My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Warnick’s Rhetoric Online is a helpful contribution to the study of persuasion in political discourse online. Warnick argues persuasively that scholars of rhetoric need to focus on online communication as rhetoric and that the medium affects how one should approach communication online.
Chapter 1 argues that there is much vibrant political communication online, and despite (and in part because of, I’d say) current “crises” in the public sphere (drawing on Habermas), the Internet has become a site activism, resistance, and political campaigns. Warnick also notes that there are challenges to rhetorical critics because rhetoric online causes us to reconsider some assumptions about rhetoric based in print and oral texts (22-23).
Chapter 2 argues for a “medium theory approach” to rhetoric online. Warnick discusses “five elements of the communication process—reception, source, message, time, and space” (27). Drawing on the work of Roland Barthes, she argues that texts online are intertextual and non-linear, always in formulation, and that rhetorical critics need to focus more on readers’ responses to online material (28-30). The credibility of online material is also understood differently than rhetoric has traditionally understood ethos: instead of grounded in the source of the material, ethos is instead understood through visuals and other signs (33-36; this is discussed more in Chapter 3). Another important aspect of online discourse is that the message of online material is often fragmented or modular, and the “author” no longer has control of the message’s content (36-37). Time and space also function differently in online environments because online “users do not constitute a mass audience” (37) producing “dispersed, disaggregated media audiences” (44).
Chapter 3 explores how credibility (ethos) is determined online. Noting that ethos has changed through history, from Aristotle’s understanding that “notions of ethos were embedded in the cultural and social mores of host societies” (47) to the modern conception that ethos was “connected to an author’s credentials and known reputation” (48), Warnick explains that it’s understandable that notions of ethos would change again. Drawing on Stephen Toulmin’s work, Warnick argues that credibility should be based in the specific field and context of the communication (49). She discusses how credibility is understood on Indymedia’s Website to help show how credibility is determined on that site.
Chapter 4 addresses interactivity online, discussing MoveOn’s Website and George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign Website as two sites of interactivity. Warnick uses Sally J. McMillan’s taxonomy of interactivity (three forms: “user-to-system, user-to-user, and user-to-document” [75:]) as well as her contribution of “text-based interactivity,” or “the presence of various stylistic devices, such as use of first person and active voice versus passive voice; additional visual cues such as photographs of the candidate or supporters interacting with other people; and additional textual content of the site” (73), to show how interactivity works on these two Websites.
Chapter 5 traces the history of the term “intertextuality” and addresses how it works on a few online videos from Jibjab.com and on Adbusters‘ Website.
Her conclusion offers a concise review of the book. Overall, I found this book helpful in understanding how rhetorical criticism might need to revisit some of its assumptions about rhetoric in online environments. In a concise, accessible overview, Warnick offers some helpful insights about online rhetoric, particularly about credibility online and fragmented or dispersed audiences. I think this book could have done more (by which I guess I mean, I wanted more), but for the goals set out for the book, it’s pretty successful.