Classical Rhetoric Up In Smoke: Cool Persuasion, Digital Ethos, and Online Advocacy

by Mark D. Pepper | Utah Valley University

home page of anti-smoking organization showing table-based code
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Online Advocacy?: The Ethos   Problem

Digital advocacy and campaigns for social change don't work. Well, at least, there are a number of scholars willing to suggest that the cards are stacked against such attempts. Far too often, just being there (on the site) feels good enough. Actual action? Not very cool, right? The problem is multifaceted but seems to be related to an out-of-date notion of ethos for the digital age. Maybe cool is the problem and simultaneously the answer?

Open Broswer, Make Post, Tune Out

thetruth, divorced from their chosen method, is likely sincere and hoping to make social change through their website. However, Jodi Dean (2009) is one theorist particularly suspicious of the Web's potential, in general, to organize social change. As one example, Dean pointed to the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean. Where candidates have traditionally tapped wealthy donors, Dean solicited a larger volume of smaller donations over the internet from many people who had never contributed to a political campaign in their lives. By forgoing the expensive pre-work of formulating events and sending out mass mailers, Dean kept overhead low and became the first Democrat to reject the federal matching funds that pass as business-as-usual. Dean also used the Web to organize thousands of volunteers (largely through to perform the grunt work of campaigning—hosting meetings, distributing flyers, and composing handwritten letters to potential voters.

However, these "real world" volunteers were few and far between compared to the larger number of people who contributed money or held passionate discussions about Dean online. Yet, it's those online supporters who largely failed to show up for Dean when it counted the most—at the ballot box. As J. Dean (2009) explained,

the Internet is an important medium for connecting and communicating, and the Dean campaign was innovative in its use of social software . . . but media pleasures should not displace our attention from the ways political change demands much, much more than networked communication and the ways intense mediality provides barriers to actions on the ground. (p. 41)

In other words, "without building relationships with caucus attendees in Iowa, Internet politics remain precisely that—a politics of and through new media, and that's all" (p. 41). In fact, the success of the online participation may have ultimately hampered the potential for real world action. As Clay Shirky (2004) wrote,

participation in online communities often provides a sense of satisfaction that actually dampens a willingness to interact with the real world. When you're communicating with like-minded souls, you feel like you're accomplishing something by arguing out the smallest details of your perfect future world, while the imperfect and actual world takes no notice. (Is Social)

"Communicative capitalism" is the name Dean (2009) gave to a late form of capitalism that takes on the supposed values of democracy—access, inclusion, and discussion—but ends up actually crushing the potential of these values through an overwhelming deluge of digital interfaces and disconnected messages. Communicative technologies (fueled by digital networks) "fetishize speech, opinion, and participation" (p. 17); however, they do so within an economic climate that values individualism and "me first" greed (the 1980s are, after all, cool again). Thusly, communicative acts online don't spark in-depth discourse so much as they treat communication like an unlimited resource that anyone can create, primarily for the sake of its creation. Once this communication is created, it can be gathered, collected, and the individual can hold stock in it (pun intended). For example, if disagreement does arise in an online forum, "Criticism doesn't require an answer because it doesn't stick as criticism . . . top-level actors counter with their own contributions to the circulating flow of communications—new slogans, images, deflections, and attacks" (p. 21). Further:

the exchange value of messages overtakes their use value. Uncoupled from contexts of action and application . . . [the message's] particular content is irrelevant. Who sent it is irrelevant. Who receives it is irrelevant. That it need be responded to is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is circulation, the addition to the pool. (p. 26)

In short, communicative capitalism is the final triumph of the commodification of everything and nails in the coffin of the dream that the internet would be a democratic game changer.

Dean (2009) never referenced cool, but it's clear that communicative capitalism is to some degree fueled by cool and creates a similar ethos. As with cool, producing communication is done with that narcissistic self-reflection as its goal. Each communicative act is less concerned with adding to the dialogue and more concerned with the communicator feeling validated for participating at all. Communication and participation become ways of being in digital space (an ethos of information); but simultaneously, since the communication has no context or application beyond participation for participation's sake, the horde of words and images merely pile up (an ethos against information).

