Writing oneself, writing the Presidential campaign
First Monday

Writing oneself, writing the Presidential campaign
by Caroline Dadas

 

Abstract
In this paper I analyze user posts and comments on the two blogs that Hillary Clinton runs from her Web site. Based on the rhetorical approaches utilized by writers of posts and comments, I categorize the posts into four types: cheerleading, educating, suggesting, and sharing. I also examine how difference — both among the users and between users and the candidate — are negotiated in user–generated blogs. In doing so, I hope to construct an awareness of how people are using blogs to participate in the discourse of a political campaign.

Contents

1. Citizen participation
2. Defining civic participation
3. Hillary Clinton’s blog
4. Implications

 


 

1. Citizen participation

While there are still months left until the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the machinery of the candidates’ respective campaigns has been in operation for quite some time. The length of the campaign has highlighted the importance of candidates being able to establish and maintain an energized, involved base. Toward that end, this campaign has seen the incorporation of various Web–based technologies as a means of spreading candidates’ messages and perhaps more importantly, garnering citizen involvement. This involvement takes many forms. In a more traditional vein, candidates’ Web sites act, in part, as fund–raising mechanisms. The Web sites provide users with opportunities to donate money and buy candidate merchandise such as shirts and bumper stickers. Perhaps less familiar are the ways in which citizens are encouraged to join the conversation of the campaign by acting as (co–)creators of various Web–based technologies such as campaign blogs. While in the past citizens have been somewhat limited in their means of participation–attending rallies, making phone calls, donating money — today, Internet users can utilize a candidate’s Web site as a portal to significant political engagement. In essence, anyone with an Internet connection has the potential to help write the campaign.

The kind of engagement that interests me here reaches beyond cursory user [1] actions such as e–mailing friends a campaign template e–mail about the virtues of a particular candidate. Such actions, while they do contribute to the discourse about a candidate, fall under the rubric of what I will call superficial participation (see Dadas, in process, Figure 1). With superficial participation, citizens feel as though they are making a contribution, but their input is either confined to relatively inconsequential matters or fails to be disseminated within productive mechanisms of communication. Additionally, users’ “voices” must fit the mold of what the campaign envisions or desires; there is no room for questioning, dissenting, or divergent thinking.

By contrast, robust participation allows citizens to assume an effectual role in influencing the discourse of the campaign; it enables dialogue that may question or challenge the embedded beliefs and assumptions of a candidate and/or political party’s platform. Users who demonstrate robust participation contribute content and engage with each other within the public sphere of the campaign. In his book Vernacular Voices, Gerard Hauser situated public spheres as “nested domain[s] of particularized arenas or multiple spheres populated by participants who, by adherence to standards of reasonableness reflected in the vernacular language of conversational communication, discover their interests, where they converge or differ, and how their differences might be accommodated” [2]. The kind of participation that interests me in this paper, then, involves instances of communication within the campaign when user interests, opinions, and suggestions are placed into dialogue/made public through candidates’ Web sites. Dialogue in this context implies the negotiation of difference between interlocutors. Discussing how these “differences might be accommodated” is a critical aspect of robust participation.

 

Figure 1: Two levels of civic participation on candidates’ Web sites: superficial and robust (Dadas, in process).
Superficial
  • Provides few, if any, opportunities for user contributions and engagement.
  • Silences dissenters by not allowing space for their comments.
  • The Web site serves as an advertisement for the candidate, not as a forum for participation.
  • Users have few, if any, opportunities to be creators, planners, producers, or designers; they are not provided space to voice dissention.
  • Users engage in activities such as filling out polls and forwarding scripted e–mail messagess.
Robust
  • Provides multiple opportunities for users to contribute content and engage with each other.
  • Provides users the potential to publicly question or challenge assumptions/beliefs of the candidate or other users.
  • The Web site is a forum for users to engage and participate.
  • Users are creators, planners, producers, designers, dissenters.
  • They post to blogs, create social networking pages, upload videos, and plan events in order to engage with other users, the campaign, and the issues.

