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Communities of Discourse: Audience and Rhetoric


This short article will reflect on the nature of rhetoric, and how our notions of reaching an audience must be expanded to encompass the dynamics of hypertext and on-line conditions. Simply put, as on-line writers we must use all the traditional rhetorical strategies and consider the visual rhetorics introduced by graphical browsers, and the "architectural" rhetorics introduced by hypertext. Electronic communication also shifts our notions of time and space in a variety of ways: to deliver a message now, all we have to do is push a button; it is as easy to send a message to one person as to twenty, as easy to send a message to East Berlin as to Qualicum.

Rhetorical strategies are the devices writers use to reach their audiences. The Random House Dictionary gives the following definitions of "rhetoric":

.... the ability to use language effectively...the art or science of all specialized literary uses of language in prose or verse, including the figures of speech...the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast....(formerly) the study of the composition and delivery of persuasive speeches; the art of oratory...(in classical oratory) the art of influencing the thought and conduct of one's hearers...(1229)

In its Greek roots, rhetoric is related to techne: from this we can appreciate its sense as technique, as technology of persuasion--"the art of influencing the thought and conduct of one's hearers." The original association with the oral tradition has been extended to the medium of print, and with it has followed our intuition that writing has much to do with voice and other auditory features such as rhythm and verbal music. We often know that we are included in a community of discourse as much by the sound of the language as by its sense. This accounts for the place of jargon in the definition of any community or cultural sub-group.

We write within a rhetorical tradition which may have roots in Greek oratory, with distinctive metrical patterns and acceptable patterns of reasoning. Or we may have inherited our voices from our mothers, our First Nations ancestors, our European grandparents, African oral traditions, joual, any number of regional dialects, or the media. Rhetoric has everything to do with voice, patterns of speech translated into writing, and our ways of telling stories.

There are many ways to tell the same story. Rhetoric is the art and science of how to tell a story effectively to any given audience. We tell stories differently to children than to bureaucrats. We adjust our level of diction, our cadences, the complexity of our thought patterns if we want to be heard and understood. How do we know if we are communicating? Ask a writer: we write, and we listen. There are many questions we hope to have answered:

I've always felt that a writer is perfectly justified in feeling paranoid. When I was in my 20's, my mother passed on some advice she attributed to Plato: "No one should be a writer before the age of thirty." It's funny how some things stick in your mind.

Hopefully, we can find an audience in spite of, or because of, the prejudices and biases of our time. Should a writer, as Marshall McLuhan suggested after reading Poe's short story, descend like the shipwrecked sailor into the maelstrom to be saved from drowning? McLuhan, following Poe, notes that the sailor saved himself from being swallowed in the whirlpool by not fighting against it. Using this story as an analogy, McLuhan suggested that the student of culture must be willing to enter into its maelstrom without being engulfed by it. How involved in the contemporary world must we be to write for our times?

German Woodblock of a Maelstrom

When we write on-line, we combine the traditional rhetorics of writing with the emerging rhetorics of the graphical interface and hypertext links. We write through the technology of the human-computer interface. Now when we send a message to someone by e-mail, we can flirt with spontaneity by leaving a trail of typos and compressions like IMHO or ;-)--speed communicates, according to Paul Virilio. When we reply to an e-mail, we can simulate a dialogue by leaving snippets of the original message embedded in our own writing. When we discuss topics on a newsgroup, we can construct a dialogue over time, and reflect on our responses without having to fight for the floor. With HTML code, we can colour the background, change the colour and size of fonts, and link our words to the words of others with hyperlinks. (The Russian literary critic Bakhtin wrote about the "multivocality" of texts, an idea which has recently been extended to allude to the effect of hypertext.) Now, to be writers on-line, we have to know the rhetorics of colour, and the signification of visual images. Writer's might not have to be graphic designers, but it will help. Writing and the visual arts are converging. When the bandwidth improves, we'll be supplementing our text with audio and video clips.

The rhetorics of communication are evolving for the on-line writer. In writing this short piece, I can feel the seductive pull of techne: Why not insert an image here, a link there, here a sound file, there a video clip? Change the font colour? The repertoire of effects continues to grow, but the task remains the same. How do I want to tell this story? How must I sound to my audience?

For now, it's daunting enough to recognize that the traditional rhetorical strategies of our respective cultures and models are being supplemented by the techniques of machine language. We still have to identify a community of discourse and address that community; we still have to identify a writing voice we can live with, learn the syntax of our language and remain motivated to tell our stories. And we are doing all this in digital bits and bytes with their new rules and regulations and protocols. For the time being, we have been granted the luxury of discovery, play and improvisation in this field of rhetorics.

HTML Basics

There are numerous HTML editors on the market (Dreamweaver being one of the best), but I strongly recommend that you start by creating webpages in a text editor so you can learn the principles from the ground up. HTML composers invariably add their own interpretation of code, which may not be what you want, and unless you know how to edit the code in a text editor, you will be limited in your html abilities at a later time. Composers tend to insert the path for the files they are using, and when the files are uploaded to a server, these paths change and the file will appear to be missing. Besides, you have to learn both html and the composer commands at the same time!

HTML (hypertext markup language) documents are written in a text editor, marked up with tags that act as commands, then saved with the extension .htm or .html to be viewed by a browser. Internet Explore or Netscape Navigator interpret the tags and perform the commands on the text. Netscape and Internet Explorer interpret some code in different ways and it's recommended that you view your html pages in both browsers before uploading to the WWW.

It is important to name your files correctly to avoid problems with certain servers: always give your files a name of 8 letters or less--with no spaces or special characters (!@#$%& etc)--and a 3 letter extension (.htm).

Once you have created your webpage or website on a local computer--saving files to a storage medium or hard drive--all the files have to be individually uploaded to a server with an FTP (file transfer protocol) program. In the Malaspina labs, the files merely have to be saved to the Web folder on the U: drive to be available on the internet.

Of the millions of colours most monitors are capable of displaying, there are only 240 that display consistently the same on both MAC and PC monitors. It's recommended that you use the Browser-Safe Colour Palette when designing your pages if you care about colour consistency. By linking to this chart, you can determine the hexadecimal codes that are used to specify colours on a webpage.

colour cube

Online HTML Resources

Saving Webpages and Images

It's possible to save both web-pages and their images. In fact, most things you find on the Internet can be saved to disk or memory. (However, I've encountered some images which seem to have a copy protection on them.) If you want to save the text file of a web-site (with html code included), open the File menu in the browser, select Save As, and designate a drive (and directory). Internet Explorer will save the webpage and all the image files associated with it unless you specify "Webpage, html only" in the "Save as Type" option box.

If you want to save an image by itself, position your cursor on the image, or the background pattern, right click the mouse, and select "Save Image As" from the menu. This same menu also allows you to view the image on a separate screen if you wish.

You can see the properties of an image file, including its size in pixels, by right-clicking on the image, and selecting Properties.

Finally, if you want to copy selected text and code from any web-page, open the View menu and select Source. You can copy all or part of this screen by clicking and dragging, then Copying (Control-C, or Copy from the Edit menu) to the clipboard. In effect, you can copy code from existing web-pages and paste them into your own text or HTML editor when constructing web-pages.

As far as I know, there are no copyright restrictions on copying html code, though there certainly are for the text and image content. There are a number of places on the Internet which provide copyright free images, background patterns, and navigation icons.