A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

In the Loop: Articulating Our Entanglement in Others’ Digital Ethos Positions

John Silvestro, Slippery Rock University

(Published April 24, 2019)


“The polis always gets the rhetor—or the orator-poet—it deserves; therefore, it is incumbent on all of us as readers to conjure the best of possible orator-poets so that we conjure at the same time the best of possible poleis” 

--Kristie S. Fleckenstein “Who’s Writing?” 

One1can scarcely go online without engaging someone else’s credibility2. E-commerce and social-cataloging websites elicit user ratings and commentary for texts, individuals, and businesses. Adjacently, blogging platforms with comment sections invite reviews of movies, albums, restaurants, and individuals. “Share” buttons have proliferated across blogs and websites, encouraging individuals to circulate texts through their personal social media accounts, accreting credibility onto those texts (Daniell and Guglielmo). Each social media platform affords its own features for users to circulate, comment on, and/or follow others and/or their texts and thus shape others’ algorithmic and social credibility within the platform (Gallagher; Tarsa). In turn, each platform has given rise to their own distinct genres for engaging others’ ethe (plural for ethos), such as “posting receipts”3 on Twitter. Social media affordances and genres have also played a central role in the emergence of public shaming in reaction to ill-conceived digital texts (Nicotra). It has also led to the increasingly common instances of what is titled “Milkshake Duck” in which individuals quickly accumulate credibility within digital communities, only for community members to realize that the individual has a history of sexism, racism, and/or homophobia. Once online, in other words, most find themselves among numerous ethos positions—communally-developed positions that individuals often occupy in order to not only garner credibility and ethical authority in said community (Gurak) but also engage with a range of digital affordances and genres that enable them to influence that position. 

While some scholarship has begun to theorize the influence of audience members over digital ethos, our theories of digital ethos have yet to offer a framework for understanding what it means to occupy a position as an audience member relative to ethos positions. Kristie S. Fleckenstein in her webtext “Who’s Writing?” defines digital ethos as “circulat[ing] throughout the network of bodies, communities, and moments. It is a product of the ecology of rhetor, audience, scene, and city-state.” Such theories of digital ethos situate the rhetorical proof as an emergent digital position that arises through the interactions between the range of actors, affordances, rhetorics, norms and values, and circulating texts that make-up digital ecologies. Considerations of digital ethos through a rhetorical ecology framework—a framework that positions rhetoric as an emergent force, resulting from the interactions between the various material, social, and communal elements present in a situation—have also hinted at the role of “digital audience” members, identifying them as actors that rhetors should engage when developing their own digital credibility (Eyman; Fleckenstein “Cybernetics”). Yet while these theories acknowledge the role of an audience in digital ethos, these theories never go so far as to define those audience-member positions. The current theories offer little in terms of approaches for addressing how one should act, for example, when they encounter a share button for a text they are unsure but that has started to circulate in the ecologies they occupy.  

An updated theory of digital ethos should frame the proof in ways that enable the “traditional” audience member to understand how her actions influence others’ ethe and how that agency is prompted and constrained by the affordances of the platforms on which they act. Contemporary digital platforms, as Kristin Arola outlined in “The Design of Web 2.0,” have standardized the ways users can design/present themselves and their texts on their platforms. Platforms, she outlines, have delimited and regulated both the ways users present themselves and their texts and the ways they can interact with others’ texts and information (8). Rebecca Tarsa elaborated these points in “Upvoting the Exordium.” She outlined how social media platforms pre-dispose individuals to interact with texts in specific ways by providing affordances that invite and then structure how they interact with the texts (21). Building upon Arola and Tarsa, John R. Gallagher, in “Challenging the Monetized Template,” argues that platforms have increasingly designed their affordances so that they motivate users to react to as many digital texts as possible while simultaneously streamlining, and thus constraining, the affordances through which those reactions are expressed. Thus, in our current techno-socio-cultural climate, we find ourselves in a digital environment in which we are pressed to engage with others’ ethos positions and yet we are constrained by the monitored affordances through which we have been prompted to engage those ethos positions.  

