Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing

by John R. Gallagher

Reviewed by Marissa Baker


A 2013 interview with a blogger drew John R. Gallagher’s attention to the fact that internet writers update and edit their texts in response to feedback from readers (p. 3). This practice of ongoing revision and responsive writing, which is prompted by an online audience, put Gallagher in mind of the way rhetoricians think of a speaker’s response to a live audience. It’s a sharp contrast to the “death of the author” concept that often accompanies print publication.

The question “What are writers doing once their writing is in circulation?” has a very different answer in today’s “update culture” than it did in a world where publishing meant print-only (p. 6). To understand the rhetorical strategies used by writers working with “interactive and participatory internet (IPI) templates” (such as social media posts, Amazon reviews, and Reddit threads), Gallagher conducted 40 case studies of writers who actively participated in online update culture. Based on that study, Gallager argues that composition instructors and modern rhetoricians must take into account the expectations for writers produced by template rhetoric when discussing and teaching online writing.

Update culture: a modern, online-based culture where digital writers “attend to comments on their writing, write continuously in response, and contend with emergent audiences at extreme intensity” (p. 6).

Though there are many examples of research on internet comments, particularly “in communication and media studies,” to the best of Gallager’s knowledge this is the first study to examine comments from the perspective of the “initial writers'' working within templates for publishing online (pp. 18, 19). Gallager’s research is also firmly rooted in long-standing rhetorical traditions including attention to audience and awareness of kairos. As such, Update Culture contributes to rhetoric, media, and communication studies, as well as studies of writing composition, by adding to current knowledge related to writing and commenting in online culture.

The book is carefully organized to first define key terms and locate the book within existing research, establishing a common frame of reference with readers for discussing online writing. Next, Gallagher clearly outlines methods and participants. Findings related to Textual Timing, Attention, and Management are given their own chapters though (as Gallager points out) these three processes happen iteratively and often simultaneously. With that background established, Gallager moves to discussing ethics, learning, and pedagogy in update culture, which I personally found the most compelling parts of the book.


John R. Gallagher is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to Update Culture, he is coeditor of Explanation Points: Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition, and his work has been published in Computers and Composition, Enculturation, Rhetoric Review, Technical Communication Quarterly, Transformations, and Written Communication.