Digital rhetoric matters because rhetoric in the digital age is much different than rhetoric in the print age. While both digital rhetoric and traditional rhetoric involve the production of persuasive discourse, the nature of this production is different. In the broadest terms, digital writing platforms — including online communities/forums and passionate affinity spaces — are more involved than the traditional writing platforms discussed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric among other sources of greek literature. Accounting for the added complexity involved with writing for the digital age, digital rhetoric matters because it is no longer sufficient to apply the rhetorical modes used for writing a persuasive essay to writing for a digital platform. Writing for a digital platform requires a different set of techniques than writing for print and the study of digital rhetoric emphasizes the interactive nature of digital environments and thus helps address the question what rhetorical practices operate effectively in digital spheres. Three aspects of the digital writing environment that differ from the traditional writing environment that exemplify the importance of digital rhetoric are: 1) interactivity, 2) multimodal tools and 3) audience.
Unlike the production of written text, the production of digital text involves interactivity in the form of communicating with the text itself and the digital site visitors. Eyman argues that the most effective digital texts are those that have adopted new rhetorical methods to better accommodate interactivity (Eyman 34). Assuming that an effective digital text is one that communicates a sense of engaging presence to site visitors (Eyman 32), understanding how to construct such a sense exceeds the scope of traditional rhetorical practices. While traditional rhetorical discourse is evaluated in terms of its logos, ethos and pathos, digital discourse is evaluated by users based on the quality of its content, usefulness, functionality, and values and norms (Eyman 32). It is possible that the logos and pathos of digital discourse can be accurately evaluated using the traditional rhetorical criteria, but establishing ethos, or credibility, as a website producer is different than as a writer. For one thing, it is easy to hide one’s identity on the internet so in order to be taken seriously by site visitors, the digital text producer has to demonstrate his credibility through the quality of his content and also through the interactions he has with other users. In this case, digital rhetoric matters because it addresses how to transform the traditional modes of rhetoric into ones that support the production of knowledge in terms of self-expression, participation, and creative collaboration (Eyman 27).
Second, traditional written persuasion involves using either written text (with the occasional illustration) or oratory in the form of public speeches, but typically not both together, in order to persuade an audience. Digital persuasion is much more advanced and complex since it often involves a greater degree of visual rhetoric and the inclusion of hypertext, video, audio, or a combination of all. While those writing for a digital environment have multimodal tools at their disposal, these tools are useless, and potentially counterproductive, if they do not help the writer articulate his ideas. Digital texts that involve graphic visuals, hyperlinks, videos, and audio can help a writer engage his audience in ways that a page of written text cannot, but this is only the case when these multimodal technologies are used effectively. This is where digital rhetoric begins to matter. Coupled with visual rhetoric, new media rhetoric provides a framework for taking advantage of the computer’s capability for personal expression (Eyman 52). While there is certainly a logic of digital design, the application of this logic to the production of digital content is of a completely different nature than the application of logos in traditional written rhetorical essays. Digital rhetoric matters because it is the only sector of rhetoric that considers the appropriate use of multimodal tools in digital text.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, writing for online communities and passionate affinity spaces involves writing with a much larger audience in mind than writing for traditional print texts. While some may argue that literature authors wrote with an unknown audience in mind, these authors were much less likely to assume that their audience would be global. For example, many would accept that Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra for future nobles, but he probably did not predict that his work would be read by Nazi Germany as well as scholars in the United States many years later. On the other hand, those who write for affinity spaces such as Reddit.com are usually aware that their audience comes from all different walks of life. Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede explain this phenomenon in their discussion of audience in the age of new literacy. Those who produce digital text in online communities switch between being authors and being audience members. This is why the traditional modes of rhetoric are outdated — these modes do not address the reciprocality between writers and audience members. According to Lunsford and Ede, “writers who want and need to shift among worlds must be able to hold flexible views of the real and potential relationships among text, context, author, medium, and audience” (Lunsford and Ede 242). This requires being comfortable writing with as well as for others and in a range of media (243). Digital rhetoric is important because it addresses how one can produce persuasive discourse as both the author and a member of the audience at once while traditional rhetoric only addresses how one can author a persuasive written text. Scholarship on digital audiences makes it clear that producing digital texts requires a completely different mindset than writing traditional essays, and only digital rhetoric theories incorporate a consideration of the reciprocal relationship between author and audience member.
In sum, digital rhetoric matters because it is the only rhetorical study that considers how to interact with the complexities of digital spaces. Those who wish to produce effective online content need to study digital rhetoric if they wish to maximize the potential of online communities. Because the nature of digital media is vastly different from the nature of print media, it is not practical to assume that the traditional modes of rhetoric alone can be applied to the production of digital persuasive discourse. Like computers are not the same as books, digital rhetoric is not the same as traditional rhetoric, and therefore it is important to study digital rhetoric if one intends to produce digital content.