 

While users are provided the opportunity for robust participation through various Web site features such as creating their own Web pages or organizing campaign events, I am going to limit my examination to blog posts and comments. I am focusing on the blog tool because it is both widely used and because users harness the tool in variety of ways for a variety of rhetorical purposes. For example, some users utilize the blog to explain how a particular issue has affected their lives, while others use this online location [3] for expressing their satisfaction with a particular candidate. Regardless of their particular approach, however, I surmise that all of these users post to blogs ostensibly to participate in the campaign in some sense. Based on their posts and comments, I will explore how citizens rhetorically position themselves within campaign blogs — how they address a multiplicity of audiences for various purposes. In other words, I am interested in how users write their civic selves.

 

++++++++++

2. Defining civic participation

Examining how people position themselves in civic spheres has always been a concern of rhetoric. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, subtitled A Theory of Civic Discourse (Aristotle, 1991), taxonomized and systematized the “available means of persuasion” so that citizens would have a resource at their disposal when it came to participating in the polis. Recently, there has been renewed scholarly interest in civic–minded rhetorics. But as Patricia Roberts–Miller argued in her book Deliberate Conflict, “The very sense of what is (or should be) a polis has shifted. It should seem odd to assume that a skill developed in a homosocial and slave–based polis like Athens, which put a premium on uniformity, would have the same value in a heterogeneous and postmodern polis, which claims to value difference” [4]. Given the modern day complexity and diversity of public spheres, including the potential for polariziation (Bohman, 1996; Tannen, 1998), scholars now focus attention on how citizens choose (or want) to participate in modern day public spheres. In particular, I am interested in how civic discourse unfolds in digitized public spheres such as blogs. According to a 2005 Pew study, “The Internet became an essential part of American politics in 2004. Fully 75 million Americans [...] used the Internet to get political news and information, discuss candidates and debate issues in e–mails, or participate directly in the political process by volunteering or giving contributions to candidates” [5]. Since then, we have only seen an increase in the use of Web–based forums as means of citizen participation in political life. With this is mind, my focus — how citizens participate in the discourse of the campaign through candidates’ blogs — is informed by theories of civic participation.

While not specifically related to technology, one article’s treatment of civic participation that I find relevant to this project is Elizabeth Ervin’s 1997 paper, “Encouraging Civic Participation Among First–Year Writing Students.” In it, she explores the connection between students’ classroom–based “literate” behavior and their willingness to engage in civic behavior. Based on her own experience teaching first–year composition, she concluded that the classroom must be reimagined in order to prepare students to participate in non–classroom publics. In fact, Ervin questions the notion of the classroom as “public,” claiming that in–class discussions bear little resemblance to discussions and debates that students will encounter elsewhere. Her reimagining takes form through three components of participation, all of which I find applicable to non–classroom scenarios: (1) students as citizens; (2) levels of association; and, (3) authentic participation.

The first component, “reimagine students as citizens,” [6] posits “social connectedness” [7] as being the primary condition of participation. Specifically, Ervin’s students reported engagement with their peers as being a critical aspect of participation. The desire to interact with one’s peer group points to a sense of “we,” a kind of collectivity that suggests that participation involves a network of interactions among individuals. This collectivity underlines the importance of providing opportunities for citizens to engage with each other. My project will be focusing on blogs as one aspect of that engagement. Participation, then, is not limited to a single person advocating for one position or another; rather, it can operate as a dialogic relationship among a multiplicity of individuals.

For her second component of participation, Ervin drew on the work of Robert Putnam (1995), who identified three levels of “association,” or regular interaction with others. While primary associations consist of family ties, secondary associations are comprised of relatively small, localized groups of which we choose to be a part. The third level, tertiary associations, are larger groups formed through ties to common ideals or leaders. Members of tertiary associations, however, feel little connection to each other. Ervin argued that classrooms function as tertiary associations — at least initially, students lack cohesiveness as a group. She advocated treating the classroom as a secondary level of association by “actively and directly promoting ... interpersonal allegiances and commitments” [8]. For Ervin, collaborative learning across a variety of locations — classroom, local community, larger, more diffuse networks of citizens — offers promise. We can also see the appeal of collaborative groups in online locations such as blogs. Rather than write to the relatively generalized audience of the entire blog, we often see bloggers join a multiplicity of associative groups and address a range of subjectivities. The desire to be part of a group dynamic, a secondary association, clearly holds true even in virtual locations.

