A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Sound Judgments: A Case Study in Digital Ethos and Networked Phronesis

Thomas Lawson, University of Pittsburgh

(Published February 10, 2022)

You, like many others, are obsessed. Whether it’s music, sports, food, beer, films, books, or something else, there is likely a social media platform dedicated to your obsession: discussing, cataloging, rating, and reviewing it. You register on these platforms out of obsession but you are just as interested in what others have to say and what others know. At heart, your registration is grounded in a desire to join an online community and learn from others. 

What you soon realize is that obsession generates language and a sense of belonging incumbent upon learning this language. For example, you might log in to RateBeer and see a whole repertoire of specialized beer terminology that gets repeated time and time again in descriptions of particular styles. Users transcend their status as consumers and become amateur cicerones. On Goodreads, you might begin to catalogue your bookshelf and notice that the community of philosophy enthusiasts speak no different from the tight-knit philosophy majors you orbited around during undergrad. You might log on to Letterboxd and notice a shared language and taste materialized in lists where the same films are accompanied by many of the same descriptors. To be obsessed, it seems, is to repeat what is commonly known and said about a shared obsession. To eschew such language, however, runs the risk of limiting others’ engagement with your own posts. In other words, establishing credibility on these websites entails learning communal knowledge and applying this knowledge in new situations.

Breaking down these networks, it becomes more apparent that there are common processes of community formation that take place through the generation of a shared language and taste. Instead of a dynamic process of negotiating differences in users’ knowledge, values, and taste, participation seems to begin from and return to these jargon-laden terminologies. This leads to some important questions: How do these communities generate a code for participation? And how do users enter into this coded language?

In the field of digital rhetoric, recent conversations regarding the writing practices around which online communities emerge (DeLuca; Manivannan; Sparby) and construct an ethos (Grabill and Pigg; Hübler and Bell; Silvestro) have shown the various forms participatory culture and online identity can take. What this scholarship has yet to engage with are the ways knowledge and meaning circulate in communities and, over time, calcify into a communal ethos position of credibility that users can then occupy when writing to the community. To better approach questions concerning how ethos emerges in online communities and how users enter into it, we need analyses that inquire into the circulatory logics underpinning digital ethos. But our analyses need not stop there. Once we grasp how knowledge and meaning circulate and solidify into the terminologies users draw from, we can ask ourselves what kind of rhetorical invention this ethos fosters, what the limitations of this invention consist in, and what sorts of invention this ethos sidelines.

In this article, I consider online community formation in the context of the social cataloging website Rate Your Music, in which the circulation of music terminology socializes users into a communal ethos position of expertise. By analyzing Rate Your Music, I show how the emergence of a communal ethos in online communities depends on imitative processes that can close off opportunities for epistemic growth. That is, as users circulate terminologies that speak to the community’s values, beliefs, tastes or experiences, the most imitated terms become the dominant meanings and communal knowledge that users expect others to respond to and which establish credibility. To put forward new possibilities for online engagement, I turn to a digital ethos that I call “networked phronesis.” This digital ethos values and promotes rhetorical invention that produces alternative ways of understanding and appreciating users’ shared interests, thereby enabling more generative participation and dynamic community-building.

First, in Jeff Rice’s analysis of social media contagions, I identify a conception of digital ethos where the circulation of terminologies in a network, over time, produces the shared knowledge and dominant meanings that the community finds credible and authorizes users’ claims. I then put Rice’s framework in dialogue with theories of “ethos as dwelling” to address how users enter this communal ethos. Inserting the formation of digital ethos into frameworks of ethos-as-dwelling-place helps to illustrate how ethos is learned in a community and how rhetors draw from or “dwell” in these terminologies to establish credibility. Specifically, I show that the repeated circulation of jargon-laden terminologies socializes users into the knowledge and meanings others tend to respond to, resulting in an imitative way of dwelling in communal knowledge that can block epistemic growth.

