Bridging Data, Rhetoric, Precarity, and Infrastructure

Much like the agoras of ancient Greece bounded and provided sensibility for the experiences of rhetors and audiences (i.e., who could talk, where, and when), data contributes to the affordances of contemporary public spaces (Boyle 280; Morey 192; Rice 216). Consider, for example, how Twitter’s computational infrastructures condition participation, experience, and affect. Some Twitter performances are rhetorical in a classical sense, such as when a user composes a tweet meant to overtly persuade others of a point of view (i.e., the types of Aristotelian rhetoric that Burke described as logomachy) (23). But many, if not most data practices are less straightforwardly rhetorical yet still very much a part of an ecology of lived practice.  Anyone who has ever simultaneously watched a public debate and its related, live Twitter stream has experienced how computational data conditions participation. Twitter users tweet in realtime through their social networks, and other users reply, retweet, and/or mark particular texts as favorites. Each tweet and its interactions are data; they are recorded and archived in databases (Cole). The Twitter stream intervenes in the ebb and flow of interpretation and production, so much so that politicians now consider Twitter as part of campaign strategy (Jungherr 74). Politicians, of course, aren’t alone in recognizing that publics are moved by data. Twitter developers recognize the appeal of quantifying these interactions for users as well, and they develop interfaces to entice users with pieces of  their “data selves”: the number of times their tweets have been retweeted by others, for instance. Rapidly, the tools of data providers have grown increasingly more sophisticated; developers design user interfaces (UI) with insight drawn from psychology, design, and user studies to encourage use through quantified interaction.[1]  Because data figures so prominently in users’ participation, Twitter provides an accessible example of how rhetoric participates in a larger ecology of  “effects, enactments, and events” (Edbauer 9). It also demonstrates how data acts as a “mental technology”—a material-discursive technique that modifies everyday cognition (Elichirigoity 24).

When the Twitter database development team changed their “like” interface from stars to heart icons in 2015, they reshaped the capacities of rhetorical fora.[2] Twitter’s official blog noted that the heart “. . . is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved [hearts]” (Kumar). Wordplay aside, hearts refracted user interaction. When users “heart” a tweet, they may be suggesting that another user has written something that merits attention, they may be affecting in unison with a cause, or perhaps they’re being interpellated into a cyber bubble of affiliation (among other possibilities). Whatever Twitter’s intention, swapping stars with hearts transformed the sensibilities of the fora.  The interplay of data and rhetoric thus provide new understandings of both (Brown; Boyle). In this instance, Twitter directly connected “good” behavior with hearts and simultaneously encoded that behavior as data. Following that logic to its end, Twitter users are better when they are hearted, and the more they are hearted, the better they are. The data helps Twitter materially deploy their perspective on the use of hearts. Given that advocates of Twitter convincingly suggest the medium can be an emancipative tool of democracy (Lotan et al.; Murthy; Shirky), it’s not hard to see how hearts become a capacity, not just a tool, of the demos.

References

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California P, 1969.

Boyle, Casey. “Pervasive Citizenship through #SenseCommons” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 2016, pp. 269-283.

Brown, James J., Jr.  Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015.

Benkler, Yochai, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. Oxford University P, 2018.

Cole, Jeremy. “Big and Small Data at @Twitter.” Santa Clara, CA: O’Reilly, 2011.

Edbauer, Jenny. “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol 35, no. 4, 2005, pp. 5–24.

Elichirigoity, Fernando. Planet Management: Limits to Growth, Computer Simulation, and the Emergence of Global Spaces. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1999.

Jungherr, Andreas. “Twitter Use in Election Campaigns: A Systematic Literature Review.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, Jan-Mar 2016, pp. 72-91.

Kumar, Akarshan. “Hearts on Twitter.” The Official Twitter Blog, November 3, 2015.

Lotan Gilad, Erhardt Graeff, Mike Ananny, Devin Gaffney, Ian Perace, and danah boyd. “The Arab Spring! The Revolutions Were Tweeted: Information Flows during the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions.” International Journal of Communication, vol. 5, pp. 1375-1405.

Morey, Sean. Rhetorical Delivery and Digital Technologies: Networks, Affect, Electracy. Routledge, 2015.

Murthy, Dhiraj. Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age. Cambridge UP, 2013. 

Rice, Jeff. “Urban Mappings: A Rhetoric of the Network.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly. vol 38, no. 2, 2008, pp. 198–218.

Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media.” Foreign Affairs, vol 90, no. 1, 2011, pp. 28-41.

Stormer, Nathan & McGreavy, Bridie. “Thinking Ecologically About Rhetoric’s Ontology: Capacity, Vulnerability, and Resilience.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 50 no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-25.


[1] The 2018 coverage of Russian Facebook propaganda strategies illuminated how critical data has become for shaping public opinion and rhetorical action. Benkler, Faris, and Roberts’ Network Propaganda provides an overview of how data was critical for the presidential election of Donald Trump.

[2] This draws on my understanding of capacity from Stormer and McGreavy who note that it “defines the limits of what can be done” and “imagines force in its relations” (Stormer and McGreavy 5).

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