A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Literacy Sponsorscapes and Mobile Media: Lessons from Youth on Digital Rhetorics

Jon Wargo, Wayne State University

(Published November 22, 2016)

Fig 1. Wargo’s Analytic Video Memo on Literacy Sponsorscapes

Transcript available Here.

Introduction & Overview

As I cycled back a year later and re-visited the sponsorscapes map and emergent data from Ben’s (all names are pseudonyms) think aloud session (see Figure 1), reflecting on the thirty months of connective ethnographic fieldwork completed to explore how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer youth orchestrate identity and engage community through writing with mobile media, I am reminded of Pearce Durst’s recent blog essay on “Inventing the Digital Humanities through Freirian Praxis." Durst uses the metaphor of origami and the particulars of folding and unfolding to nuance the rhetorical practices of building and deconstructing in the humanities classroom (see Figure 2). For Durst, this recursive practice is a bright spot in the advancement and ongoing invention of what is being called the digital humanities. Using Durst’s metaphor of foldings, I meditate on the particular ways young people write with mobile media. I consider what these interactions with youth and youth communities can teach us about contemporary digital rhetorics. This essay, what Kinloch and San Pedro would call the building place between method and story-ing, is an attempt to put forth a yes-and theory of contemporary everyday literacy “sitings” (Leander) and digital rhetoric. First, heuristically, I examine the foldings and unfoldings of theory to present a possible reimagining of digital literacies and techno-composition. After, I examine key examples from my own empirical research that illustrate the possibilities and conundrums for tracing these resonances and shed light on what may be missing from the building/deconstructing and folding/unfolding paradigm. Ultimately, I consider if the metaphor and materiality of foldings help explain the dynamic and shifting relations between techno-composition, digital culture, and the digital humanities.


Fig 2. Foldings GIF

Foldings: Literacy Sponsorscapes

While the techno-centered question of how and who we write in the age of the Internet has been taken up by an array of scholars, documenting the cyborg/metal-meets-flesh era (e.g., Dyens, Haraway & Teubner), I want to attend to and be cognizant of Camille’s reflection highlighted in the opening epigraph of the video memo. Young people still do make meaning through the composition of their texts. And while I think it necessary to move beyond the modernist backslides of empirical meaning-making and so-called “truth,” I also think it important to recognize and validate the small moments of perceived agency youth feel when composing a diary-like blog post or re-tweeting a follower from the #blacklivesmatter movement. Although these granular utterances are but a speck of sand on a much larger beach of networked geographies, they help, as Massey contends, attend to the ongoing stories and folds of the everyday, even perhaps on varying planes of immanence.

Literacy sponsorscapes is a heuristic perspective that helps account for the various sitings of contemporary literacy practice. It is a quasi-scavenger theory; or, as Halberstam would contend a “queer” methodology insofar as it operates from seemingly incommensurable vantage points to nuance and understand both human and non-human sponsors of practice. Adopting Brandt’s sponsorship construct, literacy sponsorscapes is a conceptual neologism that utilizes Appadurai’s dimensions of -scapes (e.g., ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes) to highlight the convergence of community and the local across an increasingly global and connected world. If we harken back to Ben’s sponsorscapes map spotlighted in the opening video, viewers can read his sponsors as crossing through and across these varying –scapes and dimensions. Ben navigates the transnational networks of K*POP communities on Tumblr while simultaneously is the recipient of the cultural capital and institutional logic of literacy learning at home and at school in Michigan. As an analytic, literacy sponsorscapes works to “trace resonance” (Stornaiuolo and Hall) across the varying landscapes and pathways of meaning, location, and (con)texts.

Caveat: On Method and Storying through Digital Practice

At the onset of my thirty months of what Hine and Leander call connective ethnographic fieldwork, I became interested in understanding how LGBT and queer youth navigated (in)equality through their everyday encounters with literacies, quite broadly. Participant observation across sites (in-school, online, at home, etc.) was the primary mode of data collection. Across three years, I conducted and audiotaped semi-structured “active interviews” (Holstein & Gubrium), collected multimodal work, wrote field notes, and textually analyzed student’s writing across literacy sitings. Divided into topical categories, interviews elicited responses related to the larger research questions as well as the features of their writing about difference across contexts. Using discourse analytic techniques, I examined not only the literacy sponsorscapes of power and (con)text but also the embodied practice of writing in situ. I was curious to explore how digital rhetorics and literacies were used to write with place. My work with youth, however, was not solely interested in reading their textual production as hieroglyph. I made and composed with them. I used the affordances of video and audio to play, design, and architect myself. This essay and its more digital counterparts are indicative of these larger aims and goals.