In the second half of this article, I concentrate on two cases of digital ethos in online music communities. I first turn to Rate Your Music, a music cataloging community in which the website’s database supplies the knowledge that users then recirculate in their reviews to credibly convey their musical experience and expertise. Next, I turn to I Hate Music, a forum dedicated to discussing electroacoustic improvisation (or EAI). With that website, I identify a more generative way of dwelling in the network’s knowledge to invent arguments and occupy a position of credibility. The constraints that the genre’s aesthetics places on users disposes them to write about EAI in a manner reflective of what I call “networked phronesis.” Networked phronesis denotes a way of dwelling in communal knowledge where users actively care for and cultivate this knowledge.[1] That is, users recognize this communal knowledge as an evolving space in which to dwell together and know their interest, disposing them to thoughtful, community-minded deliberation in light of unique situations. When deliberating, users consider how their response can help develop communal knowledge and broaden the network’s values, leading them to judge the applicability of communal knowledge to novel situations and invent alternative possibilities for understanding their interest. Users, then, value—and establish credibility through—writing that demonstrates careful deliberation and that meaningfully contributes to the community’s understanding. In the conclusion, I consider the limitations of networked phronesis before considering pedagogical inroads capable of cultivating phronetic users. Here, I present networked phronesis as a concept for informing students’ rhetorical behaviors as they engage with and contribute to online communities.

Contagion, Community, and Digital Ethos

The rise of social networks has compelled scholars to inquire into how ideas circulate, with many describing this circulation as “contagious.” In media studies (Chun; Munster; Sampson; Sharma) and digital rhetoric (Boyle; Edwards and Lang; Gries; Rice) terms such as “viral” or “contagion” have been used as metaphors for how ideas are imitated and spread within networks.[2] Contagions spread through “Facebook status updates, tweets, Yelp reviews, Instagram photos, and blog posts” (Rice 13-14) by speaking to the shared experiences, tastes, values, and beliefs of those comprising the network. On this point, scholars agree that contagions animate networks, giving rise to new processes of community formation.

Rice’s recent work on social media and the craft beer movement is instructive for helping us understand how terms circulate in online communities and culminate in a communal ethos. Concentrating primarily on RateBeer, a social cataloging website devoted to rating and reviewing beer, Rice points out that seemingly banal reviews of beer activate “interest, community, and engagement” (204) by repeating a shared repertoire of terms (which Rice calls “contagions”) that speak to common beer experiences. In reviews, those terms relate to the taste, smell, appearance, and mouthfeel of a style (“piney” for IPAs, “chewy” for porters), supplying the dominant meanings that bind users and support “general connectivity across the community” (36). In terms of circulation, Rice connects the repetition of beer terms to how users learn to participate in the community—of what good taste and proper evaluation of beer (i.e. ethos) looks like.

The most imitated terms used in RateBeer reviews to describe Pliny the Elder are grapefruit, pine, resin, hoppy, and floral. If there are commonplace meanings attributed to the IPA or double IPA, these terms provide such meanings since they are stable markers used by beer drinkers to designate and understand the experience of consuming an IPA. Like all rhetorical markers, these terms anchor experience. Across social networks—blogs, video reviews, message boards, books, newspaper accounts—the experience becomes repeated as a continuing narrative of consumption. (73)

As Rice puts it, the network’s most imitated terms become the community’s dominant meanings, which are recognized as credible and speak to the users’ shared beer experience and taste. In sum, when terms repeatedly circulate over time, they become the dominant meanings that help those in the network “understand what [they] know,” proffering a shorthand that users can use to interpret their beer experience and persuasively and credibly convey this experience (39-40).

Importantly, there is a limitation to the contagion as a vehicle for meaning-making and community-building, insofar as imitative processes can preclude a disposition toward “disrupt[ing] received knowledge” (White 14) and inventing alternative possibilities for understanding and valuing some shared interest. It is crucial, then, to examine how these terms’ circulation socializes users into the dominant meanings and communal knowledge that establish credibility within the community, and how this imitative participation can preclude the development of new possibilities for understanding some shared interest. It is here that I turn to theories of ethos as dwelling place to examine the invention that typifies this networked process of learning and drawing from communal knowledge to establish credibility.

Ethos, Phronesis, and Rhetorical Dwelling

In scholarship on ethos as dwelling place, the definition of ethos is extended beyond the individual rhetor's appeal to credibility. For theorists of rhetorical dwelling, this means considering the ways of making arguments that a given community values and finds credible. These rhetorical forms, appeals, and meanings serve as the “place” the community “dwells” in to understand and invent arguments about their shared interest (C. Miller 2004). Further, describing “dwelling” entails looking at how rhetors are socialized into how to “dwell” in this “place” through their interactions with the community. In the field of rhetoric, ethos as dwelling place was influentially developed by Arthur B. Miller, who distinguished between eethos as credibility and other meanings in ancient Greek, particularly as the “accustomed place” (ethos) where a community’s customs regarding what is considered credible are learned and inculcated.[3]