In order to help us better occupy our ethos-entangled audience positions, we need a framework that enables us to understand how our actions as audience members shape ethos positions and how those positions are constrained by digital platforms. Such a framework must outline the agency we possess as audience members while also articulating how that agency is prompted, regulated, and constrained by both the rhetorics of the ecologies we occupy (Brooke; Eyman; Fleckenstein “Cybernetics”) and the corporate-controlled affordances of the platforms we use (Arola; Gallagher; Tarsa). For instance, what impact can individuals have on an ethos positions through specific digital affordances or genres, such as a commenting on a post or circulating a text through a platform plug-in, and what are the effects in using one affordance over another, say numeric evaluations over commenting? To address these questions, I expand our existing theories of digital, ecological ethos and propose a framework for understanding the ways individuals acting as audience members are entangled in others’ digital ethe. Specifically, I propose an expansion of Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s theory of digital ecological ethos. Fleckenstein’s theory is especially relevant because it frames ethos as an assemblage of multiple actors, texts, and platform affordances and because it considers the ethical implications of developing and maintaining a digital ethos. Extending Fleckenstein’s theory of digital ethos enables us to articulate exactly what audience members can do to a digital ethos position through platform affordances and to articulate ethical considerations for how audience members should act when influencing ethos positions.  

First, I articulate Fleckenstein's theory both through her own work on digital, ecological ethos and through other scholars who have expanded her work. In reviewing her theory, I identify gaps that can be addressed through related theoretical work on rhetorical ecologies. From there, I extend Fleckenstein’s digital, ecological ethos theory in order to articulate a few of the specific actions that audience members can perform in digital ecologies to co-constitute an ethos as well as explore the ethical implications of those actions. To anchor my articulation, I draw on a case study in which a group of bloggers co-constituted a rhetor’s ethos. I specifically attend to the bloggers who wrote for the underground-metal blog MetalSucks and the posts they made concerning the band Inquisition.4 Across several years, the bloggers shifted from celebrating the band’s sonic rhetorics and circulating their music to posting about the band’s racist past and circulating legal documents about criminal charges against band members. Through this analysis, I argue that Fleckenstein’s theory of digital ecological ethos should be extended to frame individual audience members as co-constitutive actors, who are equally as capable, culpable, and constrained as rhetors in the formation of digital ethos positions. I ultimately title this extended framework rhetorical looping. 

Digital Ethos as Information Feedback Loop 

Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s theory of digital ecology ethos—first articulated in “Cybernetics, Ethos, and Ethics” and expanded in later works—is increasingly relevant to our contemporary moment in which digital rhetorics have become largely confined to, or at least structured by, corporate platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Twitter. Fleckenstein describes ethos as a feedback loop emerging within the intersections of digital platforms’ distinct affordances and the unique rhetorics of individual digital communities. To articulate this perspective on ethos, she builds upon the prior theories of ethos that situated the proof as a position of ethical authority developed through negotiations between a community and a rhetor over the rhetor’s adherence to the community’s values and norms.5 Fleckenstein re-situates both these negotiations and communities within and across digital platforms. She adds that these platforms, which are both the site of digital communities and a regulating force, have become an integral part of the ecosystem of digital culture: platforms establish the affordance and constraints through which ethos can be performed, negotiated, and sustained (Fleckenstein “Who’s Writing”). Furthermore, these platforms have become deeply interconnected with one another, creating overlaps that rhetors and community members alike balance in order to negotiate ethos. To get a handle on the dense ecosystem of actors, platforms, rhetorics, texts, and information through which digital communities and their ethos positions develop, Fleckenstein defines them as ecologies. 

Ecologies function through non-linear time in which everything is contemporary or has the potential to be contemporary, a temporality that creates distinct challenges for rhetors developing an ethos. A rhetor’s ethos arises within an ecology, according to Fleckenstein, not through their most recent performances or recently-distributed texts, but through the texts the other actors in the ecology are circulating, which could be the recently-distributed texts or texts from years prior. A rhetor thus has to negotiate her ethos through everything that an ecology has drawn in and applies to her. Furthermore, the rhetor has to negotiate the credibility and ethical significance of the drawn-in texts with regards to a variety of norms and values. 

