Truth and Fallacies in Virtual Rhetoric

Irina Perianova

Abstract: As Internet increasingly becomes part and parcel of our life our everyday practices shift to virtual reality sites, and for many e-agora has become a vicarious substitute for certain basic needs. However since rhetoric is founded in culture and culture is founded in rhetoric, the representations and symbols of everyday material objects will crop up in alternative reality. Feelings and messages also go viral. In many cases they may be regarded as simulacra, without any real manifestation. In this way the unmanifest becomes more manifest while the manifest is thus unmanifested.

 Keywords: rhetoric, internet, social networks, online communication, material culture online.

 Абстракт: Интернет все повече се превръща в задължителна част от нашия живот и нашите социални взаимодействия се преместват във виртуалната реалност. По този начин за много хора е- агора се превръща в алтернатива за задоволяване на  основните човешки потребности. Същевременно, тъй като реториката се базира върху културата, а културата се преплита с реториката, символичното представяне на всекидневни материални обекти неминуемо се проявява във виртуалната реалност. Емоциите и съобщенията също се преместват във виртуалните сайтове, като в много случаи те могат да се разглеждат като симулакри – изкривени копия без реално съществуващ  оригинал, който обаче се приема за нещо истинско.

Ключови думи: реторика, социални мрежи, онлайн комуникация, онлайн култура.

As Internet increasingly becomes part of our everyday life e-agora is turning into a place for a host of social interactions. Our everyday practices shift to virtual reality sites and quite frequently, these virtual interactions, a sort of wishful thinking, come to be perceived as more important than real life. For many people it becomes easier to send an Irish blessing snowballing to other people’s friends, (who might often perceive it as spam), than to have a face-to-face meeting with a neighbour offline.  Suffice it to say that linguistically, the term ‘offline’ may often be regarded as a reminder of the ‘old’ existence and may imply negative connotations. Unlike on in online, which is positive, off in offline suggests absence or undesirability of activity, end of online existence.

Like it or loathe it, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace are here to stay. Social networking has replaced face to face social contact for many people, particularly those who find it easier to relate online than in person. The findings of a May 2011 survey (www.studentbeans.com poll) seem to indicate that as many as 11 per cent of undergraduates consider Facebook as the most important thing in their university life. That’s 1 per cent higher than the figure for sex! [1]. Consequently, the blogora and e-agora in general have come to satisfy, albeit vicariously, some basic needs. In this way, the unmanifest becomes more manifest while the manifest is thus  unmanifested. 

Of course, there are notable exceptions many spam messages may be regarded as (un)manifestations on the e-agora. They are easily spotted because they use unconvincing persuasion techniques – doubtful grammar, suspicious addresses and very inauthentic names. Indeed, fake messages from, alleged employees of “Boris Mikhail Khodorkovsky” (instead of Mikhail Borisovich Knodorkovsky)  stand out as an impossibility, without any analogue in real life [2].

Feelings, messages and objects go viral crosswire, yet their online existence is based on some familiar “patterns that connect” using Gregory Bateson’s phrase in Mind and Nature (1980) [3]. In this sense they are intertextual, provided the term intertextuality be used as an overarching concept.

Feelings on line

As I have already pointed out, this new existence touches upon social interactions which have turned into a new no-no zone – for many people sex online is now preferable to real-life sex. Commenting on the results of the www.studentbeans.com  poll, sex and relationships expert Tracey Cox says, “If you’re not on a social networking site and actively checking and participating on Facebook regularly and you’re in your late teens and early 20s, you literally don’t exist. Being popular, staying abreast of new trends, knowing what your friends are up to – this is far more important to a young adult, who is usually far more self-conscious and socially nervous than you’d think, than sex.” (www.studentbeans.com) Emphasis added.

Online dating now involves millions of people, even though in many, many cases the relationship stays online forever. As late as 1992 it couldn’t be done – modems transmitted information too slowly. Then there was the scarcity of women with online access. Because in its early days the internet was prevalent in worlds that had historically excluded women – the military, finance, mathematics and engineering – women were not online in big numbers. As late as 1996 America Online estimated that of its five million users, 79 per cent were men.  (Witt, 2012) [4].

Love and revenge alike are in the virtual limelight (or should I call it log-light?) There’s also punishment exercised with immediate effect, i.e. “staged” on YouTube, for example, via undeniably popular clips, such as the well-known Australian video involving axing and flattening a car. In these clips the raw emotions are integrated with images and the audience’s involvement. Interestingly, the very existence of a video of this kind becomes evidence of a crime, whereas its making may also be regarded as such.  But in many cases, like the December 21st end of the world scare, the event has no real content – it exists only in virtual reality and its evidentiality is comes to the fore through the use of photoshop or some other complicated programme. I would compare it to Möbius strip, non orientable, with one side only. However, many people are  unamused by such virtual aggression.

Messages online

Written and verbal messages are governed by the same laws. In January 2012 an interview with Umberto Eco shocked Bulgaria. The world famous semiotician manifested his superior knowledge of life in Bulgaria and called Bulgaria a state about to vanish, a country in death throes. The alleged interview was entitled “Bulgaria? Those who are thinking about the future are emigrating from the country”. The feelings of thousands Bulgarians were divided – should they be outraged or admire the outspoken words of the famous writer and philosopher pronounced with such authority and involvement? The interview triggered off thousands of comments and the nodding of heads. By definition, the Bulgarians were deeply involved in the discussion of Bulgarian-ness.

Интервюто на Умберто Еко във Facebook е фалшиво!

