An Archeology of Rhetorical Criticism and Internet Communication


David Zemmels

COMM 7350



Defining Internet Communication Research

The phenomenon of the Internet and the communication practices that emerge within that context are exceedingly hard to categorize.  Messages produced in this environment tend to be dispersed, fragmented, and provisional. This poses many challenges to scholarship, challenges which we still grapple to overcome in research and writing about the Internet.  One such challenge is captured in the title of David Silver’s article (2004), Internet/cyberculture/new media/ fill-in-the-black studies. Silver suggests “Internet Studies” as an umbrella term for this “meta-field of study” (55) that can encompass any number of older established streams of scholarship such as computers in composition and computer-mediated communication (CMC) to more recent areas of study with labels like digital culture, cyberculture, and new media, to name but a few.

However, Internet Studies as a meta-label is useful to encompass a range of communicative and performative acts that are mediated by Internet technology. These include both individual and communal practices such as e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, blogs, and listservs, which tend to be more text oriented, and web surfing and new media consumption, which are more sensual forms. Methodologies for studying these forms range from quantitative analysis of human-computer interaction, qualitative studies of communicative strategies in human-computer relationships, to cultural critical studies of the human-computer influence on attitudes and values in a mediated society. The label ‘Internet Studies’ can also encompasses broader critical and cultural issues such as how the Internet’s role in the formation of a discursive space that enables new types of communicative and performative acts and raises questions of identity construction, diasporic public spheres, and power in an increasing technology mediated global culture.

At the heart of this debate over defining the field of Internet Studies is the essentially contested and as yet unanswered question: Is there something about Internet communication that is different from other forms of communication?  If so, can we use existing theories and methods to make sense of these acts of communication, to understand them?

In this paper, I will narrow my focus within this broad umbrella of Internet Studies to a critical rhetorical perspective on Internet communication and practices. Not enough attention is paid to the persuasive ramification of Internet communication and how is computer mediation of communication affecting messages produced in the medium. Toward that end, I will explicate the challenges Internet communication poses to rhetorical criticism and methodology, survey some of the research being done by rhetorical critics in online environments, and examine the strategies being employed.  By way of findings, I suggest that the rhetor of Internet communication may need a greater understanding of how electronic media content is developed, produced, and disseminated in order to critique it. Perhaps it is the skills of the scholar of new media and the Internet that need redefining, more than the theories and methodologies of rhetoric. I finish with brief rhetorical analysis of a case study that demonstrates what I posit as the rhetorical act known as “Google bombing.”

For the purposes of this analysis, Internet Studies as a meta-field is defined as a kind of “backbone,” to borrow from Internet technology’s own nomenclature, that is comprised of all sorts of wires, computer servers, and software protocols that in turn enable users to connect to one another and do everything from send an e-mail, to ‘Google’ for and receive information on almost any conceivable topic, to download podcasts of our favorite TV show on to our computer and/or portable media player. This definition allows the meta-label “Internet Studies” to continue to be used to interpellate this meta-field of study as suggested by Silver (2005), as it encompasses both the technology of the Internet and the communicative practices that the Internet enables.

New Media is more narrowly defined here as aural and visual media production, distribution and consumption over the Internet through processes such as streaming audio/video and podcasting.


Rhetoric in Internet Studies: Evolution or Revolution

Early theorists of Internet and computer technology urged researchers to consider how the mediation of technology in cyberspace alters the communication process by creating a rhetorical environment for communication. These early theorists provided a valuable theoretical foundation of cyberspace to help define subsequent rhetorical research. Lanham (1993) and Nelson’s (1992) overall position are summarized by Charles Soukup as “the digital world creates a new epistemology and new forms of communication. Thus, communication in the digital world is more playful, stylistic, rhetorical, and postmodern than previous forms of communication” (2000: 420). Lanham and Nelson recognized that these forms of mediated communication are new and different, less linear and logical, more dynamic and fluid, open and de-centered than previous forms of mass media. As Warnick (1998b) points out, rhetorical critics will need to answer what Lanham called “the Q question”  (1993: 175). Lanham saw the need to connect the discursive practices of Internet communication with a moral judgment of its use. To that end, rhetoricians “have found such phenomena as overcompliance with group norms, unnecessarily aggressive behavior, a decline in the quality of deliberation, gender marginalization, and technological elitism” (Warnick, 1998b: 74-5). These findings support Soukup’s assertion that in the formation of a new broader theory of CMC, “theorists should begin to emphasize the values, assumptions and attitudes that surround CMC and influence the various styles of communication within cyberspace” (2000: 422).

