Sunday, October 5, 2008

Web 2.0 Rhetoric

Some things look good on the outset and turn sour quickly, whereas others start slowly but eventually work their way up to a reasonable conclusion. Selber's Multiliteracies for a Digital Age seems to fall in the latter category. As I made my way through the first half of the book, I struggled to find purpose in his words. There was not necessarily any problem with anything he said, but it seemed redundant and pointless.

As he turns from functional literacy (appropriately utilizing technology in the correct context) and critical literacy (recognizing and questioning the politics of technology) to rhetorical literacy, the purpose of his book starts to make more sense at the same time that the fear swells within me that I will in some way use the word rhetoric incorrectly. After consulting the Wikipedian Oracle to help me understand this strange word, I find myself no more enlightened as to its meaning, yet less uncomfortable due to the fact that the Wikipedia community has also had a difficult time putting together a concise definition.

The main point behind Selber's chapter on rhetorical literacy is that the way we communicate now is fundamentally different than it used to be. As Wiley points out, taking old lecture slides and posting the PDF to a website does not transform it into online content. It's offline content that has been copied and pasted onto the web. Materials and methods of communication that we use have to follow the Web 2.0 rhetoric of connecting and remixing content from various sources in a dynamic way, rather than publishing static articles.

photo by sylvar

Selber points out that the popularity of WYSIWYG html editors have made it easier for more people to design effective interfaces that are optimized for the content they are creating, which is an important component of rhetorical literacy. I would go another step and point out that even WYSIWYG editors like Dreamweaver are becoming passé. The interface has taken a back seat to the content on the web, as it should be. That is not to say that the interface does not matter, but using the appropriate content management system (CMS) means that whatever client requests your content will automatically get the content optimized for that client, whether for mobile devices, RSS feeds, etc.

Just this past week, a question was asked regarding the availability of personal web space, since the campus server that currently provides web space for faculty and students will be shut down soon. Several options are actually available from the IT department, but none of the new options allow users to upload entire existing sites; they have to upload their content into the CMS and choose one of its preexisting templates. One user pointed out that he has 10,000+ files in his website on the old server that he does not want to have to sort through and that most faculty would likely not want to redesign their websites as well. My response was, "I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing to have to redesign a website once in awhile, especially if doing so places it into a CMS that makes it easier to maintain. How many people really want to spend a ton of time working on their own from-scratch website anymore?" Looking at that particular user's site, it has some good content, but the interface is very confusing and difficult to navigate, with personal and professional content intermixed. No tagging, no RSS, and no networking tools means outdated pages that no one ever looks at.


Curtis said...


The book was the same way for me. No only was it redundant but it was so jargon-saturated that it was difficult to side with his argument. By the end I was quite impressed. I agree with you that teachers must go beyond using electronic presentation, and that this use in technology is not helping students to be multiliterate. Seeing that the book was published in 2004, it makes me wonder if he has updated his assignments. Guessing from the argument in his book, I'm sure he has.

If I were to be put on a scale for how literate I am in technology, I would be considered oudated and 1st degree illiterate. Reading this book makes me wonder what other software besides word processing and web design a teacher would need to be familiar with to have success with Selber's program? And what kind of courses would be good to educate a teacher of technological multiliteracies? I think he could have elaborated more in these areas, specifically what they are doing at Penn state.

Felonius said...

That's the thing, guys, it's not just learning at a direct program level.

It's about understanding the principles of networks, HTML, hypertext, database systems, concepts of user access rights.

It's about understanding file systems (FAT, NTFS); it's about understanding file extensions, video display resolutions---it's about combining all of that to create digital environments that are more accessible, active, and engaging.

At least, I think that's what they're for....

kirst said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kirst said...

"The interface has taken a back seat to the content on the web, as it should be. "

So here's the thing, this is what blogger, myspace, and all these others do for semi-illiterates like myself. I don't have to know anything about html tags or writing code or uploading content -- there are little boxes that tell me where to put my content and pretty color templates to match my needs.

Becoming a part of the web is less and less about knowing anything about the web, and more and more just what it is you have to say.

I think this should make adopting the technology LESS scary for those who are most resistive. Maybe they won't take full advantage because they don't get FAT or NTFS but they can still use and be a part of it. (though understanding it would still be better of course)