Ervin’s third characteristic of participation, providing opportunities to engage in “authentic” civic discourses, finds relevancy for all citizens. While Ervin bemoaned the difficulty of providing opportunities for students to participate in civic life within the context of first–year composition, the same predicament holds true for many Americans. Disproportionately few citizens engage in civic processes, particularly in terms of contributing to the public discourses surrounding an election [9]. With the widespread implementation of blogs on candidate’s Web sites, citizens now have an easily accessible [10] discursive tool at their disposal. While the effectiveness of this tool in terms of contributing to a productive civic dialogue remains debatable, the presence of this additional outlet for citizen participation holds promise.

Together, these three characteristics of participation provide a useful model for how citizens attempt to fulfill their civic obligations. I have found Ervin’s characteristics helpful in envisioning how citizens might actively work to strengthen and sustain democratic processes. Iris Marion Young contends that democracy needs “‘real participatory structures in which actual people, with their geographical, ethnic, gender, and occupational differences, assert their perspectives on social issues within institutions that encourage the representation of their distinct voices’” [11]. Similar to my definition of robust participation, Young focuses on difference, insisting that it is only through the interaction of varied and “distinct” voices that we enact democratic processes. In doing so, she advocates moving beyond dialogue that remains confined to what Jane Mansbridge terms “enclaves,” or “place[s] where people speak only to people who share their values ... perfect place[s] of agreement” [12]. By confining dialogue to an enclave, citizens miss out on the opportunity to hear from those whose values and/or positions might drastically conflict with their own. According to Roberts–Miller, Mansbridge does not encourage the complete eradication of enclaves, but rather hopes that people will find opportunities to broaden their dialogues to include those who might not fit in a particular enclave. By implementing Ervin’s characteristics across a diffuse network of participants, we create the potential not only for robust participation, but also robust democracy.

Considering how much “difference” is permitted when citizens break out of their enclaves is a relevant concern with candidates’ blogs. Are differences regarding some issues more allowable than others? Does the blog provide opportunities for members of other political parties to challenge a candidate’s policies? Can independent voters post questions or concerns they have about the candidate? In order for a candidate’s blog to enable robust participation, it must accommodate a range of politics across a multiplicity of “geographical, ethnic, gender, and occupational differences.” By examining how users write themselves into the campaign, I am looking at how they attempt to establish social connectedness with their peers, formulate secondary associations, and utilize the tools at their disposal, all across multiple areas of difference. In short, how do bloggers participate in a democracy?

 

++++++++++

3. Hillary Clinton’s blog

For the purposes of this paper, I confined my study to Hillary Clinton’s official blog (see Figure 2) [13]. The number of posts on any one candidate’s blog are plentiful; limiting my scope to one candidate allowed me to discern patterns and/or deviations between users whose support of the same candidate has spurred them to online participation. I have chosen Hillary Clinton because, one year away from the election, she appears to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination (and perhaps in the race overall). This has attracted a good amount of attention to her official Web site. The site’s blogging culture is very active, leaving many opportunities for text–based analysis. Through its language, the Web site is positioned by its designers as a way for citizens to “become involved.” Interested in how citizens choose to capitalize on “official” opportunities for participation, I will limit my study to this site alone and not take into account other blogs devoted to the campaign and/or Hillary Clinton. The posts that I will be examining were culled from the Web site on 26 November–27 November 2007, and were posted to the Web site at various times during the month of November.

 

Figure 2: The index page of Hillary Clinton's official campaign Web site on 27 November 2007.

Figure 2: The index page of Hillary Clinton’s official campaign Web site on 27 November 2007.
Her blog is visible among the links at the top; the option to start a blog can be found in the “8 things you can do” section on the right.