As the cases in this article will show, networked writing environments present new processes by which individuals interact with communities and learn how to establish credibility. Importantly, the literature on ethos as dwelling place can help us glean the nature of the “dwelling” that these processes promote: how a particular digital ethos results in static/“closed” or generative/“open” ways of dwelling in dominant meanings and communal knowledge to establish credibility. Within the literature, Carolyn Miller’s work is noteworthy for its exploration of a community whose dwelling in dominant meanings and communal knowledge can be described as “closed.” For my purposes, this language of a community’s dwelling being “closed” is useful in characterizing the invention that the contagion promotes. Further, this sets up an occasion to define phronesis, a central concept in this article, before contrasting “closed” ways of dwelling to those that foster the community’s epistemic growth—what I am calling networked phronesis.

Throughout her essay “Expertise and Agency,” Miller concentrates on what it means to “inhabit” a “dwelling place.” For Miller, this dwelling entails learning the knowledge and ways of making claims that a community finds credible (198). Miller applies this understanding of ethos to unpack how expert systems dispose users to certain kinds of human-computer interaction. Used across disparate fields and industries, expert systems computationally emulate the decision-making processes of experts to diagnose and solve problems. Miller points out that these systems dispose users to a particular attitude as they interact with them, a belief that the expert knowledge stored in the system can be unproblematically applied to unique problems. To find the system’s results credible, then, users must value expertise above all else and bracket their own judgment of the results’ applicability to new problems. For Miller, it’s in this sense that the way users dwell in expert systems is “closed.”

Importantly, Miller points out that this belief in knowledge’s universal applicability contrasts with rhetoric’s situatedness: that rhetors should be sensitive to situational particulars when deliberating. In Aristotelian philosophy and rhetoric, this responsiveness to particulars depends on the intellectual virtue of phronesis. Phronesis concerns the rhetor’s ability to make thoughtful, prudent judgments in responding to unique situations that call for social action or response. In practice, phronesis manifests in careful deliberation regarding the ends that are desirable for the community (eudaimonia or flourishing), the right means to this end given the situation’s particulars, and the possible consequences of one’s speech on the community (Self; Warnick). In short, phronesis makes rhetors’ judgments responsive to situational particulars and the well-being of others. As I will highlight below, it is this care for the community and the effects of one’s contributions—how one’s response to a unique situation might enhance the understanding of the network—that characterizes networked phronesis.

Although there are major differences between the rhetorical interaction enabled by expert systems and contagions, this detour through Miller’s work points out a shared rhetorical limitation between the two: neither expert systems nor contagions inculcate a disposition toward judgment in rhetors, where users ponder the applicability of communal knowledge to new situations and reinterpret this knowledge in light of them (Taminiaux). We might say that to dwell phronetically in communal knowledge involves exercising thoughtful judgment about the application of this knowledge to unique situations and carefully deliberating about how one’s response can aid in developing it. It is in this sense that those comprising the community actively care for the dwelling place as an evolving site of knowing their interest, and it is this thoughtful, community-minded deliberation that is collectively valued and considered credible.

On the other hand, the dwelling that the contagion disposes users to can impede epistemic growth. That is, in being repeated throughout the network, users learn a repertoire of terms that speak to users’ common experiences, values, beliefs, and/or tastes, and it is these same terms from which users will imitatively draw to interpret their experiences and persuasively convey themselves to others. In this way, communities that emerge from the circulation of contagions can become static when users primarily establish credibility by repeating terms appealing to the experiences, values, beliefs, and/or tastes on which the community was founded. By repeatedly applying these same ethos-constituting terminologies to new situations, the moment of pondering applicability is precluded, and the dwelling place becomes “closed” from acts that might disrupt the community’s received knowledge.

In the next section, I illustrate this rhetorical limitation of the contagion as a networked process of meaning-making and community-building through the example of Rate Your Music. Specifically, I show how a communal ethos emerges on Rate Your Music through the recirculation of music terminology derived from the website’s database. Here, users who value knowledge about music history and genre master the terminology compiled in the database and draw from these terms as shorthand in reviews to convey their musical experience and expertise. This section aims to show how a communal ethos based on the contagion’s imitative processes can yield repetition without difference, as users dwell in the knowledge comprising the database without judging the application of this knowledge and inventing alternative interpretations.

