Remediating Democracy: Irreverent Composition and the Vernacular Rhetorics of Web 2.0
By Erin Dietel-McLaughlin


While the use of the Internet to support political agendas is not a new practice, the recent development and widespread popularity of Web 2.0 applications has led to greater conceptualization of the Internet as a public sphere, particularly in the wake of 9/11 (Albrecht, 2006; Barton, 2005; Calhoun, 2004; Carlin, et al., 2005; Pickard, 2006; Warnick 2007). Proponents claim that Web 2.0 applications enact democratic principles by bringing previously marginalized voices into the public arena, by encouraging active participation, and by fostering among citizens a shared responsibility in the knowledge-building and dissemination process. The popularity of these “democratized” technologies has also given way to more commercial ventures, such as YouTube and other social networking sites, which draw upon Web 2.0 principles of user-generated content, participation, and community (while also, as we shall see, limiting user participation in certain ways).

As social networking sites and other Web 2.0 incarnations continue to grow, national media outlets, major corporations, and political figures seek ways to capitalize upon and control the public discourse within these highly networked Web spaces. Ironically, the involvement of these formal institutions threatens to undermine that which has made the Web 2.0 movement so exciting in the first place (Calhoun, 2004; Barton, 2005). Therefore, as scholars like Barbara Warnick (2007) have noted, greater attention to the rhetorical elements of online resistive discourse alongside the study of institutionalized discourse is needed to highlight the contested nature of these spaces. Attention to the discursive practices and tensions at work in these spaces may help rhetoricians theorize new models of democratic engagement and argumentation within digital environments. Such theorizing may help the field move toward what Gerard Hauser (1999) terms a “vernacular rhetorical model” by asking rhetoricians and students of composition to reconsider what “counts” as legitimate participation in a digital public sphere.

In response, this article will examine the use of irreverence as a rhetorical trope that challenges official, institutionalized discourses as they attempt to colonize Web 2.0 spaces. For the purposes of this discussion, I define “irreverent” compositions as texts that ignore or mock the authority or character of a person, event, or text, with the effect of offering commentary on those entities.  Irreverent compositions may employ acts of imitation, such as parody or satire; additionally, these compositions may modify or stray from the standard conventions of a genre (be it a literary genre or the “genre” of an event or arena) in service of a rhetorical purpose. These strategies work as rhetorical tropes – commonly understood as being artful deviations from the norm – by disrupting audience expectations and institutionalized conventions in order to make a larger political statement.

To illustrate the ways in which irreverence operates as an important rhetorical trope in a digital public sphere, I will focus on the CNN-YouTube debates, held July 23 and November 28 of 2007, respectively.   The tensions surrounding this event – tensions between YouTube users and institutional gatekeepers – highlight the contested nature of social networking spaces, as well as highlighting the importance of providing legitimate space for “ordinary,” “common,” or, to borrow Hauser’s term again, “vernacular” rhetoric in order to preserve the democratic principles of Web 2.0.  The discourse surrounding the debates highlights Web 2.0's lingering potential as a complex site of engaged, partisan, vernacular rhetorics, particularly as users employed irreverence for rhetorical effect.  As we shall see, many event skeptics were quick to dismiss the irreverence of some user questions and commentary, despite the fact that such strategies work as compelling modes of critique in public arenas, allowing users to “create a speaking space in the crowded World Wide Web and to contest the monopoly of institutional voices in ‘serious’ public discourse”  (Killoran, 2001, p.127).  In short, the response to the use of irreverent compositions highlights an important tension between the “vernacular” and “official” voices of politics. 

The article will conclude by suggesting that, to help students navigate the discursive functions of Web 2.0 in their personal, academic, and civic lives, teachers of composition should consider providing students with opportunities to experiment with irreverence as a composition strategy.  In addition to advancing students' media literacy through the interpretation of parody (Warnick, 2007), irreverent composition provides opportunities for students to begin composing vernacular rhetorics in new media formats at the same time that they critique the appropriation and remediation  that many Web 2.0 applications encourage.  In what Lawrence Lessig (2005) and other scholars have termed a “remix culture ,”appropriation and integration work as some of the most powerful means of discursive knowledge construction and political commentary, and it is essential that we prepare students to participate in digital arenas in order to articulate their voices and possibly resist dominant discourses of power.  Experimenting with the rhetorical trope of irreverence may advance students’ rhetorical competency while also encouraging discussions of the possibilities and limitations of the democratic promise of Web 2.0, particularly as spaces such as YouTube and other social networking sites face continued assault by capitalism and institutional colonization.