Within rhetorical ecologies, rhetors negotiate innumerable norms, values, and circulations of texts and information across permeable boundaries. For instance, in her foundational article “The Ecology of Writing,” Marilyn Cooper identifies social norms as one of key dimensions around which rhetorical ecologies self-organize. She explains that norms not only organize how individuals understand their relationships to other individuals and texts within an ecology but also that the ecology uses norms to organize and delimit relationships (370). To develop an ethos, rhetors must remain entangled with an ecology, constantly making decisions about which norms and values to enact, what genres to perform through which platform affordances, and when and where to enact all of this. Chris Mays explains, for example, in “From ‘Flows’ to ‘Excess’” how individuals within rhetorical ecologies use the shared norms and values of the ecology to direct the circulation of information and texts within the ecology, which are, in turn, used to maintain the broader rhetorics of the ecology. Yet because ecologies are dynamic and fluid, rhetors engaged in developing a digital ethos must continually negotiate such factors in response to what occurs within that ecology. As Fleckenstein notes, rhetors are forever entangled in the dynamics of digital ethos which constantly shifts as alternative norms and genres surface within an ecology (“Cybernetics” 326-327). 

Fleckenstein theorizes that digital, ecological ethos positions develop as feedback loops within ecologies. When a rhetor and/or her text(s) enters an ecology, a loop emerges as the text circulates across the ecology. The loop then expands as additional information and texts get fed into the loop by actors in the ecology. Parameters for what information and texts can be circulated within the loop arise through the interactions between the rhetor and other participants in the ecology, based largely around the collective norms and values applied to the ethos. The ensuing ethos loop sustains itself through the continual circulation and accumulation of information and texts within and beyond an ecology. An ethos loop can also fail to materialize. Other actors can forward counter discourses that disrupt a text’s movements; they can also disregard a rhetor’s text and never circulate it (328-329). If actors in an ecology resist or disregard a text, an ethos loop cannot emerge. 

At its most fundamental, an ethos loop is a pathway through which information and texts about and by a rhetor circulate and later accumulate. This loop establishes credibility and ethical authority that the rhetor, or those drawing upon the rhetor, can deploy within the ecology. As an information pathway, an ethos loop is dependent not only on the fluctuating norms and values established within an ecology but also the circulating rhetorics and material/infrastructure of the platform. As such ethos loops link actors, rhetors, and audience members to both the digital/material infrastructures of platforms and the rhetorics of the ecology. As ethos loops emerge, they come to sustain the use of particular affordances and reinforce the ecology’s rhetorics. Thus, ethos is a feedback loop: an ethos position arises through the application of shared norms and values by actors within an ecology to a text through particular platform affordances, and then, the ethos reinforces those norms and values and the use of the affordances used to apply those values to the texts whose circulation sustains the ethos positions. 

By emphasizing the intersections of communal rhetorics and platform affordances, Fleckenstein’s theory of digital, ecological ethos paves the way for us to begin theorizing how audience members shape digital ethos loops. In “Cybernetics, Ethos, and Ethics,” for example, Fleckenstein explains that, “a small contribution by a single user holds the potential to reconfigure the authorial good character of the entire [loop]” (337). Audience members can impact an ethos loop by playing a role in articulating, sustaining, or transforming the specific norms and values that undergird an ethos loop. Audience members can also make decisions about circulating texts that come to influence ethos positions. Audience members thus not only act within ethos loops but also co-constitute them through their discrete actions, actions which, as the case study below demonstrates, have many serious ethical implications for rhetors and their ongoing ethos development. 

Rhetorical looping is a framework that can capture the ways we occupy audience positions6  in our contemporary digital environment. When we occupy an audience position, we participate in feedback loops within ecologies that afford us significant agency over others’ ethe, even as those ecologies are regulated through the affordances and constraints of the various platforms that structure them. Thus, our agency is bent by both the ecology’s rhetorics and the platforms’ affordances. At the same time, however, we also co-form digital ethos loops that arise within those ecologies and through those affordances. Rhetorical looping, as a framework, enables us to understand both our agency as audience members in digital ethos positions and the constraints of that agency, i.e, how we are caught in the loops constituting others’ digital ethos positions.

To better understand how an audience member can impact a digital ethos loop, in the following section, I explicate more deeply how norms and values as well as circulating texts regulate the rhetorics in ecologies that come to influence digital ethos loops. To model the affordances of a rhetorical looping framework, Iexamine various posts made by the bloggers at MetalSucks about the band Inquisition. The posts both articulated shared norms and values for engaging the band and influenced and regulated the texts by and about the band that circulated within the ecology. In total, I triangulate these three elements—Fleckenstein's theory of ethos, theories of rhetorical ecologies, and the case of MetalSucks and Inquisition—to explicate how audience members, through the affordances and constraints of digital platforms, make vital contributions to digital ethos positions. 