Adding cool into Dean's (2009) theory highlights an element less explicit in her work—communicative capitalism in its coolest form (despite the way it actually damages democratic participation) is fun. The communication is presented in a fun way, utilizes humor and charm, and panders to interests that are unrelated to the persuasive manner at hand. Cool is the moment where a magician does his or her trick and dazzles you with the amazement, wonder, and fun of witnessing the end result. The sleight of hand required to pull off the trick (the reasoned work of persuasion) is purposefully obscured. Catching that work would ruin the trick and the entertainment, just as arguing from a more logically focused place risks offsetting the delicate balance of cool ethos. Cool doesn't merely discourage and inhibit actual dialogue on important issues, it doesn't merely place self-satisfaction as the central role of communicative acts, it doesn't merely elevate communication to a commodity for exchange value versus use value—cool simultaneously makes these conditions entertaining. Not to say persuasion can't be entertaining. Both Cicero (1960) and Quintilian (2008) wrote about the importance of humor and entertainment to rhetoric. However, Quintilian was also careful to imply that entertainment can be abused to divert attention from inconvenient facts that would hurt the orator's argument (Insitutio Oratoria, VI, iii, 1).

Put differently, ethos, as a general concept, is more culturally relevant than ever, but this is not your father's ethos. Patricia L. Bizzell (1978) has suggested that the superficiality and fast pace of modern media has helped construct a preference (especially amongst teenagers) for ethos over the slower and deeper work of rational logic (p. 352). Bizzell made this suggestion in the late 1970s, even before there were thousands of television shows to watch and millions of Web pages a click away. Her germinal point is strong regardless: as media grows (both in size and reach), attention must be grabbed quickly and visually. Bizzell implied that under these conditions popular media becomes a poor location for extended rational arguments; and even if ethos is preferred, it's not the kind of ethos constructed through credentials, research, or context (as demonstrated by the aforementioned Barbara Warnick, 2003, study).

Definitions of how ethos operates change because, to state the obvious, the cultural landscape changes. This doesn't mean these changes aren't lamented or that previous notions aren't still clung to. Open up most any first-year composition textbook—there will be a section on ethos, and the text will instruct with the strictest Aristotelian definition. Seeking credentials is still quality common advice not just in a textbook but also in life itself. And that isn't necesarily bad advice; however, the digital age is just the latest cultural shift to reveal the cracks in a too-slavish dedication to rhetoric as it is traditionally conceived. Perhaps a larger problem with Aristotelian ethos in an online world is the very humanist notion that ethos relies upon. This notion further explains why online advocacy has trouble creating real world change. When ethos is linked to a person or organization, when it's something they have to possess, it's simultaneously something they can easily lose or never be granted. Cool asks: what if ethos could be conceived of differently? What if we could think of ethos not as something that a person is granted to possess; but rather, what if we see ethos as a quality of digital information itself? Alan Liu's (2004) work asked these very questions, but as Jeff Rice (2007) pointed out, it's easy to see condemnation in Liu's conclusions. Fair enough, but mere condemnation doesn't account for advocacy organizations who seem to recognize these problems and have adapted their tactics in response. Instead of praise or blame, let's focus on the questions that this shift in ethos raises. Can you make someone care without caring? Can you persuade someone towards action while appearing not overly invested in the success of that attempt? Can persuasion best be served through fewer facts not more? Does it even work?

Cool Company Names

Everyone knows that what your company or organization does is not nearly as important as the name you go by. If Liu is correct, a cool name will grab someone's attention simply for noticing it. So how does a company or organization make their name grab attention? Thankfully, there are companies and sources out there who are on the job for us.

brandroot company logo

According to Brandroot, the company "seeks out the domainers, ignores the cybersquatters, and finds the valuable names before the entrepreneur has to. By refusing to settle for less popular extensions and refusing names that don't meet the highest brand name standards, Brandroot has created a marketplace of quality brandable .com domain names." More tellingly, the site suggests, "Make your customers feel cool for discovering you."

startuptogo company logo

Similar to Brandroot, StartUpToGo will sell you a business name if you've got the money to pay. The company goes a step further though by having a searchable catergory of "Cool Names." Most of them seem to be completely made up words, or mash-ups of words to create similar nonsense. It would seem that the English language, as is, is not very cool.

business chronicle logo

Looks like StartUpToGo might be on to something. According to the Houston Chronicle, a cool business name will use plays on words, foreign words, and single words. Foreign . . . and single . . . like, I don't know . . . Kairos?

Does Cool Work?
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