Early rhetoric scholarship in Internet communication spent significant amounts of effort just trying to define the specific complications and problems new media and the Internet posed for traditional rhetorical analysis. Significantly, when I say early rhetorical scholars, I am talking about people who began writing on this subject in the 1990’s.  Thus the trajectory of this research, which analyzes communicative practices that are arguably quite new and different, and would not exist without the Internet, can be traced back a mere 10-15 years. Given the art of rhetoric with its Aristotelian roots more than 2500 years ago, we can see the last 15 years as barely a blink of the eye. Perhaps the greatest surprise to critical rhetorical scholarship, as well as other fields of research, is the exponential rate at which Internet communication technology grown and permeated contemporary communicative practices. In 1995, about 15% of American adults were communicating in some way on-line.  By 2004, over 60% of American adults were involved in some form of on-line communication (Retrieved from

As I have already argued, the label Internet Studies as a term denoting the meta-field of study is more useful than most, although the long term utility of the label remains to be seen.  But as we spiral in towards the rhetorical subsets of this meta-field, there are a number of labels to choose from.  Barbara Warnick, perhaps the scholar whose research is most explicitly applies a critical rhetorical lens to Internet-based communication, seems to have recently settled on categorizing Internet critical rhetorical research as a subset of Rhetoric of Technology (Warnick, 2005).  Alternately, James P. Zappen (2005) argues for an integrated theory of Digital Rhetoric as a means of showing “how traditional rhetorical strategies function in digital spaces,” but also “how these strategies are being reconceived and reconfigured within these spaces” (319). In an analysis of the state of computer-mediated communication (CMC) scholarship, Charles Soukup (2000) calls upon CMC researchers to recognize the rhetorical features of “multi-media CMC…in order to describe and explain communication in cyber space” (407).

These three scholars are by no means definitive, but represent the range of research areas that call for a rhetorical approach when studying communicative and performative practices enabled by the Internet.  What is clear is that scholarly research in this area is still relatively new and no universally accepted terms, definitions, theories or methodologies have emerged to define the research subgroups.

The earliest label to emerge in the Communication discipline relating to the study of technology’s mediating influence on communication is computer-mediated communication (CMC). While there are many examples of excellent research coming from this field, CMC theory may have limited progress as well.  Early CMC researchers employed mostly non-empirical methodologies and the research was grounded primarily in theories drawn from interpersonal and small group research (Warnick, 1998b: 73, Soukup, 2000). The majority of the research takes place in laboratories under controlled experimental conditions, which probably does not present an accurate picture of the cyberreality. These represent inherent limitations of this approach for Internet Studies, including, as Soukup ardently argues, that CMC research is too text-oriented, which leads to an ongoing “failure to account for the complex, multi-media communication of CMC” (2000: 413).  (1)

As an added limitation, CMC research has not generally included critical rhetorical methods, although Soukup argues that recognition of the rhetorical aspects Internet communication processes is the latest necessary evolution in CMC theory: “The ability to alter images and ideas indefinitely and create highly stylized and artistic images easily creates new, more rhetorical…communication processes” (Soukup, 2000: 420). Despite these limitations, CMC research has provided a strong underlying foundation for rhetorical criticism of Internet communicative practices.


Challenges to Critical Rhetorical Analysis of Internet Communication

Internet communication may best be described as a collection of fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials. This challenges implicit modernist assumptions about the permanence of the text as a repository of true meaning, as stable, coherent, and knowable. Sherry Turkle saw our society as “moving from a Modernist culture of calculation to a Postmodernist culture of simulation” (1995: 20). One has but to look at the adjectives used to describe Internet communication, such as rhizomic, fragmented, de-centered, diasporic, non-linear, dynamic, fluid, open etc. to recognize that study communicative practices on the Internet implicitly demands a postmodern lens.

On a global scale, rhetorical critics are recognizing that the "information age" means a redefinition of nation-state identities, which were the foundation of the modern era. This new age is characterized by the dissemination of images and information across national boundaries, a sense of erosion or breakdown of national, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural identities, and a sense of a global mixing of cultures on a scale unknown to pre-information era societies. The lines between the real and the virtual are blurring, and ideas and information is flowing around the globe at the speed of thought.

Other fields have taken up the call to analyze Internet-based forms of communication, but rhetoricians seem to have been particularly slow to respond.  There are, perhaps, understandable reasons for this.  As Barbara Warnick suggests: “Rhetorical criticism, particularly that which was grounded in neoclassical rhetoric, seemed poorly suited to study these new media forms of communication (2001: 61).

In a review of the literature, it appears rhetoricians who have studied Internet communication have identified three general areas in which the study of Internet environment challenges traditional critical rhetorical practice: (re)defining the text for analysis, the changing nature of the audience, the indeterminacy of authorship, and the problematizing of these notions leads finally to the ambiguity of public discursive space.


(Re)defining the text for analysis

Hypertext destabilizes the very nature of our understanding of text. Unlike traditional forms of rhetorical criticism, which are best suited to printed texts that unfold linearly over time and in idea, hypertext environment is an “unstable and rather limitless text” (Warnick, 1998b: 75). Hypertext, characterized by the text’s ability to link to other texts, becomes malleable and dispersed over time, space, and thought. This raises difficult questions about the starting point of textual analysis as well as the point of closure.  Unlike printed texts, texts in hyperspace are rhizomic in nature, to use Deleuze & Guattari’s metaphor (2). The rhizome model is useful for rethinking the notion that 'knowledge' or 'information' has hierarchical form and can be traced back to a central or logical source. The rhizomic nature of texts in hyperspace, perhaps best described as a system of relationships without a center, problematizes the order in which ideas unfold and make the regulation meaning difficult. A critic can never read all the text in the way printed texts can be read, nor even be sure (s)he is even reading the text in the same way other users of hypertext are reading.  In essence, hypertexts cannot be mastered, only sampled. Text becomes hypermedia that transcends the physical limits of print media; the Internet has become an information system that is constantly changing and updating.  The challenge to the rhetorical critic becomes defining that sample for analysis, and justifying the boundaries chosen to define it.