Articulating the Shared Norms and Values Undergirding a Digital Ethos Loop

As I have articulated thus far, it is through norms and values that individuals within ecologies self-organize and shape the rhetorics of the ecology, and it is through norms and values that they establish and monitor digital ethos loops. In addition to rhetors themselves, audiencemembers play a crucial role in establishing and monitoring shared norms and values for a given rhetorical ecology. Often, as noted above, values and norms emerge from within an ecology. Fleckenstein, though, notes that digital platforms have blurred the boundaries between digital ecologies. Individuals, rhetors and audience members, exist in numerous digital ecologies at once, and digital platforms afford, and often encourage, connections between different ecologies. Thus, individuals often spread norms and values across digital ecologies simply because they are acting within several digital ecologies at once. Thus, norms and values from digital ecologies often bleed into others, generating situations in which individual audience members inject norms and values from the outside into an ecology. This creates the possibilities for negotiations between audience members and rhetors as they determine whether to adopt the new norms and then decide how and to whom to apply those norms. When this happens, conflict within a rhetorical ecology often arises, conflicts that rhetorical looping, as a framework, can help make sense of. 

For example, underground metal can be understood to be constituted by specific norms and values. Underground-Metal fans value music that overwhelms listeners through aggressive and atmospheric sonic rhetorics, growled and screeched singing styles, and sacrilegious and atavistic lyrics and visuals (such as album covers) (Christie 262-264). Alongside these central values there has been an implicit anti-racism norm built on the position that given the bracing nature of underground metal, all who enjoy the sonic, lyrical, and visual rhetorics of the ecology should be welcomed. Thus, conflict often arises when underground metal artists draw upon racist ideologies in their lyrics and then defend those lyrics as merely an alternative avenue for being intense and sacrilegious, conflicts in which underground metal fans stake positions around which norms and values will be applied to musicians. More specifically, this creates moments of negotiation not between rhetor and ecology, but between various actors in the ecology concerning a rhetor. Individual audience members especially negotiate digital ethos loops through the ways they articulate and accept the shared norms and values within an ecology. They select and apply individual norms and values both to rhetors and their texts, co-constituting the moment of negotiation over a rhetor’s ethos. The blog MetalSucks7 

In October 2013, Anso DF wrote for MetalSucks a post titled “Listen: Inquisition’s Multiverse Sinking You,” which was the first post about the band on an underground-metal blog. Inquisition had been releasing and performing underground metal for over a decade, yet they had scant mentions in prior MetalSucks posts. The only real mention of Inquisition was on The Metal Archives,8  a database that stores key information on every underground-metal band. Inquisition has their own page detailing their past music releases and associations, information that is published about underground metal bands whether the band has sold millions of albums or generated a handful of listens on Spotify.

Due to the lack of engagement with the band in the underground-metal ecology, the post "Listen” created an exigency for the band’s ethos about which the blog could both establish norms and/or values for evaluating the band and determine what information and establish the initial texts that would be circulated to start the band’s loop. In the post, DF praises the band’s then-most recent song for the ways it meets and then exceeds the expectations of metal fans when they listen to heavy metal. DF argues that the song opens with intensity that underground metal fans value and then the song manages to build upon that intensity, creating a powerful and an awe-inspiring listening experience. By praising the music through the frame of underground-metal-fan listening expectations, DF established that underground metal’s shared sonic values should be the (only) parameters through which to engage, write about, and circulate texts by and about Inquisition. While DFwas far from the only individual to shape the band’s ethos, DF’s post played a crucial role in articulating the specific values through which the band’s ethos would be developed. The post established a set of values for engaging with the band and their texts, which as will be elaborated below, others noted and adopted.  

