Overview Sentence:Communicare est participare. While participation as a means of rhetorical practice has expanded from the requisite political participation of Greek and Roman rhetoricians to the various digital forms of participation we find today, politics, production, and education are still central to participation in the digital realm.
Keywords: Communicare est participare, political participation, participatory culture, self-expression, digital media, online political discourse, trolls, fan communities, modding, explicit/implicit participation, user appropriation, tagging, networked participatory groups, prosumers, networked rhetoric, non-human elements, bots
Historical Roots/Theoretical Grounding In proceedings from the 1986 Conference on Argumentation, Helmut Geissner argues that “rhetorical communication starts from… the speaking with each other of socialized persons,” which he argues can be “summed up in the old formula ‘communicare est participare’” [emphasis his], meaning “to communicate is to participate” (111). Therefore, any rhetorical communication requires that those involved participate. Participation as a means of rhetorical practice has expanded from the requisite political participation of Greek and Roman rhetoricians to the various digital forms of participation we find today. However, politics, production, and education are still central to participation in the digital realm.
Integral to understanding participation online is the idea of participatory culture, frequently explored by Henry Jenkins among other scholars. In their 2009 whitepaper on participatory culture and twenty-first-century media education, Jenkins et al describe participatory culture as having: 1) little to no “barrier to artistic expression and civic engagement”, 2) “strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others” 3) “informal membership” where more experienced members share knowledge with less experienced members, 4) members who “believe that their contributions matter”, and 5) members who “feel some degree of social connection” with other members (7). For a culture/group to be considered participatory, then, members must feel welcome to join the group and learn its practices. Similarly, James P. Zappen argues that digital media has expanded the notion of rhetoric to include “not only persuasion but also self-expression” (322). Self-expression is fundamental to the idea of a participatory culture, as it allows participants to freely share with the group they are joining/acting within, and without self-experession, members of these participatory groups would likely not feel welcome to share their ideas.
Praxis: Political Participation This free and open exchange of ideas is vital to the political work that digital participation allows. While there are certainly instances where various forums have rules that users must follow, these rules often do not prohibit users from expressing themselves. As Ian Bogost notes in his work on democratic rhetoric, “All current political technology harnesses the participatory nature of the medium” (124). These various digital media allow users to connect across physical barriers to participate in political debate and conversation; Bogost continues, “If nothing else, blogs and news-pegged fundraising create coherent, ongoing interaction with a campaign or initiative, allowing user commentary and contribution,” clearly demonstrating the participatory nature of online political discourse (124). Online political discourse and participation seemingly “requires that citizens also have an understanding of complex issues in order to… participate in public conversation,” according to W. Michelle Simmons and Jeffrey T. Grabill (420). There is, of course, the chance that trolls could damage the potential for civil, well-informed political discourse online, as explored by Jennifer Forestal in “The Architecture of Political Spaces: Trolls, Digital Media, and Deweyan Democracy.” Forestal concludes that though it may be difficult, it may also be possible to create democratic spaces online so long as we create “flexible” spaces, to cultivate “an intergroup dynamic that is inclusive, that welcomes novel ideas and individuals, and that pushes participants to adapt to new challenges,” as participatory culture requires (original emphasis; 159). Though there is the potential for online political debate to become unhelpful, and perhaps even harmful, in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Jenkins notes that because of the power afforded by online participation, “participation becomes an important political right” (268). To be active political participants, we must also have access to online political discourse.
Fan Production & Participation More specifically, Jenkins discusses the political and productive power fan communities possess. He argues that fan communities may help us understand “new ways of thinking about citizenship and collaboration,” both essential to digital participation. As they collaborate, fans are also participating in media production practices through “writing over [media], modding [media], amending [media], expanding [media], adding greater diversity of perspective, and then recirculating it, feeding it back into the mainstream” (268). Fans not only create the media they want their favorite media to become, they add to the mainstream culture surrounding their favorite media, as well. This production process, according to Mirko Tobias Schäfer, occurs through both explicit and implicit participation. In his discussion of the modding practices of some fan communities and consumers, he argues that “user appropriation [of media and other products] can also be commercially motivated,” and modding practices “reveal [that] participation is complex” (81). Schäfer contrasts the decision to explicitly participate by modifying and appropriating other media/products with the implicit participation required by the design of many online interfaces. For instance, Schäfer describes the tagging required by sites like Flickr, which forces users to participate in the social creation of knowledge because the photo-sharing interface demands it (108). Users of the interface accept this implicit participation, though they likely are not actively choosing to participate through editing the tags on their uploaded photographs.