 

Linked from her main page, Hillary Clinton’s official blog allows users to comment on posts made by her (at least identified as written by her) or made by other members of her campaign team [14]. Users cannot make their own posts; rather, they can choose to respond to the topic posted by the campaign. For this reason, I will refer to user posts as “comments.” Posts by the campaign staff are made every few days, and user comments for each post range anywhere from three to forty. The main page’s “8 Things You Can Do” section presents users with the option of starting their own blog. This requires the user to register and become a member of “Team Hillary.” This option allows users to post on whatever topic they choose and gives them the option of having their blog visible to all visitors or just to “friends.” The nature of the posts that exist in these two forums varies widely. Given that both of these forums are sponsored by the campaign, I will be looking at posts found in both. First I will focus on comments made solely within the official blog forum. The following comments were made in response to the topics of Clinton’s economic plan and toy safety, both initiated by the campaign during the week of 26 November. After reading these comments, I grouped them into one of four categories, each of which possesses a unique rhetorical function: cheerleading, educating, suggesting, and sharing. One can distinguish between these categories by attending to the particular audience, purpose, and context for each; in other words, the rhetorical situation shifts for each of these categories. Defining a post’s rhetorical situation proves critical in exploring how these users are attempting to enter civic discourse. How they write themselves in this public location — to whom, for what purpose, how, and why — reflects how citizens choose to participate in democratic processes.

3.1 Types of blog comments

The first category of blog comments, cheerleading comments, also appears to be the most innocuous. Posts in this category consist of unbridled praise with little to no explanation as to why the user feels enthused about the candidate. A typical cheerleading comment falls along the lines of “I love her plans! That’s why I’m voting for her! Go Hillary!” (Rita Lyn 19 November 2007 6:44PM). This type of comment seems to be geared toward an audience of fellow Clinton supporters for the purpose of building energy around the candidate. The fact that this particular writer refers to Clinton in the third person suggests that she does not envision Clinton as an audience member. Often — though not in this particular comment — the author will use various techniques of emphasis such as incorporating multiple exclamation points or all caps. Taken out of context (as one might argue I am doing), these comments seem to hold little weight. As part of an ongoing conversation among participants in the blog, however, this type of comment can provide evidence of excitement around the issues being discussed, the overall platform of the candidate, or the candidate herself. In the context of a long and contentious election process, an energized base can be a desirable possession. While cheerleading posts ostensibly seek to build an energized base, they closely resemble what Ervin referred to as “tertiary associations” — groups of people bonded not to each other, but to a common goal. In this sense, they may fall short of establishing more meaningful connections and dialogic interactions among users.

In contrast to cheerleading comments, some comments seek to inform, or educate, their audiences. This type tends to be fairly lengthy, contain statistics, and offer some sort of suggestion for the candidate, reflective of Ervin’s hope that citizens engage in authentic civic discourses. Educating posts demonstrate how citizens use a tool (the blog) to advocate for or against specific courses of action. An example of an educating comment, the following excerpt uses many specifics to educate its audience:

I strongly support Hillary’s plan for helping renew the economic promise for middle class people [...] Capitalism has to be regulated so that the average family is not crushed by the unbridled monopolistic power of huge multinational conglomerates and Wall Street rigged money games like adjustable rate mortgages sold by unscrupulous lenders or unregulated money plans like derivatives and Sovereign Wealth Funds ... Read a book “What went wrong with America” to get a better idea about how our economic system is rigged against hard working Americans ... . Hillary needs a commission that will study our long term problems which are systemic in nature and can only be corrected by sound bipartisan legislative action (PersianGulfVet 20 November 2007 12:37AM).

The comment from which this excerpt is taken exceeds a page in length and frequently quotes statistics (although no sources are referenced) as a means of supporting the author’s claims. In this excerpt we can see that the author’s purpose to inform her audience about the fiscal challenges facing the country seems to be directed at fellow users, as well as possibly at the campaign itself. The phrase “Hillary needs ...” suggests that the author expects action to be taken on the basis of this post. In contrast to cheerleading comments, educating comments operate with a more tangible purpose: to reinforce, refine, or perhaps alter the candidate’s specific approaches to policy. While the author begins by showing support of Clinton’s economic plan, she proceeds to lay out a rudimentary plan (the majority of which is not represented here) suggesting that she possesses knowledge that the candidate does not. This author also clearly envisions her peers among her audience, offering suggestions (e.g., the book recommendation) for how to better understand the issues about which she is writing. In speaking directly to a dual audience — her peers and her candidate — this author uses the blog as a means of attempting to steer policy.

