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Thearticle “Messy rhetoric: identity performance as a rhetoricalagency in online public forums” was authored by Jeffery Grabill andStacey Pigg. The article was published in the Rhetorical SocietyQuarterly on May 23, 2015. The authors provide a critical analysis ofthe public investment in public engagement. The use of analyticaltechniques in learning rhetoric makes it possible to addressdifferent methodological challenges that affect the study of publicdeliberation, especially in the open digital places. The authors holdthat the type of language that is often applied in online platformscannot be used to advance any reasonable argument. The fact that theusers of online platforms fail to apply formal language makes thediscourse messy and extremely difficult to account for. In addition,most of the people who engage in the online discourse spend a littletime and take part through small fragments of the text messages.

Theconcept of “argument” is applied in enhancing the publicunderstanding of science. In addition, the concept of argument isused as an indicator of outcome in informal learning settings, suchas museum.Argument enhances the public comprehension of topicsthat are related to science, especially in the informal learningsettings. The authors describe the concept of “argument” as arational or logical process that help people come up with clarity,understanding, or consensus on some truth claims. Additionally, theconcept of argument is considered as the key measure of the outcomeof a given public discourse. Grabill and Pigg use the onlinecommunication on the blog of “Science Buzz” to explain thatidentity is usually performed and then leveraged in fleeting, small,and, and monetary acts. Identity performance in online discoursesresults in the production of non-rational arguments (Grabill 101).However, these performances are able to create a space by determininghow online communication unfolds, which facilitates the exchange ofknowledge and information.

Inmost cases, people engage in discussions on scientific topics throughspaces that are not considered as deliberative forums. This explainsthe global trend showing that people do not engage critical issuesquite often and in a detailed manner. Consequently, the websitesestablished by public entities with the objective of facilitatingonline discussions can only succeed if they avoid puttinglimitations. For example, the authors of the article stated that the“Science Buzz” succeeded in facilitating the online discourse byavoiding the risk of putting limitations on who and how people shouldmake their contributions. This made the blog a suitable site forstudying the process of online engagement in the area of rhetoric.This is because the blog offered both the conceptual andmethodological challenges that are required in the study of rhetoric.

RhetoricalEffects of Identity-in-Use

Grabilland Pigg argue that most of the scientific learning takes place inthe informal settings. This is because learning is a lifelongprocess, where people learn only when there is a need. Consequently,people tend to take part in the public discussion when they feel thatthey are highly motivated. In addition, people who take part in thediscussion are diverse. The fact that scholarly studies focus on anarrow comprehension of the argument leaves out other factors, suchas identity and community building. By ignoring the issue ofidentity, scholars deny people who lack the conventional forms ofexpertise an opportunity to take part in the discussion. Identityperformances are central components of a discursive practice thatpeople engage in on a daily basis. Moreover, the identity of thepeople taking part in the discussion is considered as an emergent,instead of a pre-existing source of semiotic practices. Identity isshaped by different factors, including race, gender, and class.

Inmost cases, people who take part in the online discussion do notprovide a coherent identity, but they only provide information thatcan help them achieve other goals. They provide fragmented identityperformances that can only help them build credibility as well as acharacter during the online conversations (Grabill 102). Moreover,the process of performing the identity help people who do not knoweach other engage in a scientific discussion using the platform thatis provided by the public entities. Identity is regarded as a mean ofhelping people who would like to engage on a public discourse accessthe conversation that is taking place online. The process of creatingidentity in online conversations takes place as people try toestablish relationships. An online conversation differs fromtraditional communication because it takes the form of a complexnegotiation that takes place between the actual communicating partiesand identities that they provide for the purposes of onlinediscussions.

Scholarsconsider the existence of fragmented identities as a challenge thatlimits their ability to study rhetoric using the online discussionsas examples. However, authors of the article hold that fragmentedidentity in online discussions play critical roles in building thecredibility and character on the digital platforms. This is becausedigital discussions heighten the need for participants to use alanguage that can help them communicate who they are as individuals.The authors call this phenomenon a “culture of simulation” wherepeople who are communicating online are required to apply language asa tool to identify their position in a crowd of participants who aregeographically distributed. Participants who are geographicallydistributed have a limited opportunity to access information that canhelp them find out the actual identity of the people that theycommunicate with via the online platforms.

Modernscholars hold that digital identity is distributed in a dialogicalidentity that is complexly mediated. The process of establishingsocial relationships is currently considered as one of the keyintegral parts of the work that participants in the onlinediscussions do. This implies that the exercise of establishing adigital identity occurs as people try to develop and maintaindifferent types of relationships. The entire process of buildingrelationships is complex and highly contextualized becauseparticipants tend to use more than one identity. In addition, thefact that communication involves a process that takes place via acomputer structure complicates the exercise of building relationshipsfurther.

