Category Archives: Rhetorical Issues

Social Media and Creating the Online Self

It should be a very key concept in writing studies that writing online means creating a version of yourself that will ultimately reflect on your reputation.  Most social media users probably wouldn’t think of themselves as writer, when, in fact, that is what they are.  We are creators of internet versions of ourselves, which can be both empowering and detrimental at once.

I see all sorts of bad choices on Facebook pages every day.  The destroyed language. The derogatory remarks. The gossip.  What we need is to remember that there are rules of engagement in social media communities.

Here is a helpful set of Rules laid out by Eric Brantner from Digital Labz:

1. Give More than You Receive- If you want to receive attention from others online, you have to be willing to give it first. It’s the old “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” routine. You can’t bust onto a social media site with a sense of entitlement thinking you should be a top user immediately. You have to earn respect from others. How do you do this? By giving more than you receive.

2. Don’t be a Keyboard Gangsta- Probably the worst thing about the Internet is the keyboard gangstas. You’ve surely run across at least one of these in your lifetime. They sit at their keyboard talking trash to everyone they encounter. They say things online that they would never have the nerve to say to a real person’s face. Don’t try to ruin everyone else’s online experience because you don’t have any friends in real life.

3. Add Value to the Site- At the end of the day, the thing that will earn you great connections with others is if you add value to the community. This means not submitting content that nobody cares about and not constantly promoting your brand. Before you ever submit anything to a social media site, ask yourself “Does this article really add value to the community?” If not, reconsider submitting it.

4. Don’t Sabotage Other’s Efforts- This is self-explanatory. Drop all of your e-beefs and hatred. Don’t try to bury others just for the sake of getting ahead. Making enemies on social media sites will get you nowhere fast, and you really do reap what you sow.

5. Remember that Cheaters Never Win- Instead of trying to game the system, why don’t you focus on building a successful social media presence the right way. Sure, you might be able to get some amazing results by cheating, but eventually, you will get caught. And once everyone sees you for the cheater you are, you can’t un-ring that bell.

6. Build Quality Relationships- People are more willing to help those who they really know. By building quality relationships with other users, you’ll always have someone in your corner to back you up. Remember, relationships require the participation of both parties; so, always be a good participant in your social media relationship.

7. Stop Pushing the Envelope- One of the fastest ways to alienate people online is to constantly flood them with requests for helping you out. Whether you’re constantly shouting your content or always Tweeting asking people to comment on your blog, eventually, everyone will lose their patience with you. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. People will tune you out if you’re constantly pushing the envelope.

8. Respect the Community- This might be the most important rule of social media etiquette. Show respect to the community. It’s not that hard to do. Just make sure you don’t step out of line, and always treat everyone the way you want to be treated. These are simple social skills you should already be following in real life; now, you just have to follow them online too.

9. Listen to Others- Your first reaction whenever someone disagrees with you online is probably to tell them how wrong they are. Instead of constantly fighting back, take the time to listen to what they’re really saying. Listen to the people commenting on your blog or Tweeting at you. Understand where they’re coming from. You don’t know everything, and you can learn from others if you take the time to listen.

10. Be Accountable for Your Actions- Because of the anonymity the Internet allows, there is little to no accountability online. People say and do whatever they please without facing any repercussions. Don’t be that guy. Instead, try to be honorable by taking responsibility your actions online. By being accountable, people will respect you, whether they agree with you or not.

11. Be Nice- All of these points add up to one thing—just be nice. Is it really too much to ask for people to be kind to one another? Call me old-fashioned if you like, but there’s nothing wrong with being nice to others online.



Defining Ethos

Ethos was originally defined by Aristotle in On Rhetoric as being trustworthy. He stated that we are more likely to believe people who have good character. Aristotle later broadened this definition of ethos to add that we are more likely to be persuaded by someone who is similar to us, whether by their intrinsic characteristics (e.g. physical age) or the qualities they adapt (e.g. youthful language).

