Inventing the Election: Civic Participation and Presidential Candidates' Websites

Inventing the Election: Civic Participation and Presidential Candidates' Websites
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  Computers and Composition 25 (2008) 416–431  Available online at Inventing the Election: Civic Participation and PresidentialCandidates’ Websites Caroline E. Dadas  Department of English, Miami University, 356 Bachelor Hall, Miami University,Oxford, OH 45056, United States Abstract In this article I propose a three-part schema for analyzing and categorizing the civic participatorypotentialofthreepresidentialcandidates’websites.FocusingmyanalysisonthesitesofBarackObama,John McCain, and Mitt Romney, I examine how the rhetorical and technological features of the sites’interfaces promote robust, moderate, or superficial participatory invention, interaction, and dialogue.My research highlights the ways in which the design of websites may enable users to become moreactive agents in political campaigns and in the election process. In addition, the three-part schema Ipropose provides what I hope will be a useful analytic lens for writing instructors to use when seekingto engage students with civic rhetorical analysis.© 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Keywords: Civic rhetoric; Digital rhetoric; Election; Interface; Invention; Participation; Politics; Public sphere 1. Introduction As Americans become increasingly reliant on the Internet as an information source, candi-dates are continuously reevaluating how to harness the power of the Internet to reach potentialvotersandmoldpresidentialcampaigns.Resultsfroma2007PewResearchpublicationshowed that “15% of all American adults say the Internet was the primary source for campaign newsduring the [2006] election, up from 7% in the mid-term election of 2002 and close to the 18%of Americans who said they relied on the Internet during the presidential campaign cycle in2004” (p. 1). The study also found that 35% of those polled who are under the age of 36 citedthe Internet as being their main source of political information in the 2006 mid-term election(p. 3). Given this information, campaigns are clearly invested in marshalling the affordancesof the Internet to their advantage. Today, candidates’ websites are not only used as venues forfinancing campaigns but they construct candidates, platforms, and the electorate itself. ∗  Email address:$ – see front matter © 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2008.05.004  C.E. Dadas / Computers and Composition 25 (2008) 416–431 417 While websites perform an aesthetic function in helping to define a candidate’s image,they also serve as meeting places where potential voters can organize their participation inthe campaign. This participation comes in the form of invention activities that both operatewithin the space of the website and reach beyond the website by encouraging other avenuesforinvolvement.Forexample,forumssuchasblogsandmessageboardsencourageadialogueamong website users on the issues that comprise the core of the candidate’s platform. Here,users may also arrange to take part in meetings, rallies, or discussions in their communities.Through candidates’ websites, users are encouraged to become “active” citizens–contributorsto, and not passive observers of, democratic processes. Because of their participatory capabil-ities, I believe these campaign websites warrant increased scholarly attention. If citizens areincreasingly interested in using websites as forums for political participation, then we mustbetter understand how to foster that participation, making it both meaningful to citizens andefficacious to our democratic processes.How people participate in civic spheres has always been a concern of rhetoric. With theincorporation of technologies such as websites and blogs into political campaigns, we inrhetoric and composition must focus our attention not only on how citizens use these tech-nologies to participate in the campaign but also on how they might be more meaningfullyserved by these technologies in the future. Although this particular study centers on the 2008presidential campaign, I hope that its focus on the connection between civic participation andInternet-based technology can illuminate other applicable contexts for increased user involve-ment (i.e., online community-based participation). Based on my examination of the websitesof John McCain, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, 1 Ihave developed a three-part schemadescribing different levels of user participation: superficial, moderate, and robust (Figure 1). In doing so, I wish to highlight the ways in which websites reach beyond merely “informing”users.Websitesdesignedtotheendofenablingcivicparticipationcanreachbeyondsuperficialfunctions to help users become more active agents in their communities, schools, and country.To demonstrate the participatory potential of websites, I will first provide an overview of recentscholarshiponcivicparticipation.Iwillalsodrawuponpublicspheretheorytoestablishmy three-part schema for participation. Then I will theorize the interface, arguing for moreuser-centered design strategies. Finally, I will use my schema as a framework for analyzingthe websites of Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney and will propose severalimplications of this work. With this in mind, I turn my focus to the specific context of the 2008presidential election to see how citizens are harnessing the power of the Internet to becomeinvolved in choosing the next President of the United States. 