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Online Genres

posted: 3.21.11 by archived

I just gave a talk about rhetoric for a group of prospective university students. The students, with their parents, were visiting my school on their spring break and attending “mock lectures,” one of which was mine. Wow, did I feel sorry for these kids: not only were they forced to spend their spring break listening to lectures, they were accompanied by their over-enthusiastic parents. While in the adults’ eyes was a look that said, “this is fun!,”  the students looked either deeply embarrassed or deeply asleep.

The talk was an effort to look at conversations that happened in Athens 2,500 years ago, and then casually relate them to modern culture, especially to social media. I’m not sure I did such a great job with the talk, but in preparing the lecture, I did come upon some interesting points. I’ll share them here, where I have a slightly less divided audience!

In the talk, I discussed Aristotle’s three basic genres for rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Deliberative speeches try to convince people to take actions; forensic speeches examine what has happened in a given situation, and are a lot like legal proceedings today; and epideictic speeches assign praise or blame.

I then suggested we use Facebook as an example. Deliberative rhetoric tries to convince people to take actions: we post on Facebook to get people to vote on American Idol, or to tell people to go and see a movie or download an album. Forensic speeches examine what has happened in a given situation: there are a million such posts about Charlie Sheen—is he scary and off-the-handle, or is he secretly genius? Epideictic speeches assign praise or blame: today, we have the “Like” button to help us with this. If I had been given the time, I would have loved to have asked students to categorize their own writing on Facebook according to these three categories.

Further, beyond these three types or genres of rhetoric, we have millions of subcategories or subgenres. On Twitter, for example, there are some interesting patterns in the ways that people tweet and what they tweet about. One new genre is the humblebrag. A humblebrag is a brag disguised as an everyday statement, or sometimes undermined by some self-deprecation. A humblebrag allows the writer to assign both praise and blame to him- or herself. In a way, new social media offers a million different ways to brag, and how we “self-fashion” (another ancient rhetorical concept) online has become fairly sophisticated. We haven’t even really begun to analyze these new genres, but I’m sure our students could do so quite effectively.

There are other ways that we sort through online content, if not by genre. Sites like Twistori gather all tweets that mention the key words love, hate, think, believe, feel, and wish. Twistori calls itself an ongoing online experiment. Spend a few minutes on the site, and you get a bit overwhelmed watching all the tweets roll past you. What do people love? They love their children, their significant others, Dairy Queen. What do people hate? They hate being sick, they hate math, they hate Mondays; but they also hate their own lives, “what drugs do to people,” and lots of other substantial issues. When you sit for a few minutes and read a stream of tweets, without knowing any of the authors of these posts, you get not only a weird, mesmerizing sense of how people communicate but a sense of what they feel and value. (As you can imagine, this is a great site to use for teaching ethos, pathos, and logos.)

I offer these links and ideas not as new insights, but simply as elements we might incorporate into the writing classroom to bring the classroom closer to where our students want to be (as opposed to a lecture hall with their parents—where they clearly did not want to be!).

Categories: Genre, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorical Situation
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