Given the fluidity of rhetorical ecologies, digital ethos loops, and norms and values, there is considerable agency in the mere act of accepting or ratifying the norms and values that others have applied to a rhetor. A loop does not emerge through a single five-star review nor glowing comment. It emerges through others embracing a review, accepting and furthering the norms and values articulated in the review. An example of this choice in the application of norms can be seen in the ways others engaged with Anso DF’s “Listen” post. For the most part, others adopted DF’ssonic-only perspective on the band. All of the comments made in the post’s comments section only discuss the band’s music, with most praising the song and/or expressing excitement about the upcoming album on which the song would appear. Even commenters critical of the band only critiqued them for how they didn’t meet other aspects of the shared sonic values, arguing that the band’s singing style distracted from the music’s intensity. A few months later, several MetalSucks bloggerswould further validate the sonic-only considerations of Inquisition when several of the individuals who write on the blog posted their best songs of 2013 lists and include the song. Several other underground-metal fans would also post best songs of 2013 lists including the song. As evident here, even the act of furthering others’ comments on a rhetor have considerable influence: merely restating the norms that others have articulated has considerable impact on a digital ethos loop. 

Audience members also possess the ability to contest and re-negotiate the norms and values used to develop a digital ethos loop. This is significant for MetalSucks, who in 2014, aligned themselves with other bloggers and underground metal fans who accused Inquisition of being racist. I will cover that incident in more detail in the next section. For now, it is worth noting here that in early April 2014, Anso DF and Axl Rosenberg wrote separate posts for MetalSucks, each of whomlinked to and re-affirmed the arguments of several other underground metal bloggers who drew upon facts and texts from the band’s past to argue that Inquisition were racist. DF and Rosenberg re-affirmed these arguments, extending an emerging counter-loop through which fans could articulate concerns about the band’s past and their lyrics (more on this below). However, MetalSucks would, for a time—from the summer of 2016 to spring 2018—disentangle themselves from this counter-loop. A blogger for MetalSucks would argue instead for a return to the sonic-only values for assessing Inquisition. In so doing, the bloggerwould demonstrate that individuals canargue that specific norms and/or values that have been applied to a rhetor are not relevant, or that particular values supersede others. Most of all, audience members often argue amongst one another over norms and values, as MetalSucks did later with their June 2016 post, “Inquisition Fly on the ‘Wings of Anu.’” 

In “Inquisition Fly...” a blogger going by Emperor Rhombus first acknowledges MetalSucks own and others’ past commentaries on Inquisition’s seemingly-racist past, but then he immediately follows this acknowledgement with the argument that the only reason the band’s racist past garnered so much attention was because the band creates such excellent music. Building upon this point, Rhombus argues that because the band’s music is so good, their “politics” can be overlooked. Rhombus continues, noting that it can be extremely difficult to “unlike music” even when musicians have politics that run counter to an individual’s views. Building from this re-articulation of the band and the norms and values applied to them, the post presents the band’s just-released song “Wings of Anu.” Rhombus argues the song is incredible, writing that “A song like this ["Wings of Anu"] makes one understand why Inquisition courted such controversy, because it’s good enough that one seeks to explain away the band’s questionable politics in an attempt to simply enjoy the music” (Rhombus). With “Inquisition Fly...,” Rhombus articulates a way to apply the shared values of the underground-metal ecology to again enjoy the band and find them (partially) credible. He argues that the anti-racism norms that had been applied to the band’s digital ethos loop should be disregarded. Due to the band’s then-latest song, and its supposed quality, he argues that underground metal’s shared sonic values should be prioritized instead. He thus makes an argument for the values that should structure that digital ethos loop. He minimizes the anti-racism norms that had been previously-applied to the band, and in place of them, argues that underground metal’s sonic values superseded those norms, at least in this instance. Hewrites not just about Inquisition and their credibility but toward others in the ecology, advising them on what values to apply to the band and which norms to de-value. 

All of this rhetorical activity demonstrates that there is tremendous agency in the act of commenting on, reviewing, and/or otherwise reacting to rhetors online. A single comment can establish the parameters for a digital ethos loop. Comments establish the parameters either implicitly, such as a glowing review of a musician that only discusses his music, or explicitly, such as an argument like blogger’s above that a musician’s music is so good that it overrides his past actions. In this way, individuals co-constitute the parameters for and value of a digital ethos loop. Furthermore, as Fleckenstein argues, digital ethos loops are one of the central pillars of ecologies, giving meaning, value, and direction to ecologies. To shape digital ethos loops, or at least to influence the parameters of a digital ethos loops, is to shape the rhetorical ecology. 