2. Approaches to civic participation In thinking about how to situate the concept of participation in this project, I find it pro-ductive to think of participation as operating along a continuum of active involvement and 1 I intentionally chose at least one candidate from the two major political parties. I made these selections afterlooking at multiple candidates’ websites; these three candidates were most representative of my three levels of participation.  418 C.E. Dadas / Computers and Composition 25 (2008) 416–431 Level of participationsresuf osnoitcadnaseloR noitpircseD Robust • Provides multiple opportunities for users to contribute content andengage with each other. • Provides users the potential to publicly question or challengeassumptions/beliefs of the candidateor other users. • The website is a forum for users toengage and participate. • Users are creators, planners, producers,designers, dissenters. • They post to blogs,create socialnetworking pages,upload videos, and plan events in order to engage with other users, the campaign,and the issues.Moderate • Allows for fewer and lessconsequential user contributions. • Provides limited attention to andopportunities for dissenting voices. • The website is a forum that provides  some opportunities to engage and participate. • Users have  some opportunities to becreators, planners, producers, or designers; they are provided some spaceto voice dissention. • They primarilyengage in superficialactivities such asfilling out polls andforwarding scriptedemails.Superficial • Provides few, if any, opportunitiesfor user contributions andengagement. • Silences dissenters by not allowingspace for their comments. • The website serves as anadvertisement for the candidate, notas a forum for participation. • Users have  few, if any, opportunities to be creators, planners, producers, or designers; they arenot provided space tovoice dissention. • Users engage inactivities such asfilling out polls andforwarding scriptedemails. Fig. 1. The three levels of participation: robust, moderate, and superficial. interaction. In relation to political websites, users might engage one end of this participatorycontinuum by simply reading the material on the website (what one reviewer of this articlecalled “participation that doesn’t leave tracks”). Further along the continuum, toward moreactive involvement, users might click a button to respond to a survey question. Toward themore robust end of the participatory continuum, users might post a comment in a blog dis-cussion forum. In addition, users’ participation may or may not remain limited to the realm  C.E. Dadas / Computers and Composition 25 (2008) 416–431 419 of a candidate’s website. For example, users can utilize a message board to announce a cam-paign event that they are sponsoring. In this case, while the user’s announcement would leavevisible tracks on the website, the “participation” would take place offline, merely instigatedor arranged through the website. Because I see interaction as a crucial component of civicparticipation, my research focuses on the end of the continuum where participatory engage-ment becomes more active on the part of the user, whether or not that engagement is limitedto online spaces.My understanding of participation is influenced by the work of Simmons and Grabill(2007)who, in their recent College Composition and Communication article “Toward a CivicRhetoric” argued that “Participation requires that citizens also have an understanding of com-plex issues in order to articulate their experiences and participate in public conversation andoffer valuable contributions to any decision” (p. 420). Within this model, the primary steptoward participation is that citizens garner an understanding of complex issues. The rhetoricalsituationofapresidentialcampaignbringsmanyissuestothefore,arguablyallofthemrepletewith nuance and complexity. A campaign website, then, must situate these issues in ways thatdonotwashovercrucialdetails,atthesametimemakingtheseissuesaccessibletotheaveragewebsite user. In other words, websites must enable visitors to invent usable knowledge. Whenusers combine what they already know about the issues with the information provided on thewebsite,theyarriveatanunderstandingoftheissues,anunderstandingthattheycanthenuseasaspringboardtoeventuallymakingwhatSimmonsandGrabillcalled“valuablecontributions.”I see the idea of participatory invention as being a crucial component of civic rhetoric;drawing again onSimmons and Grabill (2007),I define participatory invention as acts of  combining prior knowledge with new information. Simmons and Grabill argued that theability of users to engage in acts of invention assumes the utmost importance when oneconsiders that “the issues that most communities face as they imagine who they are and whatthey might be require what rhetoricians have always understood to be acts of invention”(p. 423). In