As elsewhere in rhetorical scholarship, the very definition of a text as focused on the printed word is changing and evolving in New Media environments.  As Warnick points out, “mere attention to the words of a web page will not suffice, since the images are so important to textual meaning. Even in texts without images, the way that the text is displayed on the screen has rhetorical impact” (Warnick, 2001: 76). The choices of visual imagery and the design and layout of human interfaces have potential rhetorical impact. 

Despite this lack of stability, online texts in cyberspace still influence attitudes, opinions, values, and construct identities as they “hail their readers as subjects” (Warnick, 2001: 76).  Thus they are rhetorical texts and warrant study, but it appears the texts will be difficult for the critic to study without a reconsideration of rhetorical theory and methods.

Researchers have employed a number of strategies for defining a ‘digital artifact.’  To begin with, rhetorical critics argue for letting go of print-centric methodologies for studying text and discourse. Warnick (1998b) suggests that hypertexts “might best be studied as a system of circulating signifiers in a larger discursive environment” (76). Once these “systems of text” are identified, “regularities and patterns of communication behavior” will emerge to assist in understanding how these discourses function, leading to identification of specific rhetorical strategies in web sites such as composite narratives, argument schemes, texts co-opting or appropriating positions, and visual presentation as supporting or replacing verbal messages (Warnick, 1998b: 82). In her study of web-based discourse during the 1996 presidential campaign, Warnick selects her textual artifact based on two systems of text in that political discourse: parodic and nonparodic sites relevant to the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. She acknowledges that the amount of political activity on the Web was enormous, so limited her analysis to a small portion of it by focusing on “the contest for President between major party candidates” and selecting Web sites that were “highly ranked and frequently visited” (Warnick, 1998a: 309).

The popularity of a Web site is consistently a common criterion for text selection. Mitra (1997) offers several of his own criteria as a first step towards selecting online texts for analysis, in his case Web sites for Indians living in the West. They are the number of links a site offers, the number of links that can be found to a particular page, and the number of ‘hits’ on that page.  In all three criteria, more is better since, as Mitra argues, it is far more likely that the ‘popular’ pages will address the tensions he was interested in studying (164). It is important to note that any criteria for text selection in Internet environments should be revisited periodically, since the functioning of the Web can change quickly.  For example, Mitra’s criteria are based in a “pre-Google” era.  The introduction of the Google search engine radically changed how information on the web is organized and retrieved, and as I will discuss later, how the meaning of search terms can be redefined through collective rhetorical acts as a result.


The changing nature of the audience

A second challenge to rhetorical critical study is the changing nature of audience, the receiver of messages, in Internet environments. Looking again at the notion of rhizomic structures of Internet communication, defining the identity of the audience as distinct from the rhetor is difficult. In cyberspace, messages are ‘fanned out,’ cut and pasted, e-mailed and forwarded, making identification of a specific message for a specific audience difficult. “Everyone is a rhetor and everyone is an audience” and  “the notion of a discrete audience for a discrete message has become quite problematic” (Warnick, 1998b: 77). Messages in cyberspace are being shaped to the needs and expectations of the audience, as with any mass mediated environments, but now audiences can reshape the messages, pass them on, thus becoming the rhetor.

One solution increasingly offered to rhetorical critics of Internet communication is “intertextual” methodologies. Intertextuality “considers the way in which a single text is connected with other similar texts” rather than how it connects to a receiver, and where “the effectivity of a single text depends on the larger discourse it is part of” (Mitra and Cohen; 1999: 182). In the digital realm, every Web text has the capacity to be ‘linked’ to many others Web texts. Indeed, without the ‘hyperlink,’ the Web would not exist since each text would live in relative isolation on individual computers. Hyperlinks are the glue that forms the World Wide Web, at least as we know it.

Further problematizing notions of audience is the very nature of virtual environments forming on-line, where identities and events are easily constructed in ways that have very little to do with “off-line” conceptions of self.  Genders are reversed, images are altered, anonymity is relatively easy to maintain, and pseudo realities and events (often focused on parody) are created for the sake of entertainment. This disaggregation of the audience leads Warnick (1998b: 78) to advise that the rhetorical critic of new media be very careful making any claims about audience “effect.”


The indeterminacy of authorship

The indeterminacy of authorship poses a significant challenge to agent-centered rhetorical analysis due to the very nature of the medium.  In Internet communication practices, the identity of the author is obscured, fragmented, and de-centered in many of the same ways the identity of the audience is problematic. “The absence of an identifiable author on many Internet venues leads to the problem of credibility” (Warnick, 1998b: 79). In an Internet environment, messages are routinely cut, paste, forwarded, and otherwise altered and reposted due to the lack of any authorial function. The Internet, as a structure without place, is relatively flat hierarchically and this tends to suppress the gate keeping functions of offline media sources, since rational hierarchy is one of the features that authorize legitimacy in traditional mass mediated environments such as journalism.