On What, When and How to Circulate Texts

In addition to making visible how digital ethos loops are negotiated through the application of shared norms and values, a rhetorical looping framework can make visible how acts of circulation constitute and structure, or in some cases deconstruct, digital ethos loops. To circulate a text is to influence an ecology’s rhetorics and counter-rhetorics, opening and closing rhetorical possibilities for others within the ecology, both in regard to the ethos loop and to the ecology’s rhetorics. Along those lines, individuals make critical decisions if they block, disregard, or ignore texts. They can reduce the accumulative effects of those texts. They can also prevent texts from entering an ecology, restricting the ecology’s engagement with the rhetor. Additionally, there is considerable significance in the decisions individuals make about how, when, and through what means to circulate texts: there is considerable difference between retweeting versus screen-capturing a tweet and posting it into a forum. Individuals should be equipped to make careful decisions about how, when, and through what they circulate texts and information. As the MetalSucks case study makes evident, each action an individual makes and the platform affordance used to enact that action has a ripple effect throughout the digital ecology wherein that action occurs. 

Returning to “Listen: Inquisition’s Multiverse Sinking You,” this post especiallydemonstrates how audience members’ circulations of what through digital technologies influence ethos loops. In that post, Anso DF circulated the song he praised in the post. In doing this, he circulated a specific text into the ecology enabling others in the ecology the possibility of engaging with it. However, healso shaped how others understood the text by circulating the band’s music through a common and popular affordance (Tarsa; Gallagher) within the ecology.Forhe circulated the text through what at the time was a common affordance on underground-metal blogs: a plug-in from the music platform Bandcamp. The plug-in enabled MetalSucks to embed the song in their post. The plug thus enabled others to listen to the song. More significantly, the plug-in contained a “share” button, which allowed others to circulate the song to their own blogs or social-media accounts. 

Besides normalizing the band’s music by circulating it through common digital affordances, audience members can impact digital ethos by re-circulating currently-circulating texts, amplifying those texts and the counter rhetorics they generate. For the first six months of its existence, Inquisition’s ethos loop was constituted through texts related to the band’s music: songs, album covers, reviews of their music, and a few videos of the band playing live. As Dustin Edwards articulated in “On Circulatory Encounters,” the texts that circulate within an ecology typically undergird the dominant rhetorics of that ecology. Yet counter-rhetorics often also circulate within that ecology impacting digital ethos loops, as audience members circulate any counter-texts or information about a rhetor or text that conflicts with dominant perceptions. For example, the rhetorical possibilities for engaging Inquisition were, in late 2013 and early 2014, largely limited to music-related considerations. Yet in late March 2014, as noted earlier, a few bloggers started circulating troubling texts from Inquisition’s past. Drawing from The Metal Archives, the blogs posted information about the band’s past. They posted a variety of information about and in some cases the actual texts from the band,  including the fact that the band appeared on compilation albums with Neo-Nazi bands, a Neo-Nazi artist had created the artwork for one of their albums, a Pro-Aryan record label had released one of their albums, they had a released a song titled “Crush the Jewish Prophet,” and one of the band members was in another band titled 88M. That band had released a song titled “14 Showerheads, 1 Gas Tight Door;” both the band name and song reference WW2 Germany, with 88M being a reference to the size of German artillery shells, and the song title referencing the Holocaust.  

Several days after the initial circulations of such information about Inquisition’s past, Anso DF and Axl Rosenberg, on behalf of MetalSucks, joined in by further circulating the counter texts and thus amplifying the texts’ circulation. By further circulating these texts that implied the band had transgressed the anti-racism norm in the underground metal ecology, DF and Rosenbergused the affordances, and rhetorical significance, of blog posts to evaluate several texts that had previously only circulated on the fringes of the ecology such as the comments section of forums and blog posts. A text or piece of information circulated once will have far less impact on an ethos loop than texts that have circulated hundreds and thousands of times. A text circulated dozens of times by a variety of individuals accumulates significance within an ecology, each act of circulation adding to the accreting effects of the text. Furthermore, the affordances through which texts circulate matter – a text retweeted thousands of times has a far greater impact on an ecology than a text that appeared as comments on a few blog posts. Audience members can also draw upon the intertwined genres, actions, and affordances, which afford the possibilities for extending the counter rhetorics other audience members have introduced, to generate wholly new counter rhetorics within a digital ethos loop.   