When comments present themselves as informative but contain little detail in supporting their claims, they fall under the category of suggesting comments. These comments often offer advice to either the candidate or fellow bloggers. Like the authors of educating comments, these authors use the blog as a tool for proposing courses of action. Their typical lack of evidence or research, however, calls into question their ethos. In discussing the topic of lead in children’s toys, for example, one blogger comments, “The American taxpayer and consumer get to pay full price and get defective products or services or even downright fraud in return. The amazing thing is that we tolerate it. I hope Hillary does not. She needs to become another Theodore Roosevelt who took on the ‘Trusts’ of his time” (PersianGulfVet 23 November 2007 11:09PM). The comparison to Roosevelt signals the author’s desire for Clinton to fit a particular ideological mold, at least in terms of “trust–busting.” The writer does not elaborate on this comparison or offer research to support his belief that the comparison between the two figures is valid or applicable. By including the phrase, “she needs to become,” the author seems to be addressing the Clinton campaign, hoping that her suggestion will work its way up to the candidate herself. In this sense, the author seems to writing to a “general” audience, hoping that someone will validate or act upon her suggestions.

Other suggesting comments offer advice pertaining specifically to the Web site, as does this comment under the economic plan thread:

You guys need to get Taylor Marsh piece up on your website either in the FactHub or HillaryHub. It’s a beaut & it’s time you guys start holding the media’s feet to the fire. They aren’t going to print or talk about the truth if they are prodded into it ... you’re treating Obama too gently. Hold him more accountable (Psbro 20 November 2007 9:53AM).

The suggestion to hold Obama more accountable is not supported with any details about why (although the Clinton campaign probably would not need too much convincing on this point) or how to go about doing so. Even so, this author feels empowered enough to make the suggestion in the first place. Perhaps the presence of this online forum has convinced him that, even though no one has responded publicly to his comment, his opinions will be taken seriously. His use of the term “you guys” suggests an attempt at establishing “social connectedness” or a sense of “we.” Depending on the reader, however, this could come across as false familiarity. For writers of all comments, but particularly suggesting comments, how to evoke and invoke a sense of “we” is complicated, requiring a writer to assert membership in the group without appearing too dominating. As in other mediums, making suggestions online, particularly in matters of national interest, must be done with special attention to one’s audience.

The final type of posts, sharing comments, tends to use the provided topic as a springboard for discussing a difficult situation that the author has endured. Through their reliance on pathetic appeals, these comments seem to be seeking out secondary associations, or connections with fellow bloggers. In the following example, the author uses the economic plan thread as an opportunity to discuss her own financial struggles:

I am not a paid foster care provider and I am not a relative to a child I have custody of. I have been caring for and providing for her for six years. She and I do not qualify for any assistance for her in the state of Florida ... we are a single parent family. I need a job. We all need the cost of livng to be returned to a managable level. Groceries, gasoline,utilities, health care are all about to become out of most of our reach.

This author’s willingness to share these intimate details of her life suggests that the blog forum has provided her with a productive outlet for personal expression. Nowhere in the comment does she refer to Clinton or any of her policies. Despite the apparent lack of political [15] “substance,” the presence of sharing comments plays a critical role in the discourse of any campaign. A common thread in nationwide elections, particularly in this election, is the desire for change. By establishing some of the dire circumstances in which American citizens live, the conversation can then become one of how we will alleviate or eliminate such circumstances. In writing this comment, the author wants to make her situation known both to her peers and to the candidate. Sharing her story with her peers potentially opens up opportunities for empathy and support between bloggers (although no one responded directly to this comment). Sharing her story with the candidate offers up concrete evidence of a problem that needs political attention. The blog allows this author to address multiple audiences and multiple purposes simultaneously.

