A Rhetorical Approach to an Open Source Community

It is traditional for rhetoric to carry with it a negative connotation. People think of rhetoric as language that lacks any substance. Aristotle contests this argument though. Aristotle believed that rhetoric is a legitimate tool of democracy and worthy of study. (Stoner/Perkins)

Rhetorical situations exist all around us. Traditionally rhetoric is only considered in spoken or print formats. In the technologically advanced world we live in today we cannot limit our study of rhetoric to these boundaries any longer. The age of the internet has brought about some unique qualities that also must be observed.

Given this information it is important to take an in depth look at how rhetoric functions on the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is very new when compared against the earliest form of delivery. If we study a particular website, along with forum discussion within the website, what rhetorical findings can we come up with?

The site that will be studied is Moodle.org. Moodle is an open source piece of software. It is a Course Management System that exists as a web application to people such as educators. The software can be used in several ways and it relies on its open source community to further advance the capabilities of the software. Moodle’s main goal is to provide a launch pad for anyone looking to create an Open Educational Resource or provide tools to enhance the classroom experience.

The concept of an Open Educational Resource (OER) is not a new one. MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) is a massive database of classes that exist online for others to use. Generally this is a free service. Moodle tinkers in this concept as well. Moodle offers an OER to help developers get started programming and developing for Moodle, “Introduction to Moodle Programming”. As part of this research project I will take the developer introduction course. I will also examine the course from a rhetorical angle and report on the findings. Materials that are created for the course will be posted to a web space for viewing.

The Moodle site is not structured as a website that is more static, such as the website covered in Chapter 9 of the Stoner/Perkins text. Moodle is constantly changing and its site reflects this fact. There are many layers of the site; forums, Wiki, OERs, news and announcements, help and support and a robust developer section.

The overall goal of this project is to fully examine all the rhetorical aspects of both a website and OER. My approach to fulfilling this goal is to describe, analyze and interpret the content on the Moodle site and the online course. I will use the techniques outline in the course book by Stoner and Perkins to aid in this.

I will be applying a classical search model to evaluate the site. My reason for choosing this particular search model comes from Stoner and Perkins, who suggest that this model “remains useful even when applied to new media, such as the World Wide Web.” (Stoner/Perkins) Aristotle defined the concepts of Ethos, Pathos and Logos in The Art of Rhetoric. These concepts still apply when the web is concerned. Ethos, or the credibility of a website, is achieved in various ways. Does the website’s information have a reliable source? What kind of links does the website link to? Pathos makes the transition quite easily. What kind of emotions does the site evoke in its users? Does the site use certain images or articles to achieve these emotions? Lastly, Logos is probably the hardest to really quantify in this new arena. “Logos uses reason, logic, statistics, convincing examples, and depth of information to persuade an audience” (Web Style Guide) So how consistent is this site in providing accurate and credible information?

A challenge in evaluating this site is finding an approach to the discussion forums on the site. The discussion forums are typically the most important part of a website. This is especially true in a site that relies on interactions within the forums to drive the evolution of the product of the website. Bitzer outlines the the concept of Kairos and the rhetorical situation that will provide a tool for analyzing the exchange on the forums. There is a moment, called exigence, where at a certain point something happens or fails to happen, that compels one to speak out. (Rhetorica.net) By using the framework outlined by Bitzer, the forum discussion will be possible to interpret in a rhetorical sense.

My predictions for findings are very broad. Throughout the entire site I expect there will be a definite hierarchy among the registered users. Those that develop code better and more frequently will be held in higher regard. This might also translate into those individuals having much more sway in the decision making within this community. I think it will be a great challenge to analyze the website as a single unit.


Visual Rhetoric – pretty big deal with a website maybe. Maybe only big on sites with lots of images.

“Generally speaking, rhetorical analysis makes use of rhetorical concepts (ethos, logos, kairos, mediation, etc.) to describe the social or epistemological functions of the object of study. When the object of study happens to be some type of discourse (a speech, a poem, a joke, a newspaper article), the aim of rhetorical analysis is not simply to describe the claims and arguments advanced within the disourse, but (more important) to identify the specific semiotic strategies employed by the speaker to accomplish specific persuasive goals. Therefore, after a rhetorical analyst discovers a use of language that is particularly important in achieving persuasion, she typically moves onto the question of "How does it work?" That is, what effects does this particular use of rhetoric have on an audience, and how does that effect provide more clues as to the speaker's (or writer's) objectives?”

Rhetocial situation and kairos – good application the public forum aspect of the site.

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