Digital Rhetoric/Authorship

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Traditionally, an author is defined by Merriam-Webster as "one that originates or creates" or "the writer of a literary work," but, in truth, the answer to the question "what is an author?" is much more complicated than this simple definition. The introduction of the Web has challenged the traditional definition of "author."

Literature Review: Authorship and Ownership

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The Disappearance of the Author

The significance and authority of the author may not be as stable as they appear. In Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (2001), Jay David Bolter notes, “…the values of stability, monumentality, and authority are themselves not entirely stable; they have always been interpreted in terms of the contemporary technology of handwriting or printing" (Bolter, 16).

Poststructuralist Roland Barthes was even more critical of the “monumentality” of the author, and is best remembered for his dismantling of the perceived set of literary norms and traditions that some believe define the author. Barthes was especially critical of the role of the author in modern literature, believing that the text, as processed by the reader, signaled the virtual “death of the author,” with little credit to attributable to the author’s authority. Barthes wrote,

"… a text is made of multiple writing, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where the multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unit lies not in its origin…"(Barthes' Death of the Author)

In traditional rhetoric, the focus was placed on the author and his beliefs, passions, and thoughts in the work. The author was always at the center of the work and lived for his work. However, Barthes argues that focusing on the author’s thoughts about a work limits the meaning behind the work. If the focus is placed on the reader, the meanings behind the work are unlimited. The death of author is necessary for the birth of the reader.

Even though an “author” might be considered an architect of text, Barthes attributed authority and significance first to the reader. He may be correct that society’s traditional views of the author have been compromised in modern literature and, were he to have had the opportunity to assess the role of the author on the Web, he may have further justified his argument.

In What is an Author?, Michael Foucault, on the other hand, disputed Barthes’ ideology about the “death of the author.” Conclusions made in a book, for example, would not signal the death of an author, but merely the death of the discourse as created by the author. When considering the role of social constructivism and dialogism in the creation of texts in published form, this especially seems true. Conclusions made in a book signal the end of a presentation to an audience, but the author is still a relevant form. In fact, in Foucault’s definition of an author, it is the text that creates the author.

Roles of Author and Reader on the Web

In "Rhetorical Shifts in Author/Audience Roles on the World-Wide Web" (2001) Sandy Bartell chronicles the changes in the traditional roles of the author and the reader with the birth of the Web. She provides a review of traditional and modern theories of authorship. In Gibson and Ong's traditional theory of authorship, there were three roles: the author, the implied author, and the mock reader. However, Gibson and Ong’s theory does not apply to the Web because their theory implies that there is a one-to-one relationship between the reader and author.

Coney and Steehouder argued that authors and readers on the Web communicate via “personas,” which is similar to Warschauer and Grimes theory about blogs and pseudonyms. Coney and Steedhouder redefine the traditional roles of author and reader to the following roles for the Web: the real visitor who visits the site; the target visitor for whom the site is designed; the user persona, the role designed for the Web; the website owner who owns and pays for the site; the designer who makes decisions about the design and content of the site; and the author persona, the person or voice that speaks to the user persona.

Muriel Zimmerman predicted that, in the future, computers will be able to assume the role of the author. An example of this early computer as author function is the Microsoft paper clip, which offers help and provides suggestions to users. Bartell concludes by arguing that author and reader roles are constantly shifting, and it is impossible to tell what direction the roles will go in next.

Characteristics of Authorship on the Web

In Cyberliteracy, Gurak (2001) describes some key features of the Web: anonymity, interactivity, speed, and reach. All of these characteristics help explain the shift in author-reader roles on the Web. While anonymity allows for open communication and self-expression, it also challenges traditional roles of authors and readers, allows both readers and authors to experiment with different identities and encourages the airing of strong and possibly hostile emotions and thoughts. The interactivity of the Web allows for open communication and discussion between many users and readers, but also provides opportunities for intrusion on privacy of some individuals. The reach of the Web is widespread and connects users all over the world in one medium; a sort of international community is formed with the Web. In addition, speed encourages casual communication.