While these four types of blog comments offer different goals and purposes, they all represent attempts by citizens to participate in the Presidential campaign. As mentioned earlier, some types of comments tie in more closely with the candidates and issues than others. All, however, are written with the assumption that a civic platform such as a candidate’s blog welcomes, honors, and engages the written voices of the electorate. Even cheerleading and sharing posts — both seemingly short on “substance” — contribute to the campaign’s discourse largely through pathetic appeals. But are all four types of blog comments representative of robust participation? Considering that each type meets at least one of Ervin’s criteria, they gesture towards robust participation. Harkening back to Ervin’s concept of social connectedness, participation does not exist within a single exchange; rather, it exists within the dialogue of a network of individuals. We must, then, look at the entire blog as an ongoing conversation where different elements of robust participation are at work at various times.

3.2 Negotiating difference in user–generated blog posts

Another requirement for robust participation is the option to contest the assumptions/beliefs of the candidate or other users. This aspect of robust participation appears lacking in the official blog, considering the paucity of comments that are confrontational in nature. Such occasions only occurred infrequently, as in the toys thread when one blogger posted, “What is she saying that others haven’t already said?” and another responded to this criticism of Clinton’s position, “Exactly. I definitely agree!!!!” This short exchange represents a brief attempt at questioning Clinton’s policies. While the thread continued without further reference to the first user’s question, I found this to be an interesting peek into what a truly dialogic blog forum might look like. Users would rely on each other to clarify proposals by the candidate and would also feel comfortable in questioning the candidate directly (I only found one instance if this in the entire blog) [16]. Of course, the user should have a reasonable expectation that someone from the campaign staff would answer. I saw no evidence that members of the Clinton campaign respond to, or even read, users’ posts. Ideally, a robust blog would allow for multi–directional interaction between users and the campaign and would also encourage dialogue regarding areas of disagreement or confusion among all those involved.

Clinton’s Web site does, however, provide another option for blogging that is more amenable to voicing disagreement. The “8 Things You Can Do” section of the main page provides users with an opportunity to start their own blog. This blog can then be accessed through the Clinton Web site. Many people have capitalized on this opportunity; there are over 500 individual pages, many of which belong to various groups (Chicago 4 Hillary, etc.). While this blog forum allows users to post regarding any topic they like (as opposed to merely commenting on the topic broached by the campaign), it also represents a wider range of attitudes toward the campaign. One 26 November post reads, “How can hillary run the country when she can’t even keep her own husband happy? She really stood up for herself in that situation. Instead she backed down and stayed with him. One word comes to mind COWARD. And now she wants to run this country. Wake up America.” Clearly, this forum remains open to anyone — even adversaries. The vehemence displayed in this post demonstrates how a truly democratic forum can invite mean–spirited, unproductive comments. While the blog provided the user with an opportunity to challenge Clinton, he or she decided to shut down dialogue via an ad hominem attack.

Other bloggers decided to voice their concerns in more productive ways. The following post addresses a legitimate concern about nominating Clinton:

In 2008 two families will have ruled the country for 20 years. If we nominate Hillary Clinton, we will be asking the country to make that 28 years. We will give the GOP the only tool in the world that could possibly get someone like Romney or Huckabee elected president. A disaster. And they’ll use it. Basically, if we don’t say no to continuing what is perceived as a dynasty, the country will say no for us.

Having the space to advance this argument among Clinton supporters benefits all parties: this author was allowed to share his/her opinion with a wide audience; other users have the opportunity to consider whether this is a valid argument and may or may not choose to respond; and the Clinton campaign becomes privy to a concern that they must eventually address. This post represents the productive possibility of public dialogue in forums such as blogs. Posts that incorporate the various rhetorical strategies discussed earlier could exist alongside posts that pose difficult questions about the candidate. Such a forum would open up discursive possibilities for citizens wanting to engage in robust participation.

