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The Net as rhetoric

By David Weinberger

Rhetoric has gotten a bad rap. It's come to mean shady or superfluous verbosity, which is more or less the opposite of what it actually means: persuasive talk. Aristotle, who wrote a bestseller called "The Rhetoric," understood rhetoric could indeed be misused to bamboozle the listener, but was interested in it primarily because it is a way of bringing others to see the truth of the world. In a political environment in which the future of the state was determined by the ability of the community to see the truth, rhetoric was of no small importance. And so it still should be.

In fact, one of the best ways to view the Internet is as a hotbed of RD (Rhetoric Development).

For example, are weblogs defined by the technology we use to write them? No, not really. If one of the weblogs I read every day turns out to be the result of the author hand-editing and FTPing an HTML page, I'll still consider it to be weblog, albeit one produced in the stupidest possible way. A weblog is a rhetorical form. That's why Jupiter Research's new weblogs strike me as not really being weblogs, even though they presumably use weblogging software to produce them. The Jupiter blogs regularly present the pithy thoughts of senior analysts, but they have no blog roll (i.e., list of other blogs they read) and they don't engage with the ideas on other blogs. They are not conversational enough to count as weblogs rather than as brief columns. They don't meet the rhetorical requirements of weblogs, at least in my opinion.

Weblogs are only one of the gazillion new forms of rhetoric that have emerged on the Net. E-mail is the most obvious example: How you sound in a message, how quickly you respond, how long the message is, how many typos you are permitted, all are characteristics of the e-mail form of rhetoric. And, of course, the rules are as complex as e-mail types are various. Chat and instant messaging likewise are new rhetorical forms. So are Google Questions and AskJeeves' questions before that.

So is slashdot.com, a site where geeks are witty, pithy and cutting in flurries of threaded messages on topics that matter to them. If you've ever been slashdotted, you know how painful it can be: hundreds of messages pouring in within 24 hours, each trying to be more damning than the next. Is this a form of bullying? Not really. It's just slashdot's rhetorical form. If you don't like it, don't read it.

The emergence of new rhetorical forms shouldn't surprise us, for new forms always emerge when technology enables new types of connections. Telegraphs created their own rhetorical form—one favoring brevity as surely as cell phone-based instant messaging does—as did telephones. Even answering machines have given rise to a type of rhetoric, one that follows the beep. But the Internet is different because its openness means it has no one form of discourse it prefers and enables us to invent new ones. And we are doing so at a rapid pace.

Ultimately, this isn't just about manners of speech and expectations about the tone of voice and pace of response. In adopting a rhetoric, we are taking a stance toward others and ultimately toward ourselves. After all, we are social animals, and that means that we are constantly trying to show one another the world as it looks to each of us. We are our rhetoric. So, living in a time when new forms of discourse are being invented every week means we are living in a time when we're inventing ourselves anew.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (hyperorg.com), e-mail self@evident.com.

For an excellent introduction to the art or skill of rhetoric (Plato and Aristotle disagreed on which it is), see http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/silva.htm

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