This implicit participation is in stark contrast to the active choices both Schäfer and Jenkins describe fans and others in networked participatory groups making. For instance, Jenkins argues that those in fan communities actively choose to “reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate,” preferring the idea that “all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths (267). These fans inhabit the place between producers and consumers by producing and consuming their own media and modifying and appropriating media produced by others; these networked fan communities, then, are a digital iteration of the prosumers described by Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave.
Pedagogical Participation Just as fans in digital, networked fan communities can take ownership of the media and products they encounter, students in online courses and courses involving digital writing can become prosumers in their own education processes, as Daniel Anderson explores in his work on multimedia projects, literacies, and student motivation. As students write online discussion posts and share their responses to class materials, they and their participating instructors are customizing their educations. According to Keri Dutkiewicz, LuAnna Holder, and Wayne D. Sneath, discussion boards are “in fact a primary way instructors customize the course content to meet the learning needs of individual students” by producing content which students then respond to and complicate (58). As students work in the networked classroom environment, they create knowledge for other students, thereby prosuming some educational materials and perhaps practicing some of the informal learning described by Jenkins et al. that they learn as a result of participation.
Implications and Predictions In her seminal work, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet H. Murray describes digital environments as being “procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic” (71). Understanding the participatory nature of digital environments is integral to understanding digital and networked rhetoric. In the digital, networked environment, communicare est participare is still applicable, and many sites where users interact with each other call for participation in some kind of rhetorical activity, whether that is political discourse, media production, or educational activities. As we expand our understanding of participation, more exploration into the implicit participation required by certain platforms will prove useful, as will exploration of the participation of nonhuman elementssuch as bots in networked, digital human spaces. However, we still have much work to do in understanding the human role in these participatory spaces which will allow us to make more informed, ethical choices in where and how we choose to participate.
Anderson, Daniel. “The Low Bridge to High Benefits: Entry-Level Multimedia, Literacies, and Motivation.” Computers and Composition, vol. 25, 2008, pp. 40-60.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. The MIT Press, 2007.
Dutkiewicz, Keri, LuAnna Holder, and Wayne D. Sneath. “Creativity and Consistency in Online Courses: Finding the Appropriate Balance.” Online Education 2.0: Evolving, Adapting, and Reinventing Online Technical Communication, edited by Kelli Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie, Baywood Publishing Company, 2013, pp. 45-72.
Forestal, Jennifer. “The Architecture of Political Spaces: Trolls, Digital Media, and Deweyan Democracy.” American Political Science Review, vol. 111, no. 1, 2017, pp. 149-161. doi:10.1017/S0003055416000666. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Geissner, Helmut. “Rhetorical Communication as Argumentation.” Argumentation: Across theLines of Discipline: Proceedings of the Conference on Argumentation 1986, University of Amsterdam, edited by Frans H. van Eemeren et al, Foris Publications,1987, pp. 111-119, books.google.com/books?id=J2d5oDJIE0wC. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York UP, 2006.
Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education forthe 21st Century. MacArthur, 2009. Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck. The MIT Press, 1998.
Schäfer, Mirko Tobias. Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms CulturalProduction. Amsterdam UP, 2011.
Simmons, W. Michelle, and Jeffrey T. Grabill. “Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places: Invention, Performance, and Participation. College Composition and Communication, vol. 58, no. 3, 2007, pp. 419-448.
Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. William and Morrow Company, 1980. Zappen, James P. “Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory.” Technical CommunicationQuarterly, vol. 14, no. 3, 2005, pp. 319-325, homepages.rpi.edu/~zappenj/Vita/ DigitalRhetoric2005.pdf. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.