this sense, invention acts as a bridge between what is known and what needsto be known in order to achieve desired ends. As outlined in JaniceLauer’s Invention in Rhetoric and Composition (2004),Thomas Farrell conceived of invention in civic discourseas an “intersection” that “recombines and individuates received opinions and conventionin order to interrupt everyday policy and practice” (p. 111). Users seeking to “interrupt”inadequate policies and practices may use websites as a means of recombining their opinionswith new information in order to imagine more effective policies and practices. This level of participation, however, requires that websites provide the proper channels for distributing andacting on users’ invented knowledge, channels that lead to capable audiences. Otherwise, theprogression between invention and participation breaks down, leaving users to seek out othermethods of participation or decline to participate altogether.Another crucial component of civic rhetoric is, asSimmons and Grabill (2007)argued,the fact that citizens must have the means to make “valuable contributions” in (the) publicsphere(s). I am drawing my definition of public spheres from GerardHauser (1999),who situ- atedpublicspheresas“nesteddomain[s]ofparticularizedarenasormultiplespherespopulatedby participants who, by adherence to standards of reasonableness reflected in the vernacularlanguage of conversational communication, discover their interests, where they converge ordiffer, and how their differences might be accommodated” (p. 56). While Hauser’s “standards  420 C.E. Dadas / Computers and Composition 25 (2008) 416–431 of reasonableness” are admittedly problematic, I find this definition useful in its emphasison difference. Entrance into Hauser’s public spheres requires the convergence of difference,something that is bound to happen when users employ their understandings of complex issuesto “articulate their experiences and participate in public conversation” (Simmons & Grabill,2007,p. 420). The inevitability of difference within public spheres highlights the need forwebsites to provide multiple entry points for users so that a variety of needs and preferencesmightbeaccommodated.Withmultipleentrypoints,allusersshouldbeabletoseethemselvesreflected in the interface (Bolter & Gromala, 2003).In perceiving websites as public spheres, I am drawing on both Simmons and Grabill and Hauser’s work to construct a participatoryframework in which users come to websites to engage complex information, invent usableknowledge, and cut across difference to offer their contributions.The kind of participation that interests me here, then, involves instances of communicationwithin the campaign when voter interests, opinions, and suggestions are placed into dialogue.I will term this level of participation “robust,” implying that within the framework of Hauser’spublic sphere, citizens assume an effectual role in influencing the discourse of the campaign.According to Hauser’s definition, “dialogue” implies the convergence of difference; thus, arobustlevelofparticipationenablesdialoguethathonorsvoicesthatmayquestionorchallengethe embedded beliefs and assumptions of a candidate and/or political party’s platform. A lessfully realized level of participation allows citizens to influence the discourse of the campaignin very tangential or less consequential ways; this I will refer to as a “moderate” level of par-ticipation. This level of participation would also suggest limited attention to and opportunitiesfor dissenting voices. Finally, instances when citizens are asked to contribute in very limitedways will be subsumed under what I will call a “superficial” level of participation.Notonlyaredissenterssilencedatthe“superficial”level,italsoseriouslyrestrictsthevoicesofallvisitorstothewebsite.Inthisscenario,citizensfeelasthoughtheyarecontributing—thattheirvoicesarebeing“heard”—butinreality,theirinputiseitherconfinedtorelativelyinconse-quential matters or fails to be disseminated within productive mechanisms of communication.Before presenting my analysis of the civic participatory potential of candidates’ websitesemployingthisthree-partschema,Iwillfirstbrieflydiscusssomeapproachesforunderstandinginterfaces and the ways they may (or may not) enable participation. 3. Enabling participation through the interface How, then, can website interfaces facilitate civic participation, particularly within the com-plex rhetorical situation of a presidential campaign? A website that enables multiple ways of reading, assembling, and understanding data and other forms of information encourages theinvention activities necessary for participation. In imagining website interfaces that invite andenable citizen engagement, I find the work of both Wysocki and Powazek helpful. Together,Wysocki’s theorizing of interfaces and Powazek’s focus on design for community provide aconcrete framework for websites that invite robust participation.The“generosity”ofinterfacesisaconceptdrawnfromAnneWysocki’sarticles“ImpossiblyDistinct” (2001)and“What Should be an Unforgettable Face” (2004),the latter co-authored with Julia Jasken. Wysocki and Jasken argued that “interfaces are thoroughly rhetorical: Inter-
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