In the remainder of this essay, voicing three youth stories and attending to the unfoldings of digital practice, I perform a genealogy of the turns made by these young people as they traced tensions between digital (re)presentation and materiality. Through these story-ing episodes, I hope to render how literacy sponsorscapes (the foldings of theory), operate by empirical backslides of mediation, identity-work, and contextual meaning making, while simultaneously working to understand affect and the politics of spatiality against a non-representational backdrop. In the end, I hope this piece helps others meditate on what youth literacies may teach us about digital rhetoric and the digital humanities. I’ll speak to the role literacy sponsorscapes played in the analysis of data and highlight my use of these digital spaces to queer method/ology. As youth curated and created identities through composing, indexed identities came to fruition through the techtual landscapes of digital environments. Literacy sponsorscapes helped crystalize and bring to fruition how, as Sano-Francini contends, “cultural values about bodies are articulated, negotiated…” and realigned through the foldings of digital rhetorics and the digital humanities (55). Literacy sponsorscapes are always already saturated with cultural rhetorics.


Fig 3. Selfie GIF

Unfoldings: Digital Rhetorics and Youth Practices

Ontology of Youth Technoliteracy Sponsorscapes; Or, Digital Rhetorics as a Way of Being

Youth techno-literacy practice was illustrated not only through text-based composing but also through bodily inscription and alternative forms of embodied visuality. As I documented elsewhere, youth used the practice of snapping selfies and what Marwick calls digital lifestreaming to navigate inequality and (re)author identities across contexts (Wargo). Rhetorically quite sophisticated, lifestreaming was considered by most as a seemingly mundane practice. The “ongoing sharing of personal information to a networked audience,” lifestreaming according to Marwick is “the creation of a digital portrait of one’s actions and thoughts” (208). Stacked together, these laminations of self are streamed by youth to contribute to a larger visual ecology of digital rhetorics.

While I slowed down these visual utterances of youth digital rhetorics work to examine the particulars of practice, I also worked to trace their resonance across time. Two years into the larger connective ethnography, Camille, an African American lesbian youth, shared with me multimodal artifacts that were representative of the longitudinal work we participated in together. I brought field notes and transcripts, artifacts of my own, with me to our meeting so we could collaboratively configure the stretches of literacies and emergences of writing. Rather than tell a linear indexical narrative tracing resonances across time, I used Camille’s felt experiences of writing to highlight the analytical literacy sponsorscapes that crystalized across our stretched histories and time together. Following post-qualitative turns in research, I use literacy sponsorscapes to restore the materiality of texts and the onset of flows and emergences that others such as Brandt and Clinton and Leander and Boldt have called for.

Fig 4. Camille’s Writing Resonances

Fig 4. Camille’s Writing Resonances

If we trace the resonances of Camille’s networked composing across the thirty months of fieldwork, we begin to see how techno-embodiment signals the interweaving of connective understandings of self. From this empirical representation, echoed by the numerous interviews I had the opportunity to complete with Camille, nails and nail polish became a rich point for how she understood her connective identity across physical/real and digital/virtual spaces. After a moment of perceived homophobia in the hallway at school, harassed for being “the dude” (her words, not my own) in her inter-racial same-sex relationship, she photo-blogged a picture of her collection of nail polish. Adding meta-data descriptor text, “…girly-girl” Camille worked to index her cisgender markings as feminine to “speak back” to her peers. Nail polish as a material and embodied text reverberated through the data as she then tweeted out a picture (see Figure 4) of her cheetah print nails some months later. When I asked Camille to make the connection for me she commented that nails were the only thing she felt she had control over:

“…When things were rough at home, when I just couldn’t deal, I would just paint my nails. After, you can just wipe it [the polish] away. You can start over. It was the only real thing I could control. They become how I saw myself.” (Participant Interview)

Her nails, much like her curation and composing across platforms such as Twitter, Tumblr, and the other networks she traversed, were places where she could start over. Suturing the digital with snapshots and vignettes of the “real,” Camille’s understandings of embodiment bled across the technological/physical divide. Techno-embodiment, for Camille and other contemporary youth users, is not a skin they wear with Web 2.0 advances but rather an orientation into the world. Digital rhetorics therefore cannot solely be contained by the semiotics of sign systems. Rather, they emerge as the affective feeling of time and story become impressed upon the body and its relationship to the digital.