In traditional agent-centered neoclassical rhetorical theory, the identity of the author and authenticity of a text are paramount.  In determining the legitimacy of the message, traditional critics rely in large part on evaluating the experience, education, values, and purpose of the author. It is how the message gains credibility and the authority by which it speaks. In traditional rhetorical analysis, this is the ‘ethos,’ where the persuasive appeal of a message as effective is based on the character of the speaker. An ethos-driven document, then, must rely on the reputation of the author. What of the unregulated ethos of the Internet texts?  By way of answer, Warnick suggests “ethos as a critical construct may need to be reformulated by rhetorical critics to determine how texts whose origin is of secondary importance and whose authorship is undetermined nevertheless project an ethos…” (Warnick, 1998b: 80). In her study of ‘cybergrrls’ (Warnick, 1999), she found evidence of a “group ethos” among a group of successful women involved in technology-based activities. Further, in Laura J. Gurak’s (1997) study of online controversies, she found that “ethos was an artifact of a group or set of interests, that it was based on posters’ stated professional affiliations and contributions” (Warnick, 1998b: 80).

Interestingly, participants in Internet communication seem to not require evidence of authenticity. It appears that aspects of the electronic medium itself seem to confer creditability on a message. As several researchers have found, we tend “to treat all representations as true” (Mantovani, 1996: 126; see also Reeves and Nass, 1996). This is particularly problematic from a critical viewpoint.  Web sites often do not have an identifiable author (Warnick, 1998a) and anonymous posting can inspire and promote trust (Gurak, 1997). Authors of electronic texts often and routinely disguise their identities, indeed it is expected and assumed. Sherry Turkle (1995) found that participants often swap genders and construct identities that are purely virtual. On-line participants “become the authors not only of the text, but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction” (11). One interesting point Turkle’s research is how easily participants, primarily children interacting with computer games in Turkle’s case, adapted to the malleability of this environment with not prior experience with it. This implies that the use of computer-mediated technologies comes quite naturally to a person, which further implies that theories and methods relating to communicative practices may be adapted just as easily.


Ambiguity of public discursive space

There is growing and significant evidence that Internet communications are changing the very nature of public space and the formation of communities within that space. “The new century has witnessed the emergence of two distinct publics – one in real life and the other in the virtual reality of cyberspace,” which is “a discursive space produced by the creative work of people whose spatial locations are ambiguous and provisional” (Mitra & Watts, 2002: 484-486). This emerging discursive space is a systematic challenge to fixed modes of being and patterns of power. The formation of communities no longer requires the brick and mortar of neighborhoods, churches, hospitals, and schools. Internet communication, and the web and new media access it provides, enable dispersed individuals to use the Internet to form discursive cybercommunities based on shared values and interests, in what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996) calls “diasporic public spheres.” Appadurai postulates a “theory of rupture” in constructions of modern subjectivity driven by two modern phenomena: electronic media and mass global migration. These ideas are characteristic of the "global village" phenomenon first suggested by Marshall McLuhan, referring to the globalization of cultures, races, images, capital, and products as we enter the "information age." At its base is a redefinition of nation-state constructions of identities, which calls into question everything about contemporary culture and society that relate to those historical constructions.

Zappen (2005) suggests interesting new considerations for rhetorical criticism in cyberspace; that studies of new digital media explore “not only persuasion for the purpose of moving audiences to action or belief, but also self-expression for the purpose of exploring individual and group identities and participation and creative collaboration for the purpose of building communities of shared interest” (322). This complicates the analysis considerably since it implies that the interaction between speaker and audience becomes much more complex than previously assumed.  The relationship becomes a constant negotiation between our online and offline selves, between the many representations of self and other (speaker and listener), and the electronic interface through which we represent ourselves in the cyberworld.

Anandra Mitra (1997) has studied how immigrant Indians living in the West formed diasporic discursive communities using the WWW technology. He argues that these WWW texts speak simultaneously to both “ingroup” members, essentially Indians living in the West, and “outgroup’ members who are web surfers visiting the site. This is an example of communities that exist nowhere and everywhere at the same time: communities whose only physical existence is as “a rhizomatic connection of computers that span all known spatial boundaries” (Mitra & Watts, 2002: 485).

These findings demonstrate the potential for one’s presence in public discursive cyberspace to produce multiple, and potentially conflicting identities.  Individuals are part of both online and offline communities in different spatial locations, each potentially grounded in different and perhaps competing attitudes and values. A critical approach makes an intervention possible by reclaiming and rearticulating hidden or naturalized assumptions in multiple competing discourses, in how they have influenced in the past but also how they guide the future.


Cyberspace as Democratic Public Space

One cannot speak of public discursive space without a discussion of notions of cyberdemocracy and the idea of the Internet creating the potential for leveling the democratic playing field between the elite and the subalterns of the world. These two concepts are intertwined since “the issue of the public sphere is at the heart of any reconceptualization of democracy” (Poster, 1997).

There is general agreement that the Internet is changing how people understand and participate in democracy all over the world, but there is disagreement as to how positive or negative that effect is or will be. As Lincoln Dahlberg points out: “each new communication technology, from the telegraph to cable television, seems to spark a wave of enthusiasm regarding the potential of communications technology to transform democracy” (2001: 158).  James W. Carey called it “the rhetoric of technology sublime” (quoted in Poor, 2005).

