Michael Day

Michael and his 83-year-old father exchange daily emails, which Michael categorized as mostly "phatic" and described in this way:


"It's not as much about the information as it is to say 'I'm here; you're there! We have contact!'" Michael saves his family emails because "They serve as a record of the things that I did, and to some degree the way I felt about them. I can also save the messages from my father, and to some degree get the flavor of his attitudes, and his way of speaking.”


Michael's communication with his 20-year-old daughter is different. Recalling "recent reports that email is passe or too formal for the younger generation," Michael commented that "I think the stereotype fits her pretty well." In communication with his daughter, IMing fits the bill.


"IMing lets me use the same energy of composing on the fly that I've been using on the MOO for 15 years, and channel it into being a good listener/reader, as well as a reflector and refractor for my daughter. We college teachers see our students getting on their cell phones immediately after class and wonder to whom they are talking and about what; I'm happy to say that sometimes my daughter has called me to discuss something that blew her mind that happened in a college class. But I am less able to listen and respond well on a cell phone as I am in IM. For me, the spoken word is evanescent and begins to lose power the moment it is uttered. I need to see words on the screen, to read and reread as the words set off a chain of events in my mind, jump-starting connections and getting the sparks flying, so that I can synthesize just the right response, just the right mixture of affirmation, provocation, question, and response to live with her, in the world where our lives and ideas intersect. It's precisely this rare process of inhabiting the same place at the intersection of our words and ideas that Kenneth Burke called consubstantiation, or identification."



In Mobile Communication and Society, Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qui, and Araba Sey (2007) studied the effects of mobile computing on families as well as its effects on other parts of society. Contemporary families, they claim, "often exist as micro-distributive networks across multiple sites with translocal and sometimes transnational reach" (p. 87). Digital (especially wireless) technologies are "appropriated in a way that strengthens existing family relationships instead of causing any revolutionary change" (p. 87). While agreeing in part, we believe the family is more than a simple network.

A network is typically defined as an interconnected system; the techno-rhetorical family is much more than a system. It is part of Jay Lemke’s (1995) ecosocial system: "the human social community taken together with the material ecosystem that enables, supports and constrains it” (p. 119). As core parts of the ecosocial system, family members appropriate technologies and rhetorical approaches to strengthen their ties. Michael, his father, and his daughter have appropriated technologies that fit their techno-rhetorical styles.

Michael saves email from his father so he can savor his father’s "attitudes, and his ways of speaking.” He saves family emails because they serve as a record—a record to call upon in further communications, a record of family style, of personal style—memoria. The technology of machine memory is appropriated to serve rhetorically. Even though emails are saved, IMs are more ephemeral—not written to be saved, although saving them is possible. Gene Spafford was quoted in a Pew Internet and American Life survey as saying that "Most writing online is devolving toward SMS and tweets that involve quick, throwaway notes with abbreviations and threaded references. This is not a form of lasting communication” (Anderson & Rainie, 2010, para. 4). Despite Spafford’s limited and negative view of online writing, this form of communication is important in developing rhetorical abilities and much of it takes place within families.

In IMing with his daughter, Michael calls upon his broad range of abilities as a techno-rhetorician, but particularly his affinity for words on the screen. He reaches into his rhetorical quiver to "synthesize just the right response” so that he can "live with her” even though she may be far away. Michael’s daughter is likely honing her rhetorical skills as she responds to her father.

Like other respondents in "Generations” (Shapiro, Monroe, Villanueva), if the Day family were to research the family vault of communications, they would likely discover some of the rhetorical approaches that are part of their family history, a part of their techno-rhetorical heritage. In addition, whether they look at an archive of emails or recall an IM conversation, it’s unlikely that any of the Day family would consider their communication "throwaway.”



This techno-rhetorical heritage may not be one that has changed in any revolutionary way, as Castells et al. claimed, but Patty’s experiences add a caveat. Physical distances and the cost of travel and communication have threatened her family relationships. Even 10 years ago, the cost of phone calls from the US to Australia seriously limited Patty’s ability to communicate with her daughter while she was pregnant for the first time. This limitation put a damper on an important rhetorical heritage—talking about pregnancy, birth, and other mother-daughter conversations that typically take place when a daughter is pregnant.


Because of the cost of travel, the dream of Patty’s family gathering in one physical place has become nearly impossible. Internet access, free instant messaging, and free (or exceptionally cheap) phone calls via VOIP (Voice Over IP) can make getting together in one virtual place possible. They can still be a family—although admittedly a different kind of family when they meet in Skype instead of in a cozy living room. Despite the differences, even in a Skype interchange, rhetorical skills are being learned, negotiated, and practiced. Family as the classroom of rhetorical skills continues with considerable support from the digital world.