 

++++++++++

4. Implications

In summarizing Iris Marion Young’s notion of democracy, Jim Berlin wrote, “Democracy, then, becomes radically participatory, as heterogeneous voices that constitute any historical moment are allowed a hearing” [17]. The hope for a radically participatory democracy has run throughout American history, finding renewed urgency with the periodic rise of new tools for participation. The recent incorporation of blogs into candidates’ Web sites has spurred enthusiasm about the promise of this participatory forum. Blogs, in the most optimistic sense, represent an easily accessible means of cutting across difference to promote dialogue among citizens and candidates about the issues and concerns facing our country. As we can see from the examples from Clinton’s site, however, we must refine how we can use this participatory tool toward that end. What I have started here with this text–based analysis and what I hope to uncover more fully as my research continues is both evidence of promise, and also indications of how we should move forward in better utilizing blogs.

The categories of blog comments demonstrate the variety of rhetorical approaches that users take when participating in this civic forum. Together, these approaches represent a collective effort by the electorate to be heard. While each user must reserve the right to draw on any one of a variety of discursive genres and rhetorical approaches, the blog might benefit from an articulation of its purpose. I am not advocating a move toward consensus or a standardization of how to use the use the blog “correctly.” A meta–discussion of the blogs goals would give users a better sense of what various audiences want or expect and the genres that might work best to achieve particular goals. While such an articulation must be user–generated, it would also be productive to hear from the campaign regarding how they intend to use the blog and what they would like both users and themselves to get out of it. Within this meta–discussion, strides could be made toward identifying how we can move toward establishing more rigorous and effective tools of participation. How will bloggers know they are being heard, both by other users and by the campaign? What kinds of discursive codes of conduct should be established in order to prevent flaming or other types of attacks? How can difference be accommodated without alienating divergent opinions or retreating to enclaves? These topics must be addressed by a blog that truly aims for robust participation and all the risks it implies. If we expect to utilize blogs in future campaigns or other civic–minded rhetorical situations, we should promote conversations about how we can use them toward productive, dynamic ends.

In an effort at increasing citizen participation in our democratic processes, I believe it is important for several reasons to study the ways in which blog users write their civic selves. Doing so can provide valuable feedback for Web designers so that they gain a better understanding of what users want and need from online interfaces. As Derek Powacek argued in his book Design for Community, creating a rigorous online community is at least partially dependant on design choices made at even the most structural levels. He claimed that “The key to creating a vibrant online community is to interlink the content and community at the most granular level possible. That way the content is always acting as an example and inspiration for the community. The community, in turn, becomes active in the content of the site, and even sometimes help feed back ideas to the authors of the content. This forms a positive feedback loop that benefits both the community and the content” (Powacek, 2002). For Powacek, communication between designers and users is essential for providing vibrant Web spaces. By examining how users engage in blogs, we can provide designers the feedback they need to make necessary improvements.

Studies such as this one also speak directly to candidates, campaigns, and citizens, providing an in–depth look at the user behavior found on political Web sites. If campaigns want to galvanize the electorate, they must understand the mood, concerns, and wishes of the American people. Candidates’ blogs provide verbatim evidence of these factors. By attending closely to their blogs, campaigns can reevaluate how they are implementing technologies and make adjustments accordingly. Based on my research, I call for campaigns to establish more direct means of dialogue between the candidate/campaign and users; frequent back and forth exchanges would facilitate more effective communication among all involved parties. Finally, I hope to validate the efforts of bloggers as they attempt to participate in the discourses of the campaign. Discourse analysis, despite its limitations, can shed light on areas of misunderstanding and/or miscommunication. Only through examining these moments can we hope to establish more rewarding and effectual discursive strategies. We can also, of course, learn from the small successes — the moments in the blog where users came to a collective understanding, or showed support for each other, or challenged each other in productive ways. In essence, by reflecting on our technologies and our civic goals, we can work toward bridging the two more effectively. End of article

 

About the author

Caroline Dadas is a second–year PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at Miami University of Ohio. Her recent work focuses on citizen participation in the 2008 Presidential campaign via the Internet.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Heidi McKee for her support and thoughtful feedback on multiple drafts of this paper.