The concept of the public sphere originated with Jürgen Habermas as a forum where people could come together, discuss ideas, and reach new understandings, often related to governance and democratic ideals. The Internet is seen as facilitating this even further by allowing previously unconnected people to, well, connect in a virtual public sphere. Lincoln Dahlberg shows how utopian ideals for “Internet-democracy rhetorics and practice” fall into three “camps” of democratic models that provide for: the expression of individual interests; the enhancement of communal spirit and values; and the facilitation of rational discourse in the public sphere (2001: 158). Dahlberg argues for the possibility that the last “camp,” a rational discourse in the public sphere, shows the most promise with regard to the Internet and democracy. Douglas Kellner (2004) takes this idea one step further and claims that mass media in the United States is so corrupted by conservative and corporate interests that the Internet is the only hope for creating a rational discourse in the public sphere were citizens can gain access to multiple viewpoints and thus make more informed critical decisions about government and society. Kellner cites several reasons that are common arguments for this view: access to a vast and varied array of information online; diversity of views and opinions available through web sites, blogs, etc.; and two-way communication allowing greater participation in public dialogue. However, counter to these ideals is significant data demonstrating that a cyberdemocracy based on personal computers will not be equally open to all citizens. Here we confront issues of access to this emerging public sphere as we encounter disparities based on gender, race, and class. It seems that those most likely to enter the public sphere created by the Internet (with any regularity) are usually better educated, wealthier, and male.

This research strongly suggests that the ideology of Western hegemony in culture has infiltrated into online cultures as well.  Barbara Warnick (1999), concerned about how audiences are hailed or interpellated online, identified and analyzed specific instances of CMC where women have been marginalized and excluded even as they were being invited to become involved. Inspired by Sherry Turkle’s observation that “we construct our technologies, and our technologies construct us and our times” (Turkle, 1995: 46), Warnick found patterns of what she describes as “the discursive construction of elitism” (2). In many instances of Internet discourse, women were interpellated “using such masculinized gender traits as aggressiveness, opportunism, and technical proficiency” while at the same time these discourses “tacitly devalued such traits as hesitancy, fear, and technological ignorance” (1). Further, women were portrayed as “late arrivals on a new frontier who were unprepared for a hostile male-dominated environment.” Warnick concludes with the hope that we will begin to use the Web “to develop new modes of interacting with each other” (16) that will lead to engendering new uses for CMC, thereby degendering the computer.

In her study of online discourses during the 1996 presidential campaign, Warnick (1998a) found that many activities available on political parodic web sites “provided the illusion of political participation” so did not serve the democratizing role in virtual public space that they could have, and perhaps should have. She calls for web site authors to be more self-reflexive and for the community to develop and enforce ethical criteria for its authors.

There is another dark side to the Internet as a democratic discursive space that is difficult for scholars to acknowledge. Denise M. Bostdorff (2004), in a rhetorical analysis of a web site community formed by the Ku Klux Klan, points out that while most theorists and scholars “have held up the Internet as a locale where positive community building and social support take place” (340), there are reasons to raise questions about such Utopian expectations.  Her analysis demonstrates that Klan web sites are used primarily to distribute “messages of hate that discourage dissenting points of view,” and “create a virtual tribe identity of white masculinity to attract white men” (340), although some also focus on the women and children and provide racist messages designed specifically for those audiences. A socially conscious individual would probably find this to be an unfortunate consequence and use of democratic discursive space.

The Klan web site study is also an example of how cybercommunities tend to be more self-selective than real life, in the sense that online group participants tend to be like-minded individuals who share each other’s interests and identity. These web sites employ rhetorical strategies for a like-minded audience that can empower a racist by joining a group of thousands of others who share a common viewpoint, a racist who might otherwise feel isolated by such beliefs in real life.

It seems that virtual groups do not handle controversy very well, either. Gurak’s (1997) study of online discussion groups found that participants, drawn together by their like-mindedness, tended to penalize anyone who disagreed with the group norms. Gurak and others found that group deliberations could degenerate into ‘flaming,’ which is very aggressive behavior that seems to be enhanced by the anonymity and physical separation of individuals in cyberspace (Rheingold, 1993).

One thing the approaches outlined above seem to have in common is an implicit challenge to the primacy of Modernist notions of theory building. Instead, they advocate methodologies that avoid generalizing and “analyze specific instances of CMC” (Gurak in Warnick, 1998: 74) since the texts are “often anonymous, dispersed, fragmented, and constructed for audiences whose reactions are hard to identify and describe” (Warnick, 1999: 3). This view is further substantiated by Foot, Warnick and Schneider (forthcoming) who, in a study of Web-based memorializing, see the phenomenon as an example of “an emerging set of practices mediated by computer networks” thereby aligning their research with ‘the practice turn in contemporary theory’ that they see as emerging across the social sciences and humanities. They posit, “Web practices encompass the acts of making by which Web site producers create, appropriate, manipulate, link, and/or display digital objects that can be accessed by Web browsers.”

