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Part I

As technology becomes more and more prominent in our society, teachers of composition can no longer ignore how technology affects our students’ ability to critically think about themselves and the world around them.  One of the major ways technology affects our students is through their use of social networks, particularly Facebook.  When students create Facebook profiles, they usually do not stop to think about why they make certain information present on their profile page while not posting other facts and beliefs they may hold.  As teachers, we can encourage students to question why they choose to make some things about themselves more present than others and how these decisions are rooted in what Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca call the “particular audience.”  As students begin to analyze what information they allow friends to see and what information they keep hidden based on a newfound audience perception, they will also begin to realize the power their particular audience has over their seemingly truthful representation of themselves. This realization will show that each student’s online profile becomes what Michel Foucault termed a “docile body” under the control of what a particular audience desires to see on that particular profile.  A newfound analysis of their Facebook profile page will get students to think critically about how they represent themselves online.  If we can help students learn to think critically about their online profiles, we can help students start to question technology’s presence in their lives instead of automatically accepting and trusting technology.

Students tend to take technology at face-value without questioning it, a choice that “will simply serve to perpetuate rather than alleviate existing social inequities” (Selber, 2004). As technology becomes more and more prominent in our communicative world, and since our job is to teach our students how to effectively communicate in this world, we need to incorporate technology in the composition classroom.  While many of us may fear technology for various reasons, ignoring technology is no longer an option for us as “technology is inextricably linked to literacy and literacy education in this country” (Selfe, 2008).  Literacy is our job and if it changes mediums, it is our job to keep up with it.  If we don’t “pay critical attention to the issues generated by technology use,” then “we participate unwittingly” in the destruction of literacy for our students (Selfe, 2008).  It’s not enough for us to have students type up essays on computers; we need to help students “learn how to become critical thinkers about technology and the social issues surrounding its use,” much like we do with text-based rhetorics, if we want to prepare them to be responsible citizens (Selfe, 2008).  One way we can help our students become these responsible citizens is to ask students to critically evaluate types of technology that are prominent in their lives, such as Facebook.

Right now, many students view their Facebook profile as a chance to create and display their individuality.  Student-users believe they get to choose what is posted and where to post that information and this feeling of freedom gives them a chance to create an ideal image of themselves for others to see.  When we first create our Facebook profile, many of us “think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be” (Turkle, 2011).  As a result, a profile page becomes a “place of hope” for students—a chance to be everything they have wanted to be but never had the chance or the courage to try to become (Turkle, 2011).  Thus, online profiles become “a statement not only about who you are but who you want to be” and if a person wishes to change anything, the edit button is a click away (Turkle, 2011).

However, this idea that technology is a “place of hope” keeps students from questioning why they may choose to display certain photos, statuses, and activities, a question deeply connected to a sense of audience.  And even though many users “feel protected and less burdened by expectations” from the outside world when they create a profile page, this sense of audience often dictates how each student-user chooses to represent themselves online and determines whether or not that student-user will present an accurate or ideal version of themselves through their Facebook profile (Turkle, 2011).  As composition instructors, we constantly try to impress on our students’ minds the power of audience in the traditional essay but this same power can be seen in non-traditional communicative outlets that our students use, such as Facebook.  In order to help our students learn to think critically about Facebook, and eventually other aspects of technology, it’s important for us to help students understand how audience, more specifically a “particular audience,” affects what information student-users choose to post and give presence to and what information they choose to keep offline and hidden and how those decisions are the opposite of the “freedom” they believe they experience while online.

In The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, authors Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969/2010) discuss the concept of the particular and the universal audience and how those two audiences determine what information we make present and what information we hide in arguments in order to gain adherence from our readers.  The universal audience is the creation of the speaker and represents an ideal audience which “can only assent to the ‘truth’” and only accepts notions that are “real, true, and objectively valid” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/2010).  The particular audience, on the other hand, isn’t as concerned as much with what is true but rather with information that lives up to what they value.  For Facebook users, the particular audience is a group of chosen users, usually friends or friends of friends, which each user accepted and allowed to view their online profiles.  These fellow users were chosen as friends because they share the same values and interests as the people who accepted them as friends. This acceptance of values is also deeply rooted in argumentation.  As Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca claim, “values enter, at some stage or other, into every argument” as a way “to induce the hearer to make certain choices rather than others and, most of all, to justify those choices so that they may be accepted and approved by others” (1969/2010).   In order to keep this particular audience engaged with their profile page, students argue through their profile page that they understand and accept these values, often unknowingly, in an effort “to create or increase the inherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/2010).   Thus, a profile page becomes a type of argument for the student-user, an argument rooted in the epidictic genre where the goal of a profile page isn’t necessarily to change someone’s mind but to adhere to already held beliefs and values of that particular audience.

Much like an epidictic speech, the Facebook profile page seeks communion with its particular audience and each user makes conscious choices regarding the information they put on their profile page to keep that particular audience engaged.  According to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, the “epidictic oratory has significance and importance for argumentation because it strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds (1969/2010).   Therefore, when a student creates and adds information to a profile page, that student “sets out to increase the intensity of adherence to certain values” in order “to establish a sense of communion centered around particular values recognized by the audience, and to this end he uses the whole range of means available to the rhetorician for purposes of amplification and enhancement” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/2010).  As a result of the rhetorical choices students make when composing a Facebook profile page, the student unknowingly adheres to already set values and standards created by the particular audience of their selected friends. 

This conscious effort to only post information that could receive approval and adherence from the student-users’ particular audience is also closely linked to the idea of presence in argumentation.  Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca state that “for each audience there is a set of things that are admitted, and all of them are liable to have an effect on its reactions” (1969/2010).  The knowledge of these “admitted” things gives students the power to decide what to display on their profile pages and what to omit in order to show a piece of information’s “importance and pertinency to the discussion” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/2010).  Since “presence acts directly on our sensibility,” student-users are very careful about what information they decide to post online, often knowing that they need “to make present, by verbal magic alone, what is actually absent but what [a student-user] considers important to [their] argument or, by making them more present, to enhance the value of some of the elements of which one has actually made conscious” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/2010).  As a result, student-users are very selective about the information they post about themselves on their profile page since they know when something is posted online that information is given immediate presence.

This selection of information to create presence is a choice that, like adherence to audience values, is also rooted in argumentation as “all argumentation is selective” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/2010).  When we create arguments, we constantly make decisions about what information to bring to the forefront and what information to ignore or deliberately suppress in order to gain audience adherence.  In this light, a student’s profile page becomes a type of argument for their particular audience, an argument that tries to communicate a certain image of themselves that complies with the values associated with their particular audience.  If that online image fails to comply with the values of their virtual friends, then the student-user risks online attacks, loss of friends and, eventually, a lowered online status that could lead to a social “virtual death.”  Even though students think they are entering our classroom without the slightest idea regarding rhetoric and argumentation, they actually have far more experience in those composition areas than they think they do simply by having a Facebook account.

Courtney Patrick