Culture and Society,  Writing

The Rhetoric of Web Logs

Meg Hourihan, one of the creators of Blogger, and the author of Meg Hourihan (Megnut), wrote on essay for O’Reilly Network on “What We’re Doing When We Blog.” Meg makes a number of intelligent, accurate observations about the nature of web logs, including emphasizing their “commonality.” She writes:

If we look beneath the content of web logs, we can observe the common ground all bloggers share—the format. The web log format provides a framework for our universal blog experiences, enabling the social interactions we associate with blogging. Without it, there is no differentiation between the myriad content produced for the Web.

Go read her thoughtful essay, then come back for my piffle.

Ms. Hourihan has begun to document the beginnings of a rhetoric of web logs. Now, lest you begin foaming at the mouth, at the use of “rhetoric” in reference to blogs, I would like to remind you that the true meaning of rhetoric is the art of persuasion using language, and that a rhetorician is a master of communication, using specific tools, techniques and methods.

Classical rhetorical theory divides the art of rhetoric into five parts (I’m cribbing wildly from Richard Lanham’s excellent A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). The five parts of rhetoric are:


  •  Invention
  •  Arrangement
  •  Style
  •  Memory
  •  Delivery

Though Classical rhetoricians were largely interested in the spoken word, any writer will tell you that these divisions, or “steps” if you will, work quite well for modern writing, or even blogging.

Ms. Hourihan, in her anatomy, has neatly presented us with the various attributes of the second part of the blogging ars rhetorica, the arrangement.

  •  The basic unit is the “post” rather than the paragraph or page.
  •  Posts are listed in reverse chronological order, with the newest at the top of the page.
  •  Posts are date-and-time stamped.
  •  Posts contain links, often to primary sources.
  •  Posts are archived, at regular intervals, often by virtue of the software used to create the formatted post and mount/upload it to a web server.
  •  Posts are associated with a permalink, allowing them to be linked to directly, specifically, and retrieved in isolation, from the archive.
  •  Writers’ email addresses are prominently featured, allowing immediate contact, and encouraging incorporation of emails into a post.

Much of the arrangement of a blog is taken care of by the wonderful tools, Radio, Blogger, MoveableType, that allow us to separate content, our words, from presentation. But the other parts of rhetoric are also slightly changed in blogs as well. Invention, for instance, relies in part on the role of the blogging and Internet community, since blogs depend on linking. Memory is moved largely outside the human cerebellum to silicon, as we utilize Google and other search engines, and bookmarks. Style is perhaps the least changed, since we are still using words and text, albeit presented on the flat-panel pixellated LCD. Delivery is entirely changed from the format used by Cicero; we upload and the ’net disseminates for us. I’ll probably post more about the rhetoric of blogging as I come to grips with blogging rhetorical strategies, but Ms. Hourihan has already laid the groundwork.

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