Given the anonymous, dispersed, and fragmented nature of Internet communication, it is difficult to identify specific constructs for humanistic scholarship, as we have seen.  We must find good ways of conceptualizing what role the Internet could play in real and virtual life is to identify patterns in the characteristics of Internet communications.  These patterns can be developed into dimensions that form a heuristic of characteristics to use for systematically and comparatively analyzing Web discourses. Gurak (1997) identified some basic characteristics of the technology that could be an early formation of dimensions of Web discourse for further study: speed, reach, anonymity, and interactivity. Each of these characteristics affects the quality and quantity of communication online in significant ways.

In a study of Web-based memorializing, Foot, Warnick and Schneider (forthcoming) offer eight dimensions they found in their research, of which they claim three could be useful for investigations of other forms of CMC: voice, co-production, and intended audience. They see voice as being either “a single (individual or collective) voice or multiple voices.” Co-production refers to whether a Web site is “produced entirely by a single individual or organization, or is there evidence of a co-produced process” between independently organized actors. Since the mode of address in the text of a site has a presumed intended audience, one can ascertain much about the values and self-identification of the producer(s) of a Web site.

Finally, Mitra and Watts (2002) present a compelling case for voice as a construct that can help us think about the Internet and cyberspace as discourse, and offer a much more complex notion of the dimension than Foot, Warnick and Schneider. Mitra and Watts argue that traditional social theory assumes an identification of place when thinking about voice as a construct. Cyberspace as a site of public discourse has no boundaries; it emphasizes “placelessness.” (480).  Further, structures of power are contingent on the centrality and place. Since the discourse of cyberspace is made of many voices with no physical place, this decenters any one voice as privileged over another. To reclaim the construct of voice, they suggest a more Ciceronian ideal of the consummate rhetor where “the eloquence of voice becomes critical to gaining a wide acceptance rather than the connection among speaker, place, and power” (490). In this view, “meaning is now produced in a process of negotiation between a speaker and reader where power is not a commodity held by either of them” (491). They offer four conclusions: the responsibility of the speaker changes; the irresponsible voices on the Internet are now open for review, and the reader must take a position of responsibility and authority, and choose between the voices (and the need for a new form of media literacy); and finally, “scholar interested in examining the Internet phenomenon should begin to consider carefully what is being said and how” (494-6).


What’s missing? Rhetorical Criticism and Internet Production

Social science has researched communicative practices involving computers and the Internet for many years.  I have already mentioned Sherry Turkle’s groundbreaking research on the social relationship between humans and computers. Another example is the interesting findings of Reeves and Nass (1996). They found that people treated the computer as they would a person in interpersonal situations, using the same interpersonal models and methods used in human-to-human situations.  However, their work focuses only on the relationship between people and the computer that is mediating the communication, not on the communication between two people over the Internet where there are many other layers of mediating technologies at work: from the computer screen to the software choice to the type of network connection.  Thus Reeves and Nash’s work focuses on but one part of many complex layers of mediated communicative experiences that should be examined in order to better understand the experiences.

One important realization emerging in rhetorical criticism is that electronic communication, especially Internet and new media communication, are mediated by many layers of technology: for every Internet communicative act, there is a person sitting at a computer, interfacing with a screen, entering data through a keyboard or mouse, and using different software.  At the point that a message enters cyberspace, there are the types of connection to the Internet (affecting speed), the quality of servers, nodes, and switches that can impact message production and distribution.  In other words, many distinct layers of mediating technology are present; it is not just the messages passing back and forth the digital/virtual discursive space. Therefore, I agree with Barbara Warnick: “Critics of electronic texts should consider how these producers [of new media] have exploited the affordances of new media for rhetorical purposes” (Warnick 2005: 329).  This suggests that there may be the need to rethink the necessary background for a critical rhetorical scholar of new media and Internet studies: “The work of critics with knowledge of how media content is developed, produced, and disseminated is especially needed” (Warnick, 2005: 332).


The Case of ‘miserable failure:’ Google bombs as Digital Artifacts

In this section, I will examine the Google bomb:  "miserable failure." I suggest this is a useful example of an artifact found on the Internet because it draws together some of the emerging strategies for rhetorical analysis of Internet studies suggested above, and points to the need for the critic to understand the underlying technologies of information management on the Internet and how Web content is “developed, produced, and disseminated” as Warnick suggests.

Google is an interesting phenomenon for study in many ways, and a one that has not been studied by many researchers to my knowledge.  Google began as a proper noun as a name for a company that produced a radically new kind of Web search engine.  Google employs different methods for sifting and managing information available on the WWW than its predecessors like and The word ‘Google’ has since morphed into a verb to describe certain rhetorical and communicative acts, such as ‘Googling’ someone to find out more about them, to ‘Google bombing’ to appropriate the meaning of search terms and phrases.

Weblogger Adam Mathes is credited with coining the phrase ‘Google bomb’ in 2001, when he linked the phrase "talentless hack" to a friend's website as a test of his theory that if there are enough links from other Web sites to a certain Web site, Google’s search algorithm would list that site as the first result in a search of that phrase. Tatum offers a more formal definition:  “the practice of Google bombing is a collective hyperlinking strategy intended to change the search results of a specific term or phrase” (2005). By an informal count, I have found over 60 incidents of Google bombing and in several different languages.

