Procedural rhetoric: the written lecture.

Procedural rhetoric is a concept I am still trying to wrap my head around, but writing is one great way to learn.  Probably much better for me than doing a screen cast. Please let me know if either of these things are (or are not) making sense.

The rhetoric part is easier than the procedural, so let me tackle the phrase backwards.  Rhetoric is sometimes defined as the art of persuasion; rhetoric can also be defined as written, oral, increasingly visual strategies for creating a sense of identification between the message creator and the message receiver(s).  Rhetoric can also be used not inform and entertain; I. A. Richards thought it was the process of reducing misunderstanding between people.

Most people who study rhetoric agree that we can persuade, entertain, inform, build community through the means listed above (speech, written messages, visual message, even musical message), but Ian Bogost has proposed that in the age of ubiquitous computing, we must also understand how the computer and its unique properties persuade us through their procedures, through the functions they perform that are uniquely the function of a computer.  So, to use my own example appropriate to this class, I might say that my friends persuaded me to use Facebook (oral or written rhetoric), and then their funny status updates (text or video) kept me interested, and the great pictures of friends and family made me feel close to them (visual rhetoric), but Facebook, as an interface to a database, is also trying to persuade me to do some things, to take certain steps or actions, to follow certain procedures that are persuasive.

The first thing it tried to get all of us to do was give it lots and lots of personal information.  Why?  So Facebook could sell demographically targeted advertising.  Why did we give them all that information anyway? We are used to ads (we think we are immune!), and many of us probably felt like sharing more information would lead to a better Facebook experience.

What else does it try to get us to do?  “Like” things.  Why? I’ve seen people ask “why isn’t there a dislike button?”  Considering the “procedural rhetoric” of a service like this should get us to ask: why does it enable certain things (like, like, like) but not other things (dislike).  Of course it is hard to separate the procedural from the verbal (“like” is catchier than +1, most people would say, I think).  So Fb tries to get us to share a lot of personal information, and like a lot of things, and those two functions seem to go together: FB is a nice place, where people like things, and you have many friends, so sharing information is okay.

But how did it actually get us “to friend” so many people? It kept giving us suggestions, not telling us “friend your teacher!” So its procedural rhetoric was subtle.  And then instead of having to go look at our friends’ walls, it started to give us a newsfeed. That newsfeed is very persuasive, isn’t it?  Don’t go away for long, or you will miss something.  What’s the message there? Spend as much time as you can in FB.  Of course that subtle message doesn’t work on everyone, but it sure works on many.

What do we gain from being in FB? I think most people gain a sense of community, a sense of contact with real family members and friends.  Perhaps a younger demographic than me uses it to make new friends, to date, but us old folks really do know the 500 or so people we have as friends.  It has helped me strengthen some friendships I wouldn’t have been able to foster otherwise; it has really helped me get some things done (crowd source) in a way that I could not have before.  I’m actually pretty reclusive and anti-social, and that is apparent to my 500 or so friends, but I also know I can call on them when I need some help. That’s what I gain from Fb.

And what does Fb gain from me? Probably not much ad revenue, but they gain another number, those numbers add up quickly, and those numbers make the ads more expensive. They also enable an IPO of $5billion.  They don’t need all their users to be active, but they benefit from lots of accounts, and they benefit from trying to enable the things users want to do with the social network.  That keeps even reluctant people like me logged in and networked. I don’t want to unplug, because I might need a little help from my friends.

You could extend this analysis further; I’ve only scratched the surface.  You could also apply it to YouTube, which used to only want us to upload our videos (why, why, why? They were losing money like crazy in the early years, maybe still are, because those videos cost a lot of money to store and serve back out to users) but now wants us to be much more social (and notice the makeover it has undergone to enhance YouTube as social networking).  To guide your analysis, try out my four questions, modify and remix them, or invent some of your own.

•What is this social media service asking you or encouraging you to do?  The answer is often many things.
•How does it ask or encourage? How does it persuade you to act?
•What do you gain from being on the service?
•What does the service gain, esp. when the service is free?
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4 thoughts on “Procedural rhetoric: the written lecture.

  1. B F Fogg, _Persuasive Technology_ argues a similar thesis. And Hawisher and Selfe rest their argument about interfaces on the procedural idea. It’s lime the environment becomes a rhetorical situation that shapes (not determines) my actions. At my computer, I work in a world of files, folders, trash cans … very business-like. I don’t have to behave in a business-like manner, but the rhet sit seems to ease me into doing so.

    Change my rhetorical world! Gimme an XO: http://one.laptop.org/

  2. I’ve been wanting to get to Fogg for a while but haven’t had time. Thanks for the prompt. I’m also trying to get past the interface, if that is possible, to understand the procedural workings of a computer a la Bogost; impossible?

    Also more generally trying to think more about what it is that computers do. I. A. Richards, of all people, had it figured out in the 1960s–use computers for what they are best at computational procedures, data storage, and networking.

    You really want an XO? Let me know when you are in Fargo next. I can certainly lend you one from our lending library.

  3. Pingback: Vlog 2- Procedural Rhetoric YouTube Analysis | wooshkah

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