The architecting and lifestreaming of artifactual technoliteracies youth employed in writing the selves across digital environments reminded me of Yancey’s definition of composition, and the activity of composing more broadly. For Yancey composition is read as:

“an expression of relationships – between parts and parts, between parts and whole, between the visual and verbal, between text and context, between reader and composer, but what is intended and what is unpacked, between home and realization. And ultimately, between human beings” (100).

I would argue that digital rhetorics should be named similarly. Digital rhetorics, as conceptualized and practiced by the youth I learned from, is not only cognizant of the expression of relationships (between the “visual and verbal,” “text and context” and “reader and composer”), but is attuned to online and offline inequality, the observable and unobservable, and the representational sign systems and the more non-representational phantoms that reside solely in experience.

Digital rhetorics, named in this way, evoke an affective response that truly shifts the type of self we write and curate in more techno-centric environments. In fact, these temporal events, part of the larger literacy sponsorscapes of six LGBT teens, could be read as an ontological process, an affective act of healing the selves through the imaginings of digital rhetorics.

Narrative Cartographers: Youth Composing Digital Rhetorics with Place

Just as techno-embodiment and affect have surfaced as possible paths worth exploring in contemporary connective literacy research, so too do the geographies and interstices of space and temporality. Spacetime, in line with Massey (2005), considers how space is ultimately flattened out, a flattening occupied by place and time. “If” as Massey proposes, “space is…a simultaneity of stories-so-far [rather than a ‘surface’], then places are collections of those stories, articulations of the wider power-geometries of space” (130). Place becomes an event. Massey invites literacy researchers, and connective ethnographers in particular, to consider how the particulars of place can only be understood through the mutually contingent locales of space and time as she defines it.

Spacetime, in my own work, has been leveraged to explore youth writing with mobile media. For instance, in “Spatial Stories with Nomadic Narrators: Affect, Snapchat, and Feeling Embodiment in Youth Mobile Composing” (Wargo), I examined how Ben, the participant whose sponsorscapes map is featured in the opening video memo, used the mobile application Snapchat to compose “spatial stories” across temporal traversals. Using Ben’s story, I argued that mobile media, and in particular digital applications, serve as new semiotic technologies that traverse activity, affect, and spacetime. With the advent of these new technologies, new/er communicative paths and types of inquiry emerge. This call for varying paths into representation and non-representational inquiry, however, is not new. Thrift, for example, has speculated about how “new kinds of sensorium” (582) might develop in the emergent contexts of ‘qualculative’ space, where constructs such as spacetime would develop and only heighten by sensorial modes of touch and direction. Hence, the haptic project of digital rhetorics and writing with mobile media is not only affective and embodied but also temporally constrained, rendering both the virtual and ethnographically local, (in)visible. The “white” or “in-between” space of the sponsorscapes map, thus, becomes just as interesting as those “sitings” or “sponsors” of literacies explicitly named (see Figure 5).

Fig 5. Ben’s “In-Between” Space of Literacy Sponsorscapes

Fig 5. Ben’s “In-Between” Space of Literacy Sponsorscapes

A literacy sponsorscapes perspective, through their stretched duties of presenting the emerging (non)representational practices of Arroyo and Ulmer’s “electracy,” configures these representations as but one site of ethnographic place and experience.

Returning to Camille’s writing resonances, we begin to notice how the writing illuminates reverberations of spacetime across threaded “events” of place making in composition. Take, for instance, the “safe space” map I asked her to make in the first weeks of the much larger study (see Figure 4). Quite literally, Camille worked as a cartographer to diagram how she felt occupying the varying spaces of Center Ridge high school. Originally interested in exploring how Camille and other LGBT youth navigated inequality across formal and informal learning spaces, I had students mark these spaces on a map with red, yellow, and green stickers. Red stickers represented students’ feeling unsafe in environs whereas green dots signaled a so-called safe space. Looking back, these artifacts provided a temporal timestamp to the construction of place making. Used to represent spaces I could later detail during interviews, I look back on this artifact now to consider the role spacetime had across the larger connective ethnography. These IRL (in-real-life) moments and actions only augment the digital rhetorics work seen, practiced, and experienced.