I’m Picking up Good Citations: Digital Ethos on Rate Your Music

Founded in 2000, Rate Your Music is a social cataloging website where users catalogue, tag, rate, and review music. In May 2020, the website boasted 681,476 users, 73,399,098 ratings, and 2,436,880 reviews (MarilynRoxie). Essentially, Rate Your Music provides users a space to (1) rate, review, and catalog albums; (2) create pages for new releases and vote on genre tags from a pre-given, exhaustive list of styles; (3) search charts aggregating the highest rated albums of a particular year or genre; and (4) navigate the website’s taxonomy of musical genres (compiled in a list of genres and subgenres) and read encyclopedic entries on these styles.

Rate Your Music’s taxonomy of genre comes into play in many ways that are integral to user participation and the website’s functionality. For instance, by navigating charts compiling the highest-rated albums in a genre, a straightforward route to familiarizing oneself with the canon of popular music (as decided by the aggregation of user ratings) is enabled. However, for an album to show up on a genre’s chart—which is also linked to its genre entry (Figure 1)—that release must be first tagged by users with that genre.

A genre entry on Rate Your Music.

Figure 1. A genre entry on Rate Your Music.

Taken together, the website’s internal linking between individual releases, charts, and genre entries directs user engagement toward a hyperawareness of genre. That is, the website’s functionality depends on the users’ organization of releases into genres and presupposes awareness of popular music’s history and stylistics. We could say, then, that Rate Your Music’s database anticipates a rhetorical community that has a shared familiarity with—and values knowledge of—genre and the history of popular music. As we will see below, users “dwell” in this compiled knowledge of music’s past to make sense of and credibly communicate their experiences of new releases.

In conjunction with charts, an important part of Rate Your Music is tagging a release with genres, informing users of its stylistic makeup, and thereby collectively constructing the release’s identity through individual contributions (in addition to user ratings and reviews). Users vote on genres using a pre-given list (i.e., the database’s genre taxonomy) to determine the recording’s stylistics, offering users opportunities to deploy common terminologies used to identify musical style (“Since it has MIDI horns and jazz influences, I will tag it as sophisti-pop”). To become acquainted with genre so one can tag releases, users can click hyperlinked terms listed under a release (reflecting the genres most commonly tagged to that particular release, as in Figure 2) or, as stated above, search through the website’s listings of entries on genre to learn about a style and catalog its canon via a list of its highest-rated releases.

The Rate Your Music page for Destroyer’s “Kaputt.”.

Figure 2. The Rate Your Music page for Destroyer’s “Kaputt.”

In these entries on genre (Figure 1), users come to know what these styles sound like through descriptions that detail generic conventions (e.g., “electronic new age uses soft synths, long, sustained notes, and simple drum beats”), their relation to other genres, and representative acts. Importantly, to supply content for these entries, which are edited by users, authoritative sources such as past music critics and scholars are cited, and genre descriptions are approved by moderators based on their thoroughness. As a result, not only does Rate Your Music prompt users to master the history of popular music and its stylistics, it also prompts them to master (and imitate) the expert opinion that originally conceptualized these genres.

Thus, the website’s tagging system, charts, and genre entries compiled from critical opinion facilitates the users’ plotting of recordings onto a well-drawn map of music’s stylistics, enabling mastery of popular music’s history and yielding communal knowledge that seems right to everyone (establishing, à la Rice, connectivity amongst users) and that becomes the starting point for interpreting and conveying one’s musical experience. Having consumed the canon of myriad genres, this awareness of history is reflected in a heavily referential style in the reviews of users:

Poison Season continues his experimentation with sophisti-pop. ‘Times Square, Poison Season’ could be the dramatic monologue in a Broadway play. ‘Dream Lover’ resorts to 70's glam-rock pomp a la Cockney Rebel, and ends with a dense instrumental din in the vein of early Roxy Music. (ILY)

Knock Knock is the best place to start any Smog collection. Contained within are some of Bill Callahan's strongest songs and his widest variety of music on one album: throbbing Krautrock (‘Held’–which Spoon has covered in concert), somber folk-rock (‘River Guard’), metal (‘No Dancing’), and VU-like rhythms with children's choruses (‘Cold Blooded Old Times’, ‘Hit The Ground Running’). (Count5)

 . . . in ‘Desert Horse’, you've got a groovy desert-rock intro, followed by a weird, Bjork-esque synth-pop breakdown, followed by a vaguely twee interlude sung in French, followed by a brief reintroduction of the introduction's sonic pallet, which finally makes way for a fleet-footed psych-pop outro- to say nothing of the utterly bizarre transitions that bridge the gaps between one section and the next. (torinn818)

