tool for community building. In High School, I remember getting a MySpace account later in my adolescence because of the social pressure for high school students in the early to mid 2000s to use the latest social media as a source of building social ties. I see the same thing with Facebook. Since Facebook is currently the dominant social media website build primarily for building social ties, it has been an incredibly popular social media for high school and college students since at least 2008, and it continues to grow, even with the more multimodal sites like Instagram and Tumblr working alongside Facebook and Twitter. As a tutor/graduate instructional assistant for college freshmen, I know they are part of a generation that is not old enough to remember the evolution the internet (an in this case, how digital rhetoric has evolved). Younger generations (and future generations) will never experience a time when the internet, particularly social media and the advancing technologies, did not exist.

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The advancement of social media in our lives is a fascinating avenue of rhetorical discovery that I think would make for interesting topics to talk about in the future. I do know that there are people who have raised concerns about how the internet has influenced the way people have behaved, but I would make the argument that the internet is just like any other kind of literacy which requires the existence of a discourse to take place. The internet as evolved to the point where new literacies need to be taught and advocated in our schools and our communities in order to build a more technologically literate community. Not only do we need to treat the internet like we would treat the difference between a public and private place, but also need to treat the internet as a rhetoric producing tool which influences social attitudes and identities. It also would be beneficial to see how digital rhetoric plays an important role in shaping how people engage in discourse. For instance, I am writing this blog post on my laptop. I am typing this article with a rhetorical purpose, which is to raise awareness for how rhetoric is part of the fabric of our daily communications, specifically to explain the way the internet influences the way we as a society engage in digital rhetoric (as of 2015). With this purpose in mind, my hope is that you, the reader, will come away from this blog post with a more informed understanding how the digital rhetoric social media impacts your daily life.

Technology will never leave our society because of the fact that we are a technologically driven species, more so than other species in the animal kingdom. Because of this, I would argue that it is better to embrace these new mediums and to attempt more deep understandings for how our past literacies have influenced not only how we interact and communicate with others using these mediums, but also how these emerging and ever changing digital rhetoric shapes literacies of the future.

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