Authorship in Web 2.0

Warschauer and Grimes (2007) also discuss authorship on Web 2.0, specifically on blogs, wikis, and social networking sites. Web 2.0 allows for much more involvement than Web 1.0, and furthermore, the content of Web 2.0 is much more dynamic. The authors of blogs are often known, either through a pseudonym, display name, or through the actual name of the author. A blog may even have a section with a short biography of the author(s).

The ease and accessibility of the blog makes authoring a blog open to almost anyone, allowing for more and more authors on the Web. The comment feature on most blogs allows for a high level of interaction between the author(s) and the audience. A blog author must be aware of his or her target audience, and the fact that anyone could be reading the content of his or her blog. Authorship in blogs goes against Barthes’ theory that the other has disappeared. The identity of the author(s) is strong in the blog.

While the author(s) is prominent on the blog, authorship is lost completely in the wiki because of multiple authors and editors who have the option of anonymity. Wikis have endured criticism because anyone can introduce errors into a wiki, either intentionally or unintentionally. However, a study comparing the rate of errors in Wikipedia, a wiki-based encyclopedia, to the rate of errors in Encyclopædia Britannica, an established and respected encyclopedia, reveals that articles on Wikipedia are only slightly less accurate than articles in Encyclopædia Britannica. Collaboration on a wiki is very important to the success of the wiki. The quality of a wiki improves with the participation of more authors and editors.

Authorship on social networking sites is highly dynamic. Authors and users are synonymous on social networking sites. Most social networking sites have multiple tools for communication and self-expression. For example, authors/users on Facebook can post a link, a video, or a comment on another author/user’s page. Each is a form of communication or expression using a different digital medium. Reach and interactivity are also high on social networking sites. Authors/users are connected to millions of other authors/users all over the world. With Web 2.0, authorship has shifted from a few, educated authors to the masses.

Miller (2005) explored the disappearance of the author in Web 2.0. With the use of the Internet, the roles of the audience and the author(s) have merged, becoming one voice. Traditional values of authorship and ownership are challenged with a wiki. If there are multiple authors and editors on a wiki, who owns the content? Who is the author(s)? Technically the edits on Wikipedia are not totally anonymous; every edit is tracked. However, the author (and owner) has disappeared with the wiki.

Ownership and the Web

Jones (2006) reports about recent struggles with copyright violations on the Web. Authors often find their words on many different websites and blogs, often without credit or with another author taking credit for their work. Copyright violation and plagiarism is not only rampant on the Web, but it is also widely accepted. Blogs seem to be the worst offenders; they often copy others’ words or ideas without giving proper credit to the original author or owner. This idea is different from traditional rhetoric, where authors were very possessive of their work. Dell insists that it will take a major high-profile copyright infringement case to diminish plagiarism and copyright violations on the Web.

With the creation of the Internet, it has certainly become increasingly difficult for copyright owners to protect their works from piracy. Copyrighted movie, music, and other media files appear all over the Web everyday, posted without the permission of the owner(s). However, theorists such as Lawrence Lessig argue that copyrights are sufficiently protected, and that this flood of vigorous protection will only harm the freedom of the distribution of ideas and creativity. Copyright has changed rapidly over the past century to include a longer term and wider scope of protection, and yet copyright owners continue to lobby Congress for more protection. The reach of copyright law has also changed, along with the Web. Copyright law is not just enforced by humans anymore, but also by machines. Technology now has the power to place restrictions and "grant" permissions, thus regulating the uses of copyrighted work on the Web.

While authorship has moved from the elite few to the masses, ownership has gone in the opposite direction. Large corporations control the copyrights of the majority work, such as television shows, movies, and even newspapers. For example, Rupert Murdoch owns a large portion of newspapers and television networks, thus owning and controlling the copyrights of thousands of creative works. The astonishing realization of Lessig's argument is that just a few corporations have an incredible amount of control over the direction of our culture (Lessig, 2004).

Are the author, authority, and ownership actually threatened by Web 2.0?