Representing spacetime through print-based language and/or speech would do a disservice to the types of practices and experiences literacy sponsorscapes stretches towards. Instead, we should take heed of the breaks and bends, the ephemeral experience of electracy. As I sat down with Camille to stitch together these sitings and moments of composing, we brainstormed how to capture the reverberations of experience discounted in the rhetorical practice of ekphrasis. Co-constructing a mashup video, backdropped by an open domain Sam Feldt mixtape, Camille and I used the affordances of video to chart the more non-representational moments of learning, of feeling, and of writing (see Figure 6).

Fig 6. Camille’s Mashup Electracy Experience

Spacetime in digital rhetorics recognizes the simultaneous multiplicities of performances. It renders practices more mutually visible and possible. The writing resonances, poorly represented in the aforementioned figure (see Figure 4) as circular/sonar flows, collapse across mode. Spacetime, through a literacy sponsorscapes perspective, interrogates the intermediary stories so far as they connect and thread into the experiences of later.

Refolding: Implications

As the story-ing and unfoldings illuminate, the building/deconstructing dualism is but one paradigm in understanding the constitutive parts of digital rhetorics. Camille the sponsorscapes archivist and Ben the narrative cartographer allow us to see how seemingly mundane and everyday digital literacy practices may inform the work we do in writing and rhetorical analyses. For those of us in literacy studies, and education in particular, they help inform how the paradigm of techno-inclusionism may not be a one-size fits all approach. As I sit in classroom spaces that don the pseudonym of “digital humanities” for corporate dollars, I see students disconnect from local knowledges (literally putting cell phones, tablets, and PSPs in over-the-door shoe organizers) to strap into the capitalist rhetoric of Chromebooks and stale bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives. I am concerned about the way we use and talk about technology. It is the panacea and paradox of purchasing equity for young people. Tech is visibly available, but it is used in ways that devalue youth enterprise and innovation. To return to Durst’s foldings imagery, it’s like reading the 29 steps needed to make the origami paper crane without ever touching the paper. As Camille and Ben highlight, youth love to yack, yes, but they also love to hack.

Prior to closing, I want to return to the origami metaphor and think about the refolding, or implications, for this brief multimodal essay. As the papers, essays, and installations here in this issue advocate for varying approaches and interstices of digital rhetoric and the digital humanities, I want us to interrogate the varying dimensions of story-ing that are often left on the cutting room floor, the b-roll behind the large data sets, the pretty visualizations, and the computer-centric / algorithmic soft power. How do the body, the physical material, as well as the ontological, for example, come up in work concerning digital rhetoric and the digital humanities? Although I am hopeful that scholars like Jennifer Sano-Francini, among others, and larger movements such as #disruptDH will continue to center the cultural rhetorics work inherent in the digital humanities, I find it necessary to continue to meditate on cultural (re)presentation and embodied difference. For youth users and archivists like Camille and Ben, the digital rhetoric and DH practices of curating and collecting inform and index not only their own understandings of queer self and gendered difference but also take on a collaborative and heteroglossic form of knowledge production, an oft-cited warrant for the work we all do. These small moments matter.

Similarly, if we refold Camille’s writing resonances and trace the affective moments she encountered through her own temporal traversals, two other themes become salient for us as we ponder the place of youth and young people in the building of digital rhetorics, temporality and networked affect. With the fleeting ephemeral archive and the intensities that delivered an affective push-and-pull narrative mediated through the phone, we should consider re-centering time and affect among the analytical dimensions of primacy for doing digital work. My own understanding of these themes are informed by scholars such as David Gruber and Jenny and Jeff Rice, individuals who are moving beyond the novel quantitative approaches to open text corpora and paying attention to the individual, the place, the time, and the affect. In partner to those who I just named, and in addition to those of us who came together in Bloomington, IN at the 2015 Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium, I also find the work being done in critical geography and non-representational theory exciting, as these orientations of thought are not solely interested in the enactment and construction of representing the paper crane, for example, but the color of the paper, the landscape that backdrops the creation, the size of the cuticle bed on the fingers that bend, that fold, that break, and architect. As Rickert reminds us, “representation can describe the methods, or paths, by which invention can occur, but the impossible emerges when we try to equate this with invention itself” (72). The emerging and ever-shifting communicative landscapes of digital rhetorics call for new non-representational resources and methods.