 

Notes

1. By “user” I am referring to people who participate in/interact with digital forums. In this study I also occasionally refer to these same people as “citizens” to emphasize their civic roles.

2. Hauser, 1999, p. 56. Admittedly, Hauser’s call for “standards of reasonableness” is potentially problematic, perhaps privileging of dominant discourses; see Young (2000) for more on ways to ensure more equal participation in deliberation.

3. Here I am drawing from Keller and Weisser’s use of the word “location” in their collection, The Locations of Composition (2007). For them, location implies “be[ing] positioned — either physically or metaphorically” (3) in relation to other locations. I use this term to emphasize how anything we write in an online blog becomes automatically networked with everything else online.

4. Roberts–Miller, 2004, p. 3.

5. Rainie, et al., 2005, p. 1.

6. Ervin, 1997, p. 393.

7. Ervin, 1997, p. 394.

8. Ervin, 1997, p. 395.

9. The U.S. Census Bureau provides the following statistics on voting participation in the 2004 Presidential election. Of 215 million voting–age citizens, only 65.9 registered to vote and 58.3 actually voted.

10. This is not to say that all citizens have access to the Internet. Socio–economic and socio–cultural factors play a role in determining who is able to reap benefits from technological opportunities. For more on issues of access, see Lester Faigley, Joseph Janangelo, Charles Moran, Cynthia Selfe.

11. Young in Berlin, 2003, p. 100.

12. Mansbridge in Roberts–Miller, 2004, p. 41.

13. I will be focusing solely on the text found on the Web site. Recognizing the limitations of textual analysis, I hope for this project to become part of a larger study which will include person–based research.

14. As a public, political site, I view these posts and comments as public communications, subject to copyright and fair use, but requiring the consent of authors to be quoted.

15. Here I mean political in the sense of relating to national politics; the post is political in the sense that it sheds light on the inequity of power distribution in our country.

16. In the future I plan on contacting the campaign to get a sense of the governance of the blog, specifically, whether dissenting comments are ever taken down from the official blog.

17. Berlin, 2003, p. 100.

 

References

Aristotle, 1991. On rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse. Newly translated, with introduction, notes, and appendixes by George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press.

James A. Berlin, 2003. Rhetorics, poetics, and cultures: Refiguring college English studies. West Lafayette, Ind.: Parlor Press.

James Bohman, 1996. Public deliberation: Pluralism, complexity, and democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Caroline Dadas, in process. “Inventing the election: Civic participation and Presidential candidates’ websites,” submitted for review to Computers and Composition.

Elizabeth Ervin, 1997. “Encouraging civic participation among first–year writing students; or, why composition class should be more like a bowling team,” Rhetoric Review, volume 15, number 2, pp. 382–399. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07350199709359225

Gerard A. Hauser, 1999. Vernacular voices: The rhetoric of publics and public spheres. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

“Hillary for President,” at http://www.hillaryclinton.com, accessed 20 November 2007.

Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser (editors), 2007. The locations of composition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Derek Powacek, 2002. “Design for community: The art of connecting real people in virtual places,” at http://proquest.safaribooksonline.com/0735710759/ch03, accessed 10 February 2008.

Robert D. Putnam, 1995. “Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital,” Journal of Democracy volume 6, number 1 (January), pp. 65–78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/jod.1995.0002

Lee Rainie, John Horrigan, and Michael Cornfield, 2005. “Campaign 2004,” Pew Internet and American Life Project. Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center.

Patricia Roberts–Miller, 2004. Deliberate conflict: Argument, political theory, and composition classes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Deborah Tannen, 1998. The argument culture: Moving from debate to dialogue. New York: Random House.

United States Census Bureau, 2007. The 2007 Statistical Abstract, at http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/, accessed 8 December 2007.

Iris Marion Young, 2000. Inclusion and democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

 


Editorial history

Paper received 21 December 2007; accepted 27 January 2008.


Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Caroline Dadas.

Writing oneself, writing the Presidential campaign
by Caroline Dadas
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 2 - 4 February 2008
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2078/1937





A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2014.