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A number of people enter into Web 2.0 adhering to writing forms more reflective of traditional presentation in print. The problem with this should be obvious. If someone is entering into this environment using the same standards of writing for print media, then they also bring with them the traditional definition of author and authorship. The read-write environment is a threat in that the authority of the writer becomes compromised under standards defined under traditional practice. Some might argue that Web 2.0 destabilizes traditional reasons why many people write for print; to establish an authority in voice and respect for developing original works (though this is challenged by some of the theories of rhetoric anyway). Nonetheless, I would argue that authorship and authority have not died, but rather, they have been redefined for the different writing space that is Web 2.0. The relevance of the author and the authority of the writer are still present in the Web, we just need to understand what differences exist. As interactions and presentations in the read-write Web are further studied, the understanding of the role of the author and authority will change accordingly.

Authorship on the Web is certainly very different from authorship in traditional print. The roles of and relationships between the author(s) and his/her/their audience have shifted. "The reader" has now become "the user," a role title that implies a higher level of participation than before. The characteristics of the Web, as described by Gurak, have had an impact on the characteristics of authorship online. The different forums of expression in Web 2.0, such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites have also changed authorship.

In traditional rhetoric, authorship was akin to an exclusive club where only a select few had the distinction of being called "authors." However, with the introduction of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites, now, anyone with internet access can become an author. But has the mass authorship on the Web diluted the authority of writing? While the authority of writing on the Web has changed from traditional rhetoric, it has certainly not disappeared.

The Shift of Author/Reader Roles on the Web

The roles of the author and reader have shifted as writing has moved online. Before the Web, there were only three roles: the author, the implied author, and the mock reader (Bartell, 2001). This theory, from Gibson and Ong, seems to imply that the author has the most important role in the author-reader relationship. This is evident in the mock reader role, in which the author writes for his idea of the reader, not for the actual reader. There is no role for the actual reader.

With the creation of the Web, the number of author and reader roles increased from three to six: the real visitor, or the actual reader viewing the site; the target visitor, or the visitor for whom the website is designed and targeted; the user persona, the role that the visitor assumes upon participation in the website, determined by the information found on the site; the website owner, the person or organization who owns, finances, and controls the website; the designer, the individual or organization that physically design the website; and the author persona, the person or persona who the reader perceives as the voice or author of the site (Bartell, 2001). The author persona is similar to the author function, as described by Foucault.

In these roles, theorized by Coney and Steehouder before the existence of Web 2.0, we can already begin to see shifts in the roles of the author and the reader. These roles seem to represent the shift from the importance of the author in traditional print to the importance of the audience or individual user in Web 1.0. Coney and Steehouder introduce the role of the target visitor, or the person for whom the owners and designers create the website. Before, the author would write for his or her own idea of the reader (the mock reader), rather than research and explore who the reader actually is. Audience and user analysis, or figuring out the needs and desires of the users, has become more important with the rise of digital media.

In Web 2.0, authorship online has become more significant with the introduction of blogs. Blog readers are able to identify the author through a short biography or by the author's real or pseudonymous name (Warschauer and Grimes, 2007). With the blog, the reader is once again presented with an identifiable author, or author function. If they are widely read, blog authors can be very influential. On the other hand, the author has almost disappeared completely with the wiki (Warschauer and Grimes, 2007). Anyone can edit a wiki, and although the edits are not totally anonymous (all edits are tracked by server number), readers do not know anything about the author. The only means of establishing authority is to view past edits of the wiki writer or editor. With social networking sites, the role of the reader and author have merged. The user is both a reader, viewing the social activity of friends, and an author, posting comments and links for others to see.

The Effect of Anonymity, Interactivity, Reach, and Speed on Authorship

The characteristics of the Web, as described by Gurak in Cyberliteracy, are anonymity, interactivity, reach, and speed (2001). These characteristics are key to explaining the qualities of authorship on the Web and prove to be both positive and negative to the shift in authorship as it moves from traditional print to online:

Anonymity. Authors posting online have the benefit of anonymity. While anonymity facilitates open discussion and participation, it also triggers unpleasant thoughts and emotions, which are inevitable in an online community. Anonymity also allows authors and readers to experiment with different identities and roles, whereas traditional authors must maintain their original identities for the sake of the authority of the work.

Interactivity. There is an extremely high level of interactivity between authors and their audiences on the Web. Interactivity can be positive, as it allows for the open dialog between the author and his or her audience, but it also allows for increased voyeurism and invasion of privacy. With the Web, authors always reach audiences that are not necessarily the intended audiences.