In these reviews, we are presented with a handful of references to bygone genres (krautrock, desert rock), curios (Cockney Rebel), and representatives of the rock canon (Roxy Music, Björk). Importantly, those who could most feasibly decipher the meaning of this shorthand would be other Rate Your Music users, who have likewise trawled the database’s highest ranked and esoteric glam rock albums from the 1970s or learned to identify the generic conventions of sophisti-pop through its genre entry’s description. This knowledge allows for comparisons between new and old that would not otherwise be possible, imitating the critical opinion stored in the database to describe the sounds of the contemporary release (“If it has, à la its genre entry, ‘soft synths, long, sustained notes, and simple drumbeats,’ it’s new age”). It is by drawing from the same pool of knowledge that such shorthand can anticipate the recognition of other users, sidelining differences in interpretation so that users can credibly convey and understand each other’s experiences.

What I will now suggest is that such a digital ethos can preclude the production of new ways of listening. As users repeatedly draw from the critical opinion stored in the website’s database, this widely imitated knowledge becomes the ways of listening that seem right to all. That is, this knowledge base goes on to inform community standards of credible communication and belonging. For instance, when a user writes about Destroyer’s 2011 album Kaputt, “If you were dismayed that Brian Eno never made a record with The Blow Monkeys” (RustyJames), they are effectively proffering an example in the Aristotelian sense, with older, better-known representatives of bygone styles serving as commonplaces from which to construct an argument about how one should listen to the lesser-known contemporary release. In this way, Kaputt’s sound is instantly conveyed to other users who are in the know. 

But what is the similarity between ambient music and sophisti-pop in this discussion of Destroyer’s 2011 album Kaputt? Would ’80s listeners of sophisti-pop even make the same comparison, when the genre was considered an ultra-cheesy genre of adult contemporary schmaltz, worlds away from Kaputt’s amalgam of twinkling, airy electronic loops, digitally treated, forever-reverberating trumpets and rock instrumentation? If, as Bruno Latour writes, categorization of what is past and what is contemporary is a matter where it is the “sorting that makes the times, not the times that make the sorting,” then does not this shorthand indicate a confused historiography, where we can listen to the past in new ways because of Kaputt (76)? What is elided in this recirculation of critical opinion is the responsiveness of phronesis, where rhetors do not merely repeat received knowledge that seems right to all but judge the present case in its particularity, of how, say, Kaputt exceeds communal knowledge.

In contrast to the Rate Your Music user who dwells in communal knowledge by learning and imitating this music terminology to achieve an ethos, the community I turn to next practices the thoughtful judgment and community-minded participation characteristic of phronesis. Specifically, I show that networked phronesis culminates in careful deliberation regarding how one’s response to a unique situation might add to, develop, and enhance communal knowledge. In this regard, the case of the I Hate Music forum is instructive in theorizing a generative way of dwelling in the knowledge of networks to invent arguments and occupy a position of credibility.

Networked Phronesis on I Hate Music

Electroacoustic improvisation (EAI) is an avant-garde genre of improvisational music in which musicians explore the relationship between space, sounding agents, and performers. EAI performances usually feature long durations of silence, microsounds, quiet drones, the affirmation of unintentional sound production, and extended techniques and non-musical instruments (e.g., applying a handheld fan to a prepared guitar, playing sine wave generators or sculpting feedback with mixing boards) (Plourde). Although EAI has an international reach and is performed throughout East Asia, Europe, Central America, and North America, the online presence of the genre is relatively slight, as a handful of blogs make up the ecology of EAI listeners who actively discuss the genre. In addition to these blogs, there is the I Hate Music[4] forum, started by Jon Abbey, producer and label head of Erstwhile Records. I Hate Music is a popular gathering place for musicians and listeners to write about EAI performances, and it is here that we can observe an ethos that presents new possibilities for online engagement: networked phronesis.

mudd’s description of an EAI set. Photo by mudd.

Figure 3. mudd’s description of an EAI set. Photo by mudd.

As Aristotelian phronesis concerns caring for communal flourishing, especially by being mindful of the consequences of one’s speech on the community, networked phronesis concerns actively caring for and cultivating communal knowledge through one’s writing. This disposition stems from users’ recognition that this knowledge is an evolving space of knowing their interest, culminating in careful, community-minded deliberation regarding how their response to a novel situation might develop communal knowledge and even broaden the values of the network. When deliberating, users thoughtfully judge the applicability of communal knowledge and values as they relate to a novel situation and, if necessary, offer alternative interpretations to expand other’s understanding of their shared interest. In response, users value and engage with writing that displays thoughtful judgement and contributes to the community’s understanding.

