A chain-link fence has been damaged through forceful impact. Hyperlinks, too, provide shape and surface to texts, and they also have expected patterns to follow.

When I ask students what rhetoric is, I usually get one of two responses: blank stares or “ethos, logos, and pathos.” If I ask what a rhetorical question is, I’m told it’s a question asked without the expectation of an answer. Clearly, the industrial-era emphasis on reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic has left rhetoric out in the cold. I get similar blank responses when I ask whether students know how to create hyperlinks. These problems compound when our communication methods, strategies, media, and technologies have continued evolving while our rhetorical education has stagnated (or perhaps disintegrated).

The stagnation of rhetorical education has caught the attention of rhetoric scholars, generating conversations about rhetoric’s changing nature in the digital age. These conversations address two main concerns: First, how does rhetorical theory change with the move to digital technologies? Second, what forms of persuasion does digital technology allow? To address these concerns, we have to consider that the advent of network technologies have allowed for hyperlinked, multimedia documents on participatory platforms. Interconnectedness and interactivity shape the way rhetoric works, and I assert that the hyperlink is at the heart of both digital rhetoric education’s problem and its solution.

Defining the Problem

Highlighting the trouble of rhetoric’s stagnation, Doug Eyman and others make convincing and important claims that hypertext theory is necessary yet insufficient to understand digital rhetoric. But I worry that such insistence on going beyond hypertext has real consequences “on the ground” as it were, creating a new sort of digital divide—this one between scholars discussing the importance of digital literacy and students who say they are digitally literate yet have never created hyperlinks in any text they have authored. Am I going to be That Guy™ who watches the debate move forward while I stand firm on Hyperlink Hill, shouting that we need to give hypertext more attention while others have already turned their backs? Yes. Perhaps this is the sword upon which I shall die: Teaching writing in the 21st century must also always include teaching hyperlinking.

Doug Eyman’s Take

In “Defining and Locating Digital Rhetoric,” Doug Eyman points out that theorists “have been struggling to develop a rhetorical theory that can account for multimodal communication,” suggesting that no such theory yet exists. By quoting Kathleen Welch (1999), Eyman argues for a theory of digital rhetoric that notably goes beyond the analysis of texts but also supports the creation of texts. In Welch’s words, we need “a comprehensive system that depends on weaving articulation and thought, places an emphasis on the production of discourse, and is not confined to the analysis of discourse” (p. 44, qtd. on Eyman p. 28).

Through all this, Eyman rightly insists on separating hypertext theory from digital rhetoric. But what too often gets lost in these discussions is the foundational nature of the concept of a hyperlink. There’s talk of “the individual text as the center of a network” (Eyman, p. 25, quoting Landow, 1991, p. 71, citing Barthes) or “inserting the individual text into a network of other texts” (Landow again) or “argumentation in networked hypertexts” (Eyman, p. 26, referencing Brent, 1997). Yet they omit commentary on constructing those networks. Let’s start there.

Digital Literacy

Each of my classes spends some time talking about what it means to be literate in something. There’s always a threshold, and it’s often arbitrary. What makes us “computer literate” might be super-advanced for someone else who thought they were doing alright on their own. This difference came to light in an amusingly ironic way earlier this semester. I was taking notes during a class discussion, as I often do, and I asked the class what literacy means. As usually happens, someone looked it up and offered the predictable response: “the ability to read and write.” I complimented the student on his resourcefulness and showed the students. “If you look up the word,” I said, three-finger-tapping literacy in my notes, “you’ll see what he just said.”

When the definition popped up, about half the class lost their minds. They didn’t know that feature existed. I consider it a basic component of the interface and challenged whether knowledge of the feature is required for Mac literacy.

Screenshot of the text of this post being edited. The word "literacy" is highlighted, and the dictionary definition is popped up from that word.
Popped-up definition, courtesy of “Lookup & Data Detectors” basic trackpad settings.

Hyperlinks: The Threshold for Digital Literacy?

So where should we draw the line for digital literacy? As Eyman argues, it’s more than just computer literacy. Computer literacy is a necessary first step, he says, but digital literacy “requires the user to be able to read and write with a number of sign systems…each of which has its own functional and critical requirements.” In other words, digital literacy requires a degree of flexibility, an ability to adapt to different ways of communicating, different sets of tools, and different contextual understandings. Digital literacy goes far, far beyond the ability to read and write. It involves the ability to work with a variety of interfaces and media.