The "miserable failure" Google bomb promoted George W. Bush’s home page to the number one Page Ranking resulting from a search of the phrase "miserable failure" in the Google search engine ( It was the result of a Google bombing project said to be organized by George Johnston at the end of October 2003, in which he used his blog to urge others to include links connecting the phrase "miserable failure" (a term used prominently by Democratic hopeful Dick Gephardt) with the President's official White House biography in their own web sites and blogs. Johnston allegedly wrote:

Let's get everyone to link to with the words "Miserable Failure." Our goal is to make Shrubya the top google pick. It's fun, it's easy just 

<a href="">Miserable Failure</a> and your favorite web page will look like Miserable Failure.

Similar results can also be obtained from the shortened term “failure,” which appears to have come later, shortened for convenience I assume. This is not an isolated rhetorical act since it has been reported in the New York Times and other media as far away as the BBC News in the U.K. (3), and has been the topic of papers in peer reviewed on-line journals (see Tatum, 2005).

A Rhetorical Analysis

James Costigan (1999) defines two general areas of Internet research: examination of the ability to retrieve data from large data stores, and the interactive communication capabilities of the Internet.  This second area includes all forms of text-based communication that account for many different conceptualizations of time, space, and audience. He goes on to claim that “there is no existing parallel social construct, and in many ways, the Internet creates wholly new social constructs. The medium and its use are creating communities that not only would not but could not have formed without the use of the Internet” (xix). 

As an interesting case study that actually involves both areas of research identified by Costigan, I suggest that the on-line practice of “Google bombing” is an example of a rhetorical act wholly existing in cyberspace. Google bombing is a form of collective action that is particularly interesting because it represents a virtual community that could not have existed without the Internet, exists only on the Internet, and is an act that involves a fairly advanced knowledge of the Internet and the Google search engine to accomplish.

I suggest that to fully understand this phenomenon requires the critical rhetorician to study and understand two main aspects of the phenomenon: how data searches are managed on the Internet, in this case by a Web search engine, and how to define as an artifact a discursive community whose text is obscured by the technology and could not have formed without the Internet. Without knowledge of the Google search engine, it would be hard to understand how this come about, especially since the phrase "miserable failure" appears nowhere in the President Bush's biography.

In a unique way, a collective of diasporic individuals came together in the virtual public sphere and expressed him or herself. Recall for a moment Mitra & Watts’ definition of discursive space as “produced by the creative work of people whose spatial locations are ambiguous and provisional.” Their physical locations and status in society are not a factor in their involvement in the project.  The only limiting factor in their participation is access to this virtual public sphere. This limitation does include important rhetorical considerations, and these have already been discussed above.

This collective act is not a monologue.  It is a dialogue in the sense that there is a conversation of diverse opinions being exchanged within this sphere: the Michael Moore official web site ( often shares the top three Page Rankings, and has even taken the top spot occasionally since I have been sampling this act. This can be seen as a democratic debate of opposing political viewpoints in the classic sense.

Drawing on Foot, Warnick and Schneider (forthcoming) findings in their research, let us examine three dimensions that could be useful for wider research on Web discourses: voice, co-production, and intended audience. While their research focused on Web sites specifically, I will briefly analyze this collective act using these three constructs.


Foot, Warnick and Schneider defined the construct of voice as “a single (individual or collective) voice or multiple voices.” Both the liberal and conservative agendas are finding voice in this debate. Initially, this Google bomb was the act of a single collective voice, those presumably opposed to the Bush administration’s policies. They found a unique way of expressing their viewpoint in the digital domain.

However, what followed was a response from those holding another view. This can now be seen as a democratic debate in the classic sense where multiple collective voices are participating in a dialogue in the virtual public sphere. What has emerged is a competition between those voicing these two “systems of text” to see who can control the appropriated meaning of the phrase ‘miserable failure.’ The Michael Moore official web site ( often shares the top three Page Rankings, and has even taken the top spot occasionally since I have been sampling this act. Michael Moore has been at the heart of controversy between liberal and conservative agendas in the USA, so would be an appropriate target.  However, it is hard to say definitively that this an example of a counter movement or a second manifestation of the same Google bombing agenda: Moore’s site itself is very critical of President Bush. More conclusive, however, is who else shares the top three page rankings.  The official presidential bio for Jimmy Carter fairly constantly ranks second, and the Web site for Hillary Rodham Clinton has also ranked in the top three pages in the past.

Given the arguments above for (re)defining the text for analysis, the changing nature of the audience, the indeterminacy of authorship, and resulting ambiguity of public discursive space, it is probably fair to make certain assumptions about who the participants are in the ‘miserable failure’ act, thus whose voice is present: they oppose the Bush Administration policies and likely fit the demographic of the liberal youth of the country. They are technologically savvy with good access to the Internet, which research suggests means they are predominantly white, educated, and male.

The opposing view that places Jimmy Carter and Michael Moore’s web sites at the top of the search results leads to assumptions that the participants promoting this particular agenda are re-acting in support the Bush Administration. They are Republican and maintain conservative social and political beliefs. Otherwise, this group of voices probably overlaps with the demographic of the other group since they are probably also technologically savvy with good access to the Internet, meaning they are predominantly white, educated, and male.