Because of the constraints around writing about EAI, users are disposed to this careful deliberation, where the telos of rhetorical acts involves inquiring into the protean genre’s aesthetics and conventions so as to aid listeners in understanding this music for future listening. Further, the constraints EAI places on users fosters a community that finds credible thoughtful inquiry oriented to communal growth. There are two interlocking features of EAI performance that promote this way of dwelling in the network’s communal knowledge. First, the non-musical instruments and extended techniques of performers are oftentimes peculiar to them, resulting in a high degree of variance between performances that forces listeners to thoroughly explain techniques, instrumentation, and musical characteristics. Second, because performances often go unrecorded, the writer must explain in detail the set to users who would have no other way of knowing about that performance, set of techniques, or instrumentation. Taken together, EAI’s evanescence and protean nature requires users to collaboratively develop ways of listening to EAI and valuating EAI aesthetics, thereby disposing them to the community-minded dwelling in communal knowledge that typifies networked phronesis.

If phronesis concerns the “wise handling of ignorance and new information” (C. Miller 2000, 75), I Hate Music’s writerly dispositions comport with this definition. That is, users write thoughtful accounts of performances to handle the community’s lack of shared understanding and, in handling this new information, judge whether what was heard comports with or exceeds what is known about EAI on I Hate Music. At the level of the community, this deliberation enacts a hermeneutic, as one’s account of the set and whether new descriptions and valuations are warranted is informed by past users’ accounts, who likewise deliberated about whether the performance they are recounting requires new understandings and valuations of EAI performance to aid users’ future listening. This is another way of saying that the community’s knowledge of EAI is constantly in process, emerging from discussion that is informed by the writings of others who are disposed to caring about the epistemic growth of the I Hate Music community and expanding its ways of listening to EAI.

In the following section, I offer examples of the judgment and deliberation that characterizes the ethos of the users on the I Hate Music forum. Here I treat I Hate Music as an example of how users dwell phronetically in communal knowledge to establish credibility. These rhetorical episodes help to illustrate how networked phronesis, as a careful, community-minded disposition toward participating in online communities, can allow for more epistemically generative writing and user engagements.

“this all happened, i’m pretty sure”: Scenes of Networked Phronesis on I Hate Music

To dwell phronetically in an online community’s dominant meanings and communal knowledge entails having a particular disposition to how one contributes to the community: caring for and cultivating communal knowledge as an evolving site of understanding their interest. Users, in turn, value—and establish credibility through—thoughtful, community-minded writing that aims to meaningfully contribute to this knowledge. In the case of I Hate Music, one intervenes in the community’s understanding of EAI by judging whether its common ways of listening apply to the unique performance they attended. When these exceed past accounts of EAI, users then proffer alternative possibilities for interpreting and valuating what counts as a successful EAI performance. The scenes below show this disposition (and invention) in action.

In describing the writing on I Hate Music, it is important to highlight that users register a difference in the conventions of EAI affectively, directing their attention to the specific makeup of the performance and stimulating inquiry into what uniquely happened in the EAI performance. To illustrate, below is an excerpt of an account of a performance by a user named mudd, in which they carefully attend to the particulars of Taku Unami and Graham Lambkin’s unusual set at the 2015 Amplify festival:

what happened will be extremely difficult to convey. well, there was a backing track, and the fans clicked and clacked against each other in a windy rise and fall. graham set about opening his suitcase, removing objects . . . taku seemed unable to ignore the piano sitting behind him, tentatively reaching up to poke a key or two . . . graham tried to wrap his slide whistle in paper and still play it, when that failed he abandoned the whistle and tried to play the paper alone. he was not terribly successful with that either, but he did have some hand-held toy that made a loud and perhaps satisfying squeak. at this point taku has revealed a significant sensitivity at the piano, playing slow repeating patterns of interesting chords . . . this all happened, i'm pretty sure.

Here mudd thoughtfully explains the performance by discussing the variety of objects used, the set’s characteristics, and the affects (surprise, satisfaction, uneasiness) characterizing their experience. Indeed, attention to affect manifests in a common rhetorical gesture where users foreground their affective response to begin their accounts. This gesture materializes again in mudd’s review of Jason Lescalleet and Olivia Block’s earlier Amplify set of amplified tape loops, describing it as a more conventional set epitomizing EAI’s characteristics and sensations: “this was the maybe the most classic ‘EAI’ set of the weekend, focused on enveloping the room in sound without clear gesture or event. it was also very warm and comfortable to me.” (n.p.).