But, I assert, it always also involves the ability to see digital texts as interconnected—and connectable—via hyperlinks. Without the link, we’re just applying digital production methods to create traditional texts. The link is what distinguishes someone who can create texts that show them to be digitally literate. We expect people to know—and thus we teach—that writing involves dividing longer texts into paragraphs or sections. But we also expect people to know—yet we somehow don’t seem to teach—that writing also involves connecting our texts with the existing texts online. It seems we expect links when we read, but not when students write. What kind of world are we preparing students for?

Hypertext Theory v Digital Rhetoric

If we want to prepare students for the modern world of interconnected digital texts, we need to firmly root our teaching practice in hypertext theory. I know that assertion will elicit cringes from anyone working to define digital rhetoric. Hypertext theory is so 1990s. Claiming its significance makes me sound like I’m excited over Windows XP, I know. But I teach college students who arrive in my sophomore-level writing class having never created a hyperlink and not knowing how the process works. As I’ve explained before, there’s a certain power in knowing the work you’ve created is accessible to anyone online, and knowing you can now refer to that work to build on it. If students make it to the second year of college without seeing their work as accessible and reference-able, we’ve failed to apply hypertext theory in our writing instruction. Students deserve more.

Students need more, too. Communication (and thus rhetoric) work differently in digital spaces than they do through traditional methods. Teaching hypertext theory is a necessary first step toward helping students understand (and thus work with) digital rhetoric.

Examples of Hyperlinks

To illustrate my point, consider what you expect of the links you encounter online. Consider also what those links say about the authors you read. If you’re familiar with an active conversation in online spaces and someone mentions that conversation, you expect them to link to a piece of the conversation to show what they’ve read. If you haven’t seen a conversation, you expect a link will catch you up to speed. (See my recent post about Beyoncé’s Grammys situation for a few examples of this kind of linking.) On the other hand, if you’re reading the news, you expect that news source to link you to 1) other related reports from that same source to give you the back-story and 2) original material, such as leaked documents, eyewitness video, or press releases, to offer convincing evidence of the matter at hand.

Now think about academic writing. That form of prose expects thorough citation and referencing, which is a challenge that hyperlinks are perfectly suited to address. If I mention a book when making a claim, I should link to that book when citing it as a source. But where, exactly, should I link? Several obvious options exist.

Options for Book Hyperlinks

  • Amazon’s book page, but this suggests the reader wants to buy a copy, and that they don’t wish to comparison-shop. Linking to Amazon suggests a corporate preference, and the selected storefront also implies a regional priority. (For instance, do you link to amazon.com, smile.amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.de, or something else? Each one is a choice that conveys information through that choice.
  • The Google Books page, but this again suggests a corporate preference and an acceptance of their data-harvesting practices. By linking to a Google-created product page, an author would imply that they support that page as the best way to learn about the source.
  • The publisher’s book page, which suggests a corporate preference, but only one that’s inherent in the reference to the book in the first place. Want to know more about the book I mentioned? Here’s the company responsible for it. This approach makes sense to me.
  • The book’s WorldCat page, which suggests a preference for lending over purchasing, sharing over commercialism, a free-as-in-literal-library bias. With a WorldCat link, readers can easily see the closest library to their location that has the book available. For an academic, that often means the building across the green. For others, that often means the public library down the street, or a quick call to the interlibrary loan department.

When linking to books (or articles, or any other source, really), we have choices. The choices we make say things about our values as authors and as information users. This very real, very practical consideration rarely gets mentioned in academic journals, much less in academic classrooms. Again, it’s a consideration we have to make as digital writers; we should address it in our writing classes. Digital rhetoric starts with the hyperlink.

Starting Somewhere

Again, I don’t at all disagree with Eyman. There is an important distinction between hypertext theory and digital rhetorical theory. We do need a comprehensive theory of how digital rhetoric—including but not limited to hypertext—functions. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the necessary first step of learning how hyperlinks work. The industrial-era education system, with its emphasis on grading, transactions, and standardization, is ill-suited to address this problem. We need systems designed to help students create, build, and release into the world networks of texts. On our way to a holistic understanding of digital rhetoric, let’s first make sure everyone is digitally literate. Let’s ensure all students know how to make hyperlinks. Because here in the 21st century, that’s what writing includes.