Reach. The Web connects millions of people to one another around the world everyday. With a wider reach, the Web becomes an international community, made up of smaller communities. Before the Web, the world has not seen such a widespread and diverse international community. Reach makes it possible for almost anyone to become an author and participate in communication online.

Speed. The Web is making content much easier and much, much faster to read and write. With social networking sites like Facebook, back and forth communication on the Web is much more rapid.

With the anonymity, interactivity, reach, and speed of the Web, authorship is now available to almost anyone. The technology of Web 2.0, including blogs, wikis, and social networking sites, has only magnified the characteristics originally described by Gurak. Wikis are written and edited (almost) anonymously; blogs have increased the amount of interactivity between the user and the author; and social networking sites speed up communication and connect users from all over the world.

The Increase in Collaborative Writing and Editing

Another characteristic of authorship in Web 2.0, particularly of wikis, is collaborative writing and editing. The fact that anyone has the ability to make changes to a wiki has caused critics to challenge the authority and accuracy of wikis. While it may seem that the mass collaborative nature of wikis may pose a threat to authority, the opposite is actually true. Studies have shown that the accuracy of articles on Wikipedia increase when the number of authors and editors contributing to the wiki also increases (Warschauer and Grimes, 2007). Another study revealed that Wikipedia articles were only slightly less accurate than articles in Encyclopædia Britannica (Warschauer and Grimes, 2007). With studies such as these, it is difficult to challenge the authority of the wiki.

The Challenge to Ownership on the Web

The Web has not just challenged the authority and authorship of work, but it has also challenged traditional notions of ownership. Before the existence of the Web, authors were very possessive of their works (Miller, 2005). In the age of Web 2.0, we have seen the rise of mass collaborative writing on websites such as Wikipedia, where the need for ownership and possession is lost. The content of the article no longer belongs to the author, but instead to the reader(s). Authors of wikis have no claim to their writing once they place it in the wiki writing space. They are still required to attribute credit if the idea is taken from another author, but the ownership of the original content is compromised.

There is also a major problem with challenges to ownership in the form of copyright infringement. As a 2006 article in USA Today points out, copyright infringement is commonplace on the Web. Oftentimes the same article or information will pop up in different spaces all over the Web, without giving proper credit to the original author or owner. The piracy of copyrighted works is another serious problem. Peer-to-peer file sharing networks are used to share and download music and movie files illegally.

Right now, copyright owners are waging their own war on copyright infringement (Lessig, 2004). But is ownership really threatened? Are owners taking the war on piracy too far? Lessig argues that there is really no need for the war on piracy, and that although the Web does make it more difficult for owners to protect their work, the work is still sufficiently protected.

Works Cited

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Author – Definition from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 16, 2009 from

Bartell, S. (2001). Rhetorical shifts in author/audience roles on the World Wide Web. Orange Journal, 2.2. Retrieved April 16, 2009 from

Barthes, R. (1977). The death of the author. Image-Music-Text. (S. Heath, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang.

Coney, M.B. & Steehouder, M. (2000). Role playing on the Web: guidelines for designing and evaluating personas online. Technical Communication, 47(3), 327-340.

Foucault, M. (1987). What is an author? Twentieth-Century Literary Theory (V. Lambropoulos & D.N. Miller, Eds.). Albany: State University Press of New York. Retrieved April 16, 2009 from

Gibson, W. (1950). Authors, speakers, readers, and mock readers. College English, 11(5), 265-269.

Gurak, L.J. (2001). Cyberliteracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jones, D. (2006, August 1). Authorship gets lost on Web. USA Today. Retrieved from

Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture. Retrieved from

Miller, N. (2005). Wikipedia and the disappearing “author.” ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, 62.

Ong, W.J. (1975). The writer’s audience is always a fiction. PMLA, 90(1), 9-21.

Warschauer, M. & Grimes, D. (2007). Audience, authorship, and artifact: the emergent semiotics of Web 2.0. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 27, 1-23.

Zimmerman, M. (2001). Technical communication in an altered technology landscape: what might be. Technical Communication, 48(2), 200-206.