Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing

by John R. Gallagher

Reviewed by Marissa Baker


Textual Timing, Attention, and Management

Gallager groups the strategies that online writers use for engaging with update culture into three categories. These practices happen iteratively and often simultaneously, and Gallager devotes a separate chapter to each one.

Textual Timing

The notion of textual timing corresponds closely to kairos: “a timely moment of intervention, persuasion, or language use” (p. 51). Generally in rhetoric studies, kairos is assumed to be scarce and only identifiable retroactively, but template rhetoric flips that assumption. Because template rhetoric allows for careful textual timing on the part of the author, “all interactions and discursive exchanges in update culture” have the potential for kairos and writers can plan for kairos (p. 52). A piece of writing may even be kairotic long after initial publication if it is discovered and shared by new readers.

Writers in update culture also have to balance the time they spend writing. The writers Gallager interviewed talked about being “always on”—constantly available to check comments throughout the day, and spending several hours each day writing. Gallager noted that most of the writers he interviewed did not have consistent strategies for when to stop, hinting that finding ways to manage the time spent participating in update culture is a challenge even for experienced online writers.

Textual Attention

Writers in update culture typically have participatory audiences. All of the writers Gallager interviewed paid attention to comments and attended “to the circulation and afterlife of their texts in IPI discourse in digital environments” (p. 78). Though it is possible to write online without inviting comments from an audience, IPI templates encourage authors to share writings and then respond to their audiences.

Gallager found that “attention” is a better word than “reading” to describe the way online writers engage with audience feedback. When describing their experiences with a specific comment, the writers would say they “read” the comment. But when “ they generalized or described their experiences more abstractly, they used the word listening” (p. 80). The rhetorical strategies online writers use are “fusions of oral and written tropes” (p. 158), blending a speaker's response to a live audience and writer’s response to a written audience.

Textual Management

Even when writers did not respond to comments directly, they still paid attention to the comments by reading them and often by editing published writings or adapting their plans for what to write next. This sort of textual management in update culture includes a wide range of activities.

Online writers function as editors as well as curators for their written work. Many also saw themselves as responsible for defining parameters for and mediating the online discourse happening in response to their writings. Others chose to write in response to “groupthink,” attempting to tailor writing to the perceived characteristics of their audience as a whole. Though these textual management tasks happen behind the scenes, Gallager notes that managing texts isn’t just about putting in extra effort in order to be a successful writer; “Managing audiences is integral to twenty-first century writing” (p. 134). It is impossible to write online in today’s update culture without also managing audiences.


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.