Mitra and Watts’ conception of voice does not seem to be applicable in this case, since the voice of those involved in not an overt text, but a text hidden in a subversive act of appropriation of meanings online. However, there is some question about the responsibility of the speaker and the irresponsible voices on the Internet, for example.  Some online blogers have questioned whether Google should allow this form of appropriation.  They argue that it is disruptive for those wanting the original meaning of the search term.  For example, what of the researcher looking for information about the Democratic hopeful Dick Gephardt campaign, where the phrase ‘miserable failure’ was a key campaign talking point. The appropriation of the meaning of the phrase makes it much more difficult to find information relating to the original meaning and Gephardt’s online presence in the election.


This refers to whether the act is “produced entirely by a single individual or organization, or is there evidence of a co-produced process” between independently organized actors. This appears to be an example of the latter. An individual instigated this act but it required the formation of a collective of independently organized actors to accomplish this.  It is probably reasonable to conclude from what we know about this act that that the producers had to independently and voluntarily place the text ‘miserable failure’ on Wed sites and Blogs that they controlled and then hyperlink it to the US White House Web site. This suggests that there was a diasporic group of individuals who shared an opinion and found their collective voice in the manipulation of the Google search engine. This in turn apparently sparked the formation of an opposing community that responded by trying to re-appropriate the meaning of the phrase to serve their own political perspective.

Intended Audience

From this construct, one should be able to ascertain much about the values and self-identification of the producer(s) of a Web site. This act represents those presumably opposed to the Bush administration’s policies. It is probably fair to make certain assumptions about the intended audience as well: those opposed to the Bush Administration policies are likely to find this amusing. They are also technologically savvy with good access to the Internet, which again suggests the audience is predominantly white, educated, and male.

Those holding an opposing view in support of the Bush Administration would be less amused. Some were driven to react, attempting to place Jimmy Carter and/or Michael Moore’s web sites at the top of the search results using the same knowledge if the technology. The reaction would appeal to those in support of the Bush Administration, so are probably Republican and maintain conservative social and political beliefs. Otherwise, they probably overlap with the demographic of the opposing audience since they are probably also technologically savvy, accessing the Internet easily, and predominantly white, educated, and male.

There are several other possible analytical frameworks for studying the Google bomb  "miserable failure." Using Warnick, Gurak, and other scholar’s advice in identifying the artifact or text, this could be viewed as “specific communication practice” or “set of practices” that comprise a collective rhetorical act. This is an example of online “scenes of collective action and cultural performance (Browne, 1995 quoted in Foot et al, forthcoming) since it requires many people cooperating together to accomplish properly by creating the links on their web sites and blogs so the Google search engine will find them.

This is an approach that Foot, Warnick and Schneider (forthcoming) use in their research of memorializing online, to look at “Web practices [that] encompass the acts of making by which Web site producers create, appropriate, manipulate, link, and/or display digital objects that can be accessed by Web browsers.”

This act could be viewed as a group ethos, a group of like-minded individuals being motivated by a shared interest rather than through the entreaty of a single individual. Mitra & Watts conception of voice and the necessity of eloquence of voice to achieve authenticity and authority in virtual discourses will prove to be a valuable construct.



Rhetoricians may have been slow to respond to analysis of Internet Communications, but it is clear that useful constructs and methods have begun to evolve, adapt, and be redefine to make the critical rhetorical perspective valuable in understanding Internet-based communicative practices. As I have explicated, rhetoricians who have studied Internet communication have identified three general areas in which the study of Internet environment challenges traditional critical rhetorical practice: (re)defining the text for analysis, the changing nature of the audience, the indeterminacy of authorship, and the ambiguity of public discursive space. The focus on individual practices, constructs such as voice, co-production, and intended audience provide useful beginnings of further research and scholarship in this area.

It will become increasingly important to examine not only the written text of Internet communications, but the texts provided by design, layout and enabling technologies of the Internet. 

Lastly, I hope I have demonstrated that future rhetoricians of Internet communication practices would be well served by acquiring an in-depth understanding of the underlying technologies that mediate online communication and discourses in the virtual public sphere. 


1. This is perhaps understandable since when the field emerged in the mid-1980s, all computer mediated communication was predominately text based. CMC finds its roots in a pre-Internet graphical Web browser and pre-GUI (Graphical User Interface) conception of computer-mediated communication. The Netscape graphical Web browser was released in 1994, and Apple Computer popularized the first GUI screen interface in 1984 with its legendary commercial during the Super Bowl that year.

2. From A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). Deleuze and Guattari introduced the rhizome metaphor – based on a subterranean network of meandering roots - in connection with various hypertextual possibilities: flows of materials, multiplicities of meanings, a 'deterritorialising' and 'reterritorialising' of knowledge promised by multimedia and information technologies.

3. “Foes of Bush Enlist Google to Make Point” By Saul Hansell. Last Updated: 12/08/03. Retrieved on 04/01/2006 from

“'Miserable failure' links to Bush: George W Bush has been Google bombed.” Last Updated: Sunday, 7 December, 2003. Retrieved on 04/26/06 from



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