Aristotle does not include the concept of either a speaker’s authority or reputation in his definition of ethos, but this reflects the rather narrow role for public speaking in his world. In our world, where speaking takes so many forms and where we often know a great deal about the speaker, we will include both of these elements in our definition of ethos.

So, then, we will measure the ethos of a speaker by four related characteristics:

  1. Trustworthiness (as perceived by the audience)
  2. Similarity (to the audience)
  3. Authority (relative to the audience)
  4. Reputation or Expertise(relative to the topic)

1. Ethos = Trustworthiness

An audience is more likely to be persuaded by someone who they trust, and this is largely independent of the topic being presented. If the audience trusts you, then they expect that what you are telling them is true.

“If the audience trusts you, then they expect that what you are telling them is true.”

Your trustworthiness is enhanced if the audience believes you have a strong moral character.  Additionally, your audience tends to trust you if you are a member of a group with which these qualities are often associated (e.g. a pastor; a firefighter).

2. Ethos = Similarity to the Audience

Your audience is more receptive to being persuaded by someone with whom they can identify. Like trustworthiness, this aspect of ethos is largely independent of the topic.

If you share characteristics with your audience, great!

If you don’t, you can adapt your language, your mannerisms, your dress, your visuals, and your overall style to match your audience. Consider this the chameleon effect. Keep in mind that there are limitations to how much you can adapt your speech and delivery. Beyond this limit, your audience will see you as lacking authenticity and that’s bad.

“If you are similar to your audience, then your audience will be more receptive to your ideas in the same way that you are more likely to open a door at night if you recognize the voice of the person on the other side.”

If you are similar to your audience, then your audience will be more receptive to your ideas in the same way that you are more likely to open a door at night if you recognize the voice of the person on the other side.

3. Ethos = Authority

The greater a person’s authority, whether formal (e.g. an elected official) or moral (e.g. the Dalai Lama), the more likely an audience is inclined to listen and be persuaded.

Authority comes from the relationship between the speaker and the audience and is, in most cases, fairly easy to recognize. In addition to these, every speaker has authority just from being the speaker. When you speak, you are the one at the front of the room, often on an elevated platform, sometimes with a microphone or spotlight. You control the moment and thus, have temporary authority.

4. Ethos = Reputation (or Expertise)

Expertise is what you know about your topic.

Reputation is what your audience knows about what you know about your topic.

Your ethos is influenced by your reputation. Of the four characteristics of ethos, reputation is the one most connected to the topic of your presentation.

“Expertise is what you know about your topic.
Reputation is what your audience knows about what you know about your topic.”

How do these characteristics combine?

Ethos cannot be assessed with a checkbox (“yes, you have ethos” or “no, you don’t.”) like you can with, say, pregnancy. It’s more like beauty in the sense that there’s a whole range of beauty and many ways to obtain it. (And, it’s in the eye of the beholder… your audience!)

If you have high ethos, your audience is listening and attentive from your first word. They expect that you have something valuable to say, and they are eager to hear it. They are likely to be persuaded by you, provided that your speech is compelling. A bad speech will still sink you, but you’ll have more leeway.

If you have low ethos, your audience may not be listening or paying attention. (In fact, they may not even show up! Poor ethos doesn’t attract a crowd.) Expectations are low, and a poor opening will kill you. Your audience can be persuaded, but your speech needs to be much better to do it


Misappropriated Entitlement and Internet Use

Let’s talk about the power of gossip.  No, seriously.  I was thinking about this the other day in reaction to a discussion I had in my Digital Rhetoric class (for those of you who are baffled by this class’s title, it’s a class about how to write for online spaces).  The question that was raised had to do with this illustrious sense of entitlement on the part of users, especially in “anonymous” circumstances.