The notion that feeling informs the writing process recalls Thomas Rickert’s work on ambient rhetoric, which considers “Affect, habituation, sensation, intuition, environment, and accident” as essential to invention (60). In mudd’s case, their review involves a movement from affect (wonder, satisfaction, uneasiness) to inquiry into how unusual musical characteristics and sensations were produced, prompting reflection regarding what specifically comprised that performance and explanations regarding what it is that they were hearing (Is it EAI? Something else? An evolution in style?).

Although this detour through the role of affect might seem far afield from phronesis, it is important to pursue because the affective responses of wonder or surprise—common to user accounts—inform users’ inquiry into the performance’s particulars and the applicability of commonplace ways of listening within the network. These affective responses set into motion the phronetic process of judging communal knowledge and aesthetic values as they apply to the performance to which one is responding. When performances seem to exceed what is typically taken to be EAI, users start from their affective response to reflect on what they heard and offer alternative ways of understanding and valuing these unusual performances.

Here I present an example of users inventing and interacting with each other’s alternative interpretations. In the popular “Recent Live Reports” thread, a post detailing Keith Rowe’s performance with Mills College students resulted in a discussion over EAI’s conventions and aesthetics. The controversy involved whether the student musicians had unwittingly sabotaged the performance by not demonstrating the restraint common to EAI, or whether their expressive style complemented Rowe’s uncharacteristically chaotic prepared table-top guitar. Both attendees and those who didn’t attend discussed whether a performance that allows for such techniques and musical characteristics should be considered a failure, with those who had attended recounting the set to highlight what could be considered a successful or failed deviation from what one expects in an EAI performance. For instance, diederich springboards from their affective response to reflect deeply on the performance, attempting to describe one student’s technique and appreciate its place in the set:

There were a couple moments in both that were memorable though . . . at one point the trumpet player picked up a second mouthpiece and for a few minutes used it to tap or scrape or rub the outside of his trumpet, I don't know why, but somehow the simplicity of his sound and his movements really worked well for me at that moment.

In their post diederich points out their own feeling of satisfaction from what could be considered a naïve gesture on the trumpeter’s part. This response doesn’t argue whether this is the right way to perform in the context of an EAI set; instead, they add to the discussion by offering their own singular perspective (“worked well for me”) and expand the range of opinions in a way that invites further engagement. In response, a user named surfer offers a differing opinion, describing what they heard as the student’s inability to play within the musical context:

The trumpeter I will single out here as being the most bold voice. However, he did not look at all engaged in what was happening, bordering on outright boredom . . . His contributions which seemed impatient, were very long single notes, played loudly and held, some extended techniques in the bell of the horn, and later hitting the mouthpiece. I thought he was really inappropriate and just not listening to what was going on.

surfer goes on to counter other users’ insistence on the lack of restraint by highlighting the moments students were too restrained, ceding control entirely to the veteran Rowe at key points. The disagreement underpinning the back-and-forth between surfer, diederich, and other users is helpfully supplemented by the input of Jon Abbey, the board’s moderator, who finds a way to reframe the students' perceived lack of restraint by highlighting the aesthetic value of experimentation, suggesting that, like even the veteran Rowe, these students are trying to find their voices in a difficult musical idiom that is always changing. In concluding the rhetorical episode, surfer responds by expressing their assent to the opinion shared by Abbey and others regarding the value of experimentation (“I hadnt thought about it that way”), even seeing in the performance aspects of sensitivity to the performance that had been overlooked.

Importantly, such dialogue doesn’t center around seeking consensus or having the final word. Instead, these interactions are about inviting others to try on ways of listening to EAI and broadening their understanding of what EAI is and can be. This interaction between users is wrapped up in a common disposition of care toward communal knowledge and its development, of cultivating the possibilities for listening and diversifying what others value. So, when users discuss the free rein given to expressivity in the Mills College set, what is collectively valued in EAI performance can be rethought and, from there, even become a new starting point from which to interpret and write about EAI in the future. In short, this participation is about collaboratively developing communal knowledge and aesthetic values so users might understand their shared interest more capaciously.


The beating heart of this article has centered around the “dwelling” in dominant meanings and communal knowledge that characterizes online communities—those in which participation is based on the circulation of contagious terminologies and those based on networked phronesis. Although Rate Your Music demonstrates how a communal ethos based on the imitation of terminologies can create static or “closed” communities, I Hate Music suggests that the careful deliberation of networked phronesis can be a more generative way of dwelling in the knowledge of networks to invent arguments and occupy positions of credibility. Taken together, a larger picture of online community—and what it could become—is offered, one that instructors of digital writing and rhetoric might take up as a starting point for informing students’ rhetorical behaviors as they engage with and contribute to online communities. 