Few users noted the link to the interview site – www.neverojatno.com (incredible.com) and its warning: “Everything published on this site is fiction and has nothing to do with reality. Any coincidences with real people, objects or events with the same names as characters in the written texts on this site are not intentional and accidental. Every visitor of the site unconditionally accepts the above“. The warning immediately debunked the authorship. However the authenticity of the claims was not affected at all.  

Some other titles in neveroiatno.com site:

Cameron to Merkel: Please do not refer to Bulgarians as an example;

Boikogenia – an island of stability. (Boiko Borisov is Prime Minister of Bulgaria)

Perhaps the most popular online message is a fake, but nonetheless very authentic interview with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, entitled “Bulgarians are unable to create a working state”.

Those non-existent interviews, examples of political media simulacra have become very real for many Bulgarians. They were shuttled back and forth and are accompanied by numerous comments in chat forums.

What I have described in brief is by no means an isolated example of the rhetoric of the imaginary: pictures of bombings and explosions on TV channels are often followed by the warning that they have not been verified by independent sources.

Material culture online

There is no denying that just as rhetoric is founded in culture, culture is founded in rhetoric, Hence, representations and symbols of everyday material objects will crop up in alternative reality. However the symbols of material culture also experience some weird transformations online.

Perhaps the most interesting example of material culture online is food. Virtual food ranges from virtual hospitality and rewards extended to newbies in online forums by means of edible chronotopes to a plethora of culinary sites. Cf. the following examples culled online:

Here take an Oreo;

Is your life in loops? Have a pretzel and join the Facebook;

Have a bagel; take a devilled egg!

The most prominent of restaurant sites are probably those of. McDonald’s and Burgher King which have millions of hits. The food-related words are eaten and spice somebody’s virtual existence.

Online dating services follow suit and often use food to socialize through  standard food-related invitations: Let’s grab a brunch, lunch, beer or some such for some friendly Saturday revelry; let’s enjoy a cookie; let’s get a drink!

The online symbolism of these material objects is possible only because they match the familiar offline hospitality patterns. Social distinctions or roles may also be conspicuous by their presence in forums – champagne is offered as a sign of celebration, an Oreo is a sign of simple good will.  ”The loops in your life may be untied by Facebook” as symbolized by eating a pretzel with its distinctive loops.

Can we stop eating off-line and become virtual gluttons?

Many repercussions, online and offline, were caused by another action involving food and its symbolism. I am talking about eggs fried on eternal flames, which triggered off tens of thousands of responses. As reported, in one such incident several activists were arrested for attempting to fry eggs and sausages on the eternal flame in the Park of Glory in Kyiv on December 16, 2010.  There were other incidents of egg-frying: Perhaps the best-known one is Anna Sinkova’s egg-frying ceremony in 2011. She said that the  “symbolical meaning [of her action] was that soon, very soon, veterans, old people, poor people will queue up in front of this flame to cook food there because they will have nowhere to live, nothing to cook on and nothing to eat“. The 21-year old was detained after her action. On June 20, 2011 three young men who introduced themselves as activists of the Egg Art Group, also fried eggs on the eternal flame in the Park of Glory in protest „against lawlessness of the authorities and officials.“ (www.telegraph.co.uk)  The police opened a criminal case on the desecration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kyiv based on a relevant video posted online.

Another example of material objects going viral are virtual gifts – pictures of flowers, chocolates or souvenirs – offered to visitors on many sites. They are an example of what Norman Fairclough (Language and Power, 2001) [5] called synthetic personalization – a compensatory tendency to give the impression of treating each of the people ‘handled’ en masse as an individual.

Conclusion

We are facing a topsy-turvy new brave world governed by rules that need explicating. One may turn to rhetoric to make sense of these practices and shed light on the dynamics that underpin them on the blogora.  Perhaps its metaphor could be a virtual Easter egg which is not equated semantically with a real egg, but rather with its cultural simulacrum, a mass produced chocolate surprise. Overlapping of social, cultural and linguistic practices and images, with actors, who are not always known, identifiable or indeed, have any real existence whatever, conjures up the image of a uni-dimensional Moebius strip.  It is a reflection of a reflection but its fake evidentiality hypnotizes us into believing what we have not really seen. Viral statements, feelings and symbolic objects are intertextual in the sense that they echo their usage offline.

 References:

[1] The sample size of the online survey was 2818 university students studying in the UK.

[2] See a lucid description of the false perception of the imaginary other reflected through improbable names in . Apostolova, G. (2010). Cultures and Texts. Internet, Intertext and Interculture. Blagoevgrad: South-West University Publishing House.

[3] Bateson, G. (1980). Mind and Nature, Bantam books.

[4] Witt, E. (2010). Diary, London Review of Books, October 2012.

[5] Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and Power (2nd edition). London: Longman.

Bibliography:

Apostolova, G. (2010). Cultures and Texts. Internet, Intertext and Interculture. Blagoevgrad:

South-West University Publishing House.

Bateson, G. (1980). Mind and Nature, Bantam books.

Fairclough, Norman (2001). Language and Power (2nd edition). London: Longman.

Witt, E. (2010). Diary, London Review of Books, October 2012. 

Internet sources:

 <www.neverojatno.com>

<www.studentbeans.com >

<www.telegraph.co.uk >

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  • Научното електронното списание „Реторика и комуникации” започва да се издава като част от дейностите по проект № 167 от 2011 г., НИС, СУ „Св. Климент Охридски” „Особености на академичната комуникация в интернет (Уеб 2.0): писане и публикуване в научни електронни списания”.
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