In Spring 2018, MetalSucks introduced new information about Inquisition into the ecology, which transgressed unstated norms, and used the affordances of blog posts to layer the information together with the other troublesome information from the band’s past. In the post “Report: Inquisition . . . Plead Guilty to Child Pornography-Related Charges in 2009,” MetalSucks—who presented the post with the by-line as the collective “MetalSucks”—circulated the court documents detailing the arrests, charges, and legal rulings made against a band member in 2006 related to charges of owning child pornography. MetalSucks embedded into the post PDFs of the legal documents, making them available for others to circulate, which several other blogs and fans did. MetalSucks also covered in their post the seemingly-racist texts from the band’s past, layering both sets of texts together before re-circulating them into the ecology. While a few individuals mustered defenses of the band, most of the ecology promptly rejected the band in response to the circulating texts and the implicit norms it established. Several other blogs created nearly-identical posts to MetalSucks, layering together the band’s racist texts with the court documents. By combining these texts and circulating them together, then, MetalSucks generated a counter-rhetoric within the band’s ethos loop liquidating any ethical authority the band had within the ecology and overriding the band’s circulating music and the comments celebrating the band. 

Rhetorical Looping: A Framework for Positioning Our Own Ethos in Relation to Others’ 

In this article, I have forwarded the framework rhetorical looping to extend Fleckenstein’s theory of digital ethos to individual audience members and to elucidate how they are entangled in information loops generated by an ecology of people, digital rhetorics, genres, and platforms.  As evident in the MetalSucks case study, rhetorical looping can especially make visible how individual audience members play a vital, co-constitutive role in others' digital ethos positions. Audience members individually contribute to, and in some instances personally construct, the information loops through which digital ethos develops. Through comments, circulations, ratings, and lurking, audience members accrete value and credibility onto a rhetor's ethos loop as well as influence how others in the ecology engage the rhetor. Audience members influence other audience members by defining the norms and values that the rhetor's ethos is constituted through. Audience members are entangled in ethos loops, a position from which they continuously negotiate the parameters of the loop as well as circulate or block texts and information that configure the loop. 

As a framework, rhetorical looping can also elucidate how rhetorics, genres, and platform affordances of a digital ecology structure the actions of individual audience members. Both dominant rhetorics and counter-rhetorics impact how an audience member can comment on a rhetor or circulate a text. Bloggers for MetalSucks first drew upon the dominant sonic rhetorics and values of the underground metal ecology to engage and present Inquisition. They also only drew upon counter-rhetorics, rooted in the communal anti-racism norm, after others had circulated texts and made comments that developed that counter-rhetoric. Furthermore, the bloggers only wrote about Inquisition in the common genres common of the ecology, such as song discussions, album reviews, band editorials, and best-album-of-the-year lists. In working within the rhetorics of the ecology, rhetorics also emerged through the affordances of the digital platforms commonly deployed within the ecology. Platforms, as other scholars have noted, regulate the ways individuals engage with texts, shaping how they articulate norms and values and how they can circulate texts (Arola; Gallagher; Tarsa). When it comes to blogs such as MetalSucks, they do this largely through the various affordances for sharing, commenting on and/or reviewing texts. On MetalSucks, for instance, the platform enabled text-dominate posts that could have embedded images. Furthermore, the Bandcamp plug-in enables the easy sharing of songs across accounts and platforms, even as it doesn’t afford the possibility of providing commentary on the song, played a significant role in enabling the bloggers to circulate Inquisition’s music. Together then, it is from the ways platform affordances, digital genres, and the rhetorics of ecologies intertwine that possibilities emerge for audience members to influence others’ digital ethos loops: an audience member needs shared values to apply to a text, genres for articulating those values, and platform affordances for forwarding that comment in order to shape a digital ethos loop. To understand the affordances available to audience members for influencing digital ethos loops, one has to understand how all these elements intersect, which is part of what rhetorical looping exposes.

In addition to elucidating how rhetorics, genres, and digital platforms intertwine to create avenues through which audience members can shape a digital ethos loop, rhetorical looping, as a framework, can help us, as individual audience members, attune to the ways we are entangled in the larger feedback loops structuring digital ethos positions. It offers a frame through which we can become more concerned, cautious, and relational when engaging with other audience members’ posts and circulations. Rhetorical looping draws our attention to both the intertwining elements that offer these possibilities to intervene in an emerging ethos loop and the ways individual audience members are constantly using those possibilities. Rhetorical looping provides the framework for negotiating our positions in a digital ethos loop. We can understand how we act relationally with other audience members; for example, we can either ratifying the norms others have applied to a rhetor with a like on their post or we can reject those norms through a comment. We have considerable agency to co-constitute digital ethos loops through the ways we can post comments on digital platforms; MetalSucks, for example, offers a powerful example of how individual audience members can use the affordances of a platform to forward new counter-rhetorics that others extend. 