There are, however, potential limitations to this phronetic disposition towards networks. For instance, on I Hate Music it is often the case that discussion doesn’t stray far from EAI and that users respond to certain kinds of participation over others, particularly in-depth knowledge of EAI and the board’s history. Despite communal knowledge and aesthetic values always being in process and up for judgment, the topic of discussion and kinds of participation to which users respond fail to diversify. In this way, it might seem that networked phronesis, as a digital ethos, can close community in its own way. However, this rigidity in participation and topic need not be the case. Networked phronesis depends on a disposition toward community that is open and receptive to alternative ways of understanding some interest, insofar as they have the potential to enhance communal knowledge. Therefore, diversifying the topic or the ways of engaging with, say, EAI or EAI-adjacent genres would (in theory) be received as an important contribution—so long as users perceive it to be phronetic, that is, thoughtfully and meaningfully oriented toward communal growth. In this sense, phronetic dwelling could be maximally open and hospitable.

Indeed, in being disposed to the rhetorical invention and interaction that networked phronesis entails, users seek to know their interest more capaciously and value participation that helps to achieve this telos. Whether manifesting on social cataloging websites, web forums, blogs, or social networking platforms, networked phronesis, as a way of dwelling in the knowledge of networks, has the potential to enable more generative, community-minded participation. Crucially, such a disposition is something that can be fostered. By promoting phronetic dispositions in students, digital writing instructors could enhance social media discourse communities by helping students, in the words of Jodie Nicotra, recognize themselves as “active participants in the building of a network” (274). Expanding on Nicotra’s point, we can say that the careful deliberation and community-minded participation of networked phronesis presents a picture where users are disposed to making meaningful contributions and in turn value such writing. This is a compelling image of networked writing that instructors of digital rhetoric can support, especially since online communities serve as popular, everyday writing spaces through which students might seek to affect change (small or large) that is meaningful to them and their communities (DeLuca).

Networked phronesis could be cultivated through a digital writing pedagogy devoted to developing phronetic dispositions in students. Realizing a digital writing pedagogy capable of producing phronetic subjects could entail exploring the circulatory logics at play in the formation of communal ethos in online communities and, moreover, the effect this ossified ethos has on the invention and interaction of these communities. This might also involve students making a pattern of judgments about the rhetorical dispositions capable of enabling vibrant and dynamic online communities. These twinned approaches ultimately converge on a central insight: namely, that networks are evolving spaces in which knowledge and meaning are produced and reproduced through the activity of users. It is in this way that networked phronesis becomes a central concept for informing the rhetorical behaviors of students as they participate in their online communities—to exercise an awareness of one’s role in building the network and contributing to the knowledge and meaning through which the community comes to know its shared interest. As I conclude, I consider the question of how to cultivate phronetic dispositions to be a pressing concern that should be taken up and delved into further. Whatever pedagogical routes one might take to this end, such writing instruction would be responding to a formidable challenge for the field: how to open up networks to transformative rhetorical engagements.

[1] My updating of phronesis for networks is in part influenced by feminist virtue ethics, which centers care for the flourishing of the community more so than the flourishing of the individual (Cuomo).

[2] In addition to work in new media, the concept of contagion has been taken up in affect theory to understand how emotions become sharable and spread in various contexts (Ahmed; Brennan).

[3] As Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones point out, scholars agree that these two meanings—eethos and ethos—are consubstantial (6).

[4] Although the I Hate Music community serves as an instructive example of how else users might dwell in communal knowledge to establish credibility, it is important to acknowledge the demographics behind this community and advise against sweeping prescriptions, as if all communities must fit into the mold of one site. In terms of demographics, I Hate Music users overwhelmingly skew male, though the site’s significantly international reach complicates placing users in one national or cultural background. Despite the difficulty in describing demographics, it is crucial to acknowledge the values and rhetorical norms on which the forum is based. For example, it can be gleaned that this is a website with certain standards of participation that might be alienating: specifically, that users’ writing demonstrates a solid grasp of the history, techniques, and aesthetic principles which broadly typify EAI. Such demonstrations of knowledge can create exclusionary boundaries between users and more casual listeners. These potentially exclusionary norms speak to why it is important to resist generalizing this community’s practices.

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