Theauthors also hold that people try to access different digitalplatforms with the objective of achieving different goals. Forexample, there are people who prefer networks that can allow them tocontinue with a discussion for a long time. This category ofcommunicators believes that interpersonal relationship comes beforethe process of sharing information. Unfortunately, some networks arequite diffused and they only hold the attention of communicators fora short period, which denies them the opportunity to establish bonds.These diffused websites are characterized by the development offragmented identities. This fragmentation affects the digitaldiscourse because identity performance plays a critical role insustaining an online conversation that unfolds with time.

TheTake-Two Study

Rhetoricalapproaches used to study the interaction between identity anddiscourse depends on the ability of scholars to access samples ofactivities and cultural information about participants. Thisfacilitates the determination of the connection that exists betweeninteraction structures and rhetorical choices that influence theprocess of making the meaning. Another methodological challengeassociated with the relationship between identity and rhetoric is thefact that scholars are only able to access fragments of the discourse(Grabill 105). These fragments limit the ability of the scholars orthe parties involved in the communication to identify priorreputation, cultural aspects, purposes, previous identityperformances, motivations, and reasons. However, the use of empiricaltechniques in the analysis of the discourse helps the scholars seehow rhetoric works.

Identityand Agency

Areflection on the discussion going on in the “Science Buzz” blogindicated that there were some consistencies in the rhetoricalarguments help on the museum’s website. Grabill and Pigg identifiedthat the discourse presented by the member of staff was argumentativein nature and it was evidence-driven. The contribution made by otherpeople is different and identity performance appears to be diverse.Identity performances can be used to indicate how differentparticipants are committed to a given discourse and science ingeneral. According to Grabill and Pigg (109) identity performancesplay two critical roles in a given scientific conversation. First,they indicate the literal way in which people join and take part inthe conversation. Secondly, they advance the conversation by takingagency as a key interactive move that construct the digital space.

Theauthors used the case study of an online conversation that invitedwomen to take part in stating whether girls should be vaccinated withHPV. They observed that some women provided relevant suggestionswhile others made irrelevant comments. The type of identity played acritical role in determining the type of comment and the relevance ofthe suggestions made by different participants. For example, somewomen identified themselves as victims of HIV infection. Those whocould relate to the topic being discussed determined the way theconversation unfolded because their contribution had an impact onother participants. Most importantly, the digital platform allowedparticipants to respond to each other directly. In addition, theauthors were able to identify participants who had some knowledge ofthe HPV vaccination and those who did not have any sensibleinformation to share. Participants who did not know much about thevaccine were more likely to establish a fragmented identity thanthose were well informed.

Identityperformances invite other people to take part in the discourse bycreating exigencies. Exigencies may be created through questioning,where people who wish to take part in an online discussion givestheir response to a given question. However, identity performancemust be positioned in a manner indicating that they are significantenough to attract responses (Grabill 113). For example, a participantwho provided her identity as a woman suffering from HPV received animmediate attention of other contributors. This is because theself-identified carrier of HPV helped other contributors believe thatthe discourse was more conversational and not agonistic. This faithwas attributed to the existence of real people, which helpedcontributors understand that they were not taking part in an issuebased on mere abstraction. Therefore, participants who had someknowledge about the vaccination knew that their contribution wasvalued by at least one of the communicators.

Identityperformances also create the need for people who wish to take part inthe conversation to nuance certain claims that are made in theconversation. This allows identity performances to challengedifferent claims that are made and accepted within an onlinediscussion (Grabill 113).

Mostimportantly, Grabill and Pigg argue that identity performances play acritical role in advancing the discussion from abstract form to aconcrete conversation. For example, identity performances may movethe conversation held on the forum from a medical statement to alived experience that is concrete.

LeveragingIdentity to Move Discourse

Theauthors conclude that it is significant for rhetorical scholars toconsider the best way to comprehend public interactions that takeplace in the messy contexts of online forums. Many people findscientific topics to be interesting. This motivates them to focus ontopics that are related to political, ethical, and economicchallenges. In addition, the authors argue that the work of a givenrhetorical agency occurs in the form of a series of discursiveinteractions that build the identity-in-use. People who facilitate anonline discussion should be able to leverage identity in order toadvance the conversation in a persuasive way. However, publicinstitutions (such as museums) should be ready to face the challengesassociated with the messiness of the discourse that is held online.


Grabill,T. and Pigg, S. “Messy rhetoric: Identity performance as rhetoricalagency in online public forums”. RhetoricalAnalysis Quarterly42.2 (2012): 99-119. Print.