Rhetorical looping can also help us better understand how the affordances of the platforms we are using impact our own and others’ rhetorics within a digital ethos loop. This is significant solely for the fact that while many digital platforms provide comment sections, many platforms make commentary less immediately accessible. Many platforms instead promote and guide users toward the more direct and restricted means of evaluation, such as A-B ratings or numeric scales (Gallagher; Tarsa). Rhetorical looping enables us to maintain an awareness of how platforms guide us toward certain affordances and thus specific feedback loops, which in turn influences our rhetorical actions. 

Rhetorical looping can especially help us become more cognizant and critical of a digital platform’s affordances, constraints, and algorithms and the ways that they regulate how we communicate on said platform. As John R. Gallagher argues, platforms have increasingly redesigned their affordances to prompt users to respond in ways more easily monetized or at least more easily worked into algorithmic-measurements. Thus, rhetorical looping provides a vantage point through which to be critical of any changes platforms propose or enact to their affordances. Even minor changes in a platform, such as replacing comment boxes with a five-star rating system, circumscribes audience-member agency, limiting it to expressing the norms and values, and thus the rhetorics, that the platform encourages or allows. In recognizing how platforms provide affordances for shaping others’ digital ethos positions and how those platforms at the same time delimit and regulate that agency, we can be both more savvy in our use and criticism of platforms. 

In sum, rhetorical looping provides a productive means toward recognizing how entangled in digital ethos loops we have become. We occupy positions through which we can enhance or erode ethos loops. These positions arise through the feedback loop that emerges between the rhetorics of individual audience members and the affordances of both genres and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.  By understanding our position, we can take deeper responsibility for the embeddedness of others’ ethe and the larger rhetorical ecologies the ethe participates in. When it comes to others’ digital ethe, we are in the loop, and thus we should act with care, caution, and equity when we circulate, comment, evaluate, rank, rate, watch, read, and lurk.


  • 1. Forewarning: this essay considers individuals accused of racism and child pornography.
  • 2. I want to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their feedback. Jason Stuart and Tim Lockridge also provided timely and insightful suggestions. I also want to make a particular note of Laurie Gries, whose incredible editorship has shepherded this essay into its current state. All errors and mistakes are solely mine.
  • 3. When individuals comment on a Tweet by providing information about the writer’s background. These statements serve to re-affirm or harm the credibility of the writer.
  • 4. When individuals comment on a Tweet by providing information about the writer’s background. These statements serve to re-affirm or harm the credibility of the writer.
  • 5. Several scholars have articulated how communities use norms and values to define and maintain ethos positions within communities. First, Nedra Reynolds argued that communities use their norms and values to develop and monitor their ethos positions. Building upon Reynolds’ work, Laura Gurak and Samaa Gamie studied and articulated how digital communities establish their collective ethos through the norms and values that members of the community are expected to enact when speaking for or to the community.
  • 6. I see my work in this essay as closely related, or at least running parallel, to the rhetorical work on audience pursued by scholars like Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede and John R. Gallagher as well as the Fan Studies work of Nancy Baym and Liza Potts, among others.
  • 7. To study the MetalSucks’ posts, I screen-captured each post about the band. I then analyzed the posts and their comments, considering the discourse about the bands, the shared norms and values used in those discourses, and the texts and/or information about the band circulated in those spaces. I also used Google and Yahoo to find other blog, forum, and social media posts about Inquisition immediately before and after MetalSucks’ posts. I screen-captured and analyzed those posts through the same criteria while also looking for direct (hyperlinks, quotes of) and/or indirect (drawing upon similar norms) connections to MetalSucks posts. I used my analysis of MetalSucks’ posts and the other posts to trace MetalSucks impact on Inquisition’s ethos, tracking the circulation into and outward from the blog of discourse, information, and texts. provides a compelling example of this negotiation.
  • 8. A database that has information on 125610 bands, detailing everything from members, song titles, lyrics, album releases, locations, years active, record labels (if any), and a Wikipedia-style description of the band’s history.
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