We talked about the phenomenon that exists currently where individuals who know their identity is unknown often abuse their Internet privileges by interacting in offensive or inappropriate ways.  For example, often individuals will post comments on widely-read media sites and because they feel comfortable in their anonymity, they will express their thoughts in ways that are insulting, degrading, and offensive, and they do so in often short-sighted, prejudiced, completely one-sided manners.  All of this is well-and-good considering our attachment to semi-ascertainable 1st Amendment Rights lent us; however, it seems that this “privilege” is being blurred with “right” and people have chosen to capitalize on the opportunity to engage a democratic forum.

An example of this sort of misbehavior? For instance, a person posts embarrassing information or images on your Facebook page.  Or someone posts derogatory remarks on an editorial piece.  Or someone leaves tasteless remarks on a blog post that was written.  Most likely you’ve seen this phenomenon, or even have been victim to someone’s internet alter-egos. All of these are examples of the freedoms warranted by a democratically engaged backdrop; however, the behaviors would not be as easily discernible if the individuals were visible.  The cloak of anonymity granted internet users is often misconstrued as a sort of power that some individuals see as their right to express.  Because no one can see them, these individuals will involve themselves in online spaces in ways that they likely would not in other, more visible circumstances.

Perhaps anonymity isn’t the only reason.  Perhaps some users simply enjoy the vantage point of web-spaces simply because the virtual world suggests unlimited freedoms? No matter the reason, the message that this behavior sends society tells us that the internet makes interaction much more instantaneous, and, therefore, easily abused.  Writing words on a page would be taken much more deeply to heart were there immediate consequences for abuses: however, since this is not the case, we must take it upon ourselves to generate an acceptable code of ethics when engaged in online forums.  If we want to establish our ethos and uphold it, we must consider that all writing is behavior, and thus all writing has “rights” and “wrongs”.

The Art of Code-Switching in Online Writing

It’s an everyday skill in communication, but you probably don’t know it.  Each day, we interact with many different individuals, and we do so on multiple forums, with varying means.  For every person you address, you adjust your tone, diction and verbal attitude to fit the appropriate recipient. For instance, at work, you might speak with a fellow co-worker using slang or vernacular common to both of your speaking habits.  But when the boss walks your way, you change your demeanor, you change your tone, and you use different words to reflect the degree of formal respect for a person in a position of authority.  This intuitive action — the shifting of your conversational mode — is called code-switching.

Linguistically speaking, code-switching has to do with intermixing different language capacities to communicate. It is one’s use of more than one language in conversation. For those who speak multiple languages, code-switching means having  the ability to, when prompted, change language variety to suit communication.  But for everyday purposes, code-switching is the act of matching language with the person with whom you are speaking. Now, more than ever, it’s a noteworthy skill to be able to adjust your words to suit your audience.  Being able to switch from formal to casual language in the appropriate circumstances means that you are a conscientious individual who thinks before you speak. 

So, let’s address this concept as it applies to everyday writing.  We’re on our computers a lot these days.  We constantly write text messages, chat messages, emails, posts, blog posts and updates, and what we don’t always realize is that all of these messages send a message about the type of writer you are.  I notice every single day an example of inappropriate language applied in very public forums.  Sure, Facebook is a place where we can interact with our friends and family, but we must remember that employers will peruse pages to see what sorts of activities and communications we engage regularly.  If a person happens to be a socialite who posts lots of pictures and captions, she must be aware that the pictures and words combine to create her overall image.  That can be good or bad, and I’m sure we have all been made aware just by participating. 

Maybe you don’t think about it, but being careful to be “correct” in your writing is a means of code-switching.  Most people these days write the way they speak, but what they don’t know is that the way they speak is often incorrect.  Even highly educated speakers err when communicating.  No, I’m not suggesting that we all become language gurus.  I’m simply offering the tip that when you think about the words you speak or write, and the way you deliver them, you will gain respect as a competent communicator, which can only help you in the long run.

Here are some tips for online writing and choosing a more formal code:

  • check your punctuation and spelling
  • capitalize where necessary
  • choose words carefully and make sure the word you’re using is the right one for the occasion
  • if you use slang, make sure you use quotation marks
  • consider your audience and have consideration for what their reactions may be

Any other pointers to add? Please leave comments!