While most students are familiar with written/spoken texts and even visual images, the definition of a digital text might be a little more complex. What exactly is a digital text? The simplest definition might be something like, “A digital text is electronic version of a written text.” Here is a more detailed definition:
Both of these definitions focus on simply using a digital platform for a traditional text. However, for our purposes, digital texts include all forms of digital media:
Digital media uses technologies such as the Web, blogs, Websites, video games, forums, video, audio, PowerPoint, e-mail, wikis, and photoshopped images to construct messages, not just oration. For most of human history, people simply had spoken or written texts. The use of images and video for rhetorical purposes is only about 100 years old. And digital media has exploded since its inception just a few decades ago. Now we have memes, various types of social media, apps, etc. that can change, appear, or disappear day by day.
These new technologies offer new ways of presenting information, opinions, and ideas. Then, as new technologies become popular the public gains access to information, opinions, and ideas. Increased access to information leads to new knowledge, skills, and creativity. Unfortunately, the digital divide prevents many from accessing and participating in digital texts.
Here is a great example from the New York Times of how digital media can transform the way we look at a text.
And here is a video discussing the intersection of digital media and “real life”:
Rhetorical Analysis of Digital Texts
The work of rhetorical analysis remains the same–we are still looking for the motivation behind the creation of a text and assessing how effective the rhetorical choices are. After all, as Burke notes, “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is “meaning,” there is “persuasion.” Food, eaten and digested, is not rhetorical. But in the meaning of food there is much rhetoric, the meaning being persuasive enough for the idea of food to be used, like the ideas of religion, as a rhetorical device for statesmen.” (172–73) It might be helpful to explore the creation side of digital texts. Here is an interesting resource for businesses from the Digital Marketing Institute. And HERE is an analysis of what makes brands successful on Instagram.
Here’s a video that recaps what digital rhetoric is:
Step 1: Read the Text
Depending on form the digital text takes, the task of reading and summarizing the text could be very similar to either summarizing a written text or describing a visual text…or even both. However, digital texts take on additional layers, as they usually contain some level of interactivity. For example, in looking at a relatively simple version of a digital text, this textbook, the reader would have to look at, not only the text on the page, but the many embedded images, videos, and hyperlinks. They might also look at the attributions in each chapter, which would take them to other digital media.
Step 2: Define the Rhetorical Situation
With new technologies and increased access, emerges the question of authorship. In “Who is the author?” Barthes (“The Author is Dead”) explored the issue of authorship by giving the power to understand and interpret texts to the reader. He speaks of a text’s author as its origin and the reader of a text as its destination. Barthes explains that the destination is where the text comes to life under the culture and experiences of the reader. But Barthes could not have imagined a World Wide Web, where the lines between author and reader are barely visible.
Today’s question of authorship deals with intellectual property right laws– the rights of authors to distribute, sell, and provide permission for use of their works. Sites, such as Wikipedia, further complicate this issue, as they are the result of a collaboration of many different authors, whose work blends together. Sometimes, we must dig several layers deep to find the original speaker. Depending on the context, such digging might be important…or not.
What is the context of the digital text? Was a social media post created in response to an event? Does a meme reflect a current controversy or fad? Is a website new, or has it been around for a long time? What is the topic or issue being addressed?
The audience of a digital text is often more complex than the audience for a speech or an article. This is because a digital text, like a website, might have multiple audiences. Think about the popular fitness company Beachbody. On their website, they must speak to their affiliates, their customers, and potential customers. Among these groups, there might even be further breakdowns in the demographics. For example, among their customers, they have multiple genders and age groups. In a situation like this, the speaker must be very skillful in reaching out to the various audiences without offending any of them.
Sometimes, a particular text might have an audience that is not intended. Think about “trolls” on a Facebook page. These are folks who are not the intended audience, but who, for whatever reason, have decided to join this page. Think about these questions: Who is the intended audience for the digital text? Who is the actual audience?
Think about how you might locate this information about the intended audience. For example, in a YouTube video, you can look at the poster’s profile to see who they think their audience is. Then you can look at the comments on the video to see who is actually watching the video.
Likewise, on a social media page, it can be instructive (and fascinating!) to look at who a person/business “thinks” is the audience and who is showing up to participate in their discussions.
What is the purpose of the digital text? Here again, there might be many areas of crossover depending on what the text is. A person with a social media profile on Facebook, for example, might be posting pictures for family across the country, looking for new connections for their business, and campaigning for a particular political perspective.
For digital texts, you might consider the following questions about the context of the text, in addition to considering what the main point of the particular text is:
- Does it work to make money?
- To build community?
- To further a political cause?
- To recruit volunteers?
- To build the ethos of a company or organization?
- To empower users with information?
- Some strategic combination of these ends?
The style here is similar to how we would look at style for a visual argument. What you are looking at here is the format of the digital text. Is it a website? A meme? A social media page? Think about why the author chose to portray the message in this format. What are the ‘rules’ generally followed in that media? What are the benefits/drawbacks of communicating in this format?
Step 3: Identify Rhetorical Strategies
In the digital environment, it’s important to remember that there is usually an additional motivation for creating a text. In addition to portraying an argument, the speaker might be trying to increase his popularity on a social media site or to make money by selling products. Therefore, the rhetorical strategies used might have multiple layers of complexity.
In addition to considering rhetorical strategies and devices, you might also consider the efforts made to create community as part of the speaker’s ethos.
- How does the text work to build community?
- Why has each particular aspect been chosen?
- How well does each particular design and copy choice serve to meet the site’s overall rhetorical goals?
- An excellent site will capitalize on the medium to maximize its rhetorical potential with respect to targeted users.
Just as in the analysis of visual texts, the analysis of design is also important:
- Does the website’s design (consider layout, use of white space, accessibility to information, use of graphics vs text, colors, fonts, etc.) contribute to the argument?
Step 4: Connect the Text to the Rhetorical Decisions
Finally, connect the text to the rhetorical decisions made. Is the speaker’s purpose served by the rhetorical choices made?
You may want to bookmark this worksheet on your computer, as it will help you as you write your own rhetorical analyses: