Academic journal article College English

EMERGING VOICES: Upvoting the Exordium: Literacy Practices of the Digital Interface

Academic journal article College English

EMERGING VOICES: Upvoting the Exordium: Literacy Practices of the Digital Interface

Article excerpt

The rise of the digital landscape has arguably made self-motivated writing more prominent than ever before, thanks in large part to the proliferation of digital participatory spaces. Defined by James Gee as "a place or set of places where people affiliate with others based primarily on shared activities, interests, and goals," digital participation sites offer a wide range of opportunities for deploying both digital and alphabetic literacy skills, and have proven incredibly successful in creating the literacy engagement that frequently proves elusive in composition instruction. Over the past fifteen years, a richly interdisciplinary conversation has developed concerning the nature and effects of participation in these spaces. This research suggests that the literacy opportunities these spaces offer emphasize "the public nature of writing" (Sabatino 42), with users rapidly delivering and receiving feedback through digitally produced and mediated text. This shifts the purpose of literate activity "from individual expression to community involvement," facilitating practices that emphasize the values of digital literacy as well as traditional (Jenkins et al. xiii). Interactions within participatory spaces "push [users'] thinking and create an audience for [their] work," thus encouraging them to engage in that work more regularly (Squire 14). Since most students are active in digital participation spaces at some point in their lives (Jenkins et al.), this makes them a rich site of inquiry for theorizing literacy engagement, especially in relation to students' existing everyday literacy activity and practices.1

But while this existing research has revealed much about how the content and communities of these spaces create engagement, it hasn't done much to explore how a site's design and structure-its interface-influences participation. By "interface," I refer to the visual and digital tools available to the writer (or reader) for interaction within a given site.2

Since most of us cannot reach right in and work with the computer languages in which the programs we use are written, we need interfaces to bridge the gap (Wardrup-Fruin 3). But beyond this most practical function, interfaces can do a great deal to enhance a user's experience: they expand (often greatly) the range of practices available for communicating with others (Brooke); they can make an otherwise functional experience into a pleasurable one (Pepper); and they can offer insights into the digital cultures they represent that are beyond the scope of textual modes (Manovich).

Since every experience within digital participation sites is mediated by the site's interface, the design of that interface is arguably as essential to user participation as the contents of the site itself. Teena Carnegie compares the role of the digital interface to that of the traditional rhetorical exordium: its purpose is to make the audience "well-disposed, attentive, and receptive." An interface-exordium succeeds, she says, by signaling its potential for interactivity in a manner that creates a sense of empowerment in its desired users (171). In other words, its job is to make users feel that their individual goals and their options for participation are in harmony. This directly mirrors some of the most essential goals of the composition classroom, suggesting that translating this self-motivated participation into an academic context may start with applying the lessons of digital interface.

The goal of this article is to highlight those lessons by examining the connections between interface and literacy engagement in digital participation spaces. I begin by briefly situating this article in the existing conversation concerning the rhetorical nature of digital interface. Then, using data from a study of college students' online reading and writing, I highlight patterns in how students discuss interface in relation to their experiences in participatory sites and interpret these patterns through the lens of digital interface theory. …

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