In closing, I want to problematize Durst’s folding, unfolding, and refolding metaphor to consider how the social actor becomes the sole interlocutor in making. As I tried to do, to make and to build my own paper crane, working to understand how it felt, I couldn’t help but think about the non-human enterprises that facilitated my lack-of-ease in making the paper bird. Was my table surface hard or soft? Am I using tissue paper or card stock? Why doesn’t mine look like the picture? Engaging in these materialist and affective forms of inquiry, and placing both human and non-human actors on the same plane of immanence, ask us to take on alternative modes of thinking, of failing, of being, and of doing digital rhetorics work. If, as Burke argues, “…rhetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall,” then we should surely seek to understand how our time, our bodies, and “our Fall” may digitally feel.

Works Cited

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Dyens, Olivier. Metal and Flesh: The Evolution of Man: Technology Takes Over. MIT P, 2001.

Gubrium, James and Jaber Holstein. The New Language of Qualitative Method. Oxford UP, 1997.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Duke UP, 1998.

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Kinloch, Valerie, and Timothy San Pedro. “The Space Between Listening and Story-ing: Foundations for Projects in Humanization (PiH).” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, edited by Django Paris and Maisha Winn, Sage,2014, pp. 21-42.

Leander, Kevin. "Toward a Connective Ethnography of Online/Offline Literacy Networks." Handbook of Research on New Literacies, edited by Julie Coiro, et al., Routledge, 2008, pp. 33-65.

Leander, Kevin, and Gail Boldt. "Rereading ‘A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies’: Bodies, Texts, and Emergence." Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 45, no. 1, 2013, pp. 22-46.

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Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.

Sano-Franchini, Jennifer. “Cultural Rhetorics and the Digital Humanities: Theoretical Approaches to Race, Culture, and Technology.” Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson, U of Chicago P, 2015, pp. 49-64.

Stornaiuolo, Amy, and Matthew Hall. “Tracing Resonance.” Methodological Challenges When Exploring Digital Learning Spaces in Education, edited by Greta Björk Gudmundsdottir and Kristin Beate Vasbo, Springer, 2014, pp. 29-43.

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Ulmer, Gregory L. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. Longman, 2003.

Wargo, Jon M. "‘Every Selfie Tells a Story . . .’: LGBTQ Youth Lifestreams and New Media Narratives as Connective Identity Texts." New Media & Society, published online before print, 23 Oct. 2015.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. "Looking for Sources of Coherence in a Fragmented World: Notes Toward a New Assessment Design." Computers and Composition, vol. 21, no. 1, 2004, pp. 89-102.

Works Used in Sponsorscapes Video

st.genesius. “Empty Your Mind.” Soundcloud, 2012. https://soundcloud.com/stgenesius/empty-you-mind

Works Used in Writing Resonance Mashup Video

Adam Saleh Vlogs. “NYC Black Lives Matter Protest!” YouTube, 30 Apr. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SncJKWQzfgI

AllAmericanFiveRadio. “Oscilloscope Signal Tracing.” YouTube, 8 Feb. 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B44wHjb8jMY

beautifulgayfilms. “Black Spark Dance.” YouTube, 17 June 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTOQtRcUzOs

CNN. “You Have to See these Sound Waves.” YouTube. 13 Jan. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwsGULCvMBk

Feldt, Sam. “Flinstering (Mixtape).” Soundcloud, 2015. https://soundcloud.com/samfeldt/sam-feldt-flinstering-mixtape

Hachimen. “The Worlds Hardest Game - 0 Deaths (1-30) - No Cheating.” YouTube, 18 Oct. 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhqkxwJWR0w

Jeff Quitney. “‘Typewriter Training: Basic Typing I: Methods’ 1943 US Navy Training Film.” YouTube, 13 Oct. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCpZ3CP7IAs

Kelsey Byram. “The Tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.” YouTube, 7 Dec. 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7CI9RoHVug

kipkay. “Amazing DIY LED Cube!” YouTube. 19 Jan. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mgn2eaabF0

Montana Spring. “Vintage Lesbian Porn Intro.” YouTube. 25 May 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Rdg8c_gH_w

ohlookitsleah. “Ferdinand de Saussure.” YouTube, 29 Mar. 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7_KcBAvIAE

The Daily. “Amazing Etch A Sketch Drawing.” YouTube, 23 Mar. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVA9wdiIlN4