Flooding the Zone vs Flaming: Online argumentation and deliberation

In “The Logos of the Blogosphere,” Pfister employs the metaphor of “flooding the zone” to examine the role of bloggers as “potent agents of public deliberation” (p. 141). Using the 2002 controversy over Lott’s remarks while honoring Strom Thurmond, Pfister traces a timeline showing how bloggers and online commentators persistently pushed the story until mainstream media picked it up. One of these bloggers, Glenn Reynolds of the blog Instapundit, exemplified this persistence in a post that read, in all capital letters “FLOOD THE ZONE!”. This message was followed by 10 posts throughout the rest of the day, all about Lott’s comments. Pfister develops “flooding the zone” as rhetorical and argumentative strategy by tracing the phrase’s etymology to its origins in sports strategy (p. 153).

For Pfister, the strategy of zone flooding “can be connected to rhetorical invention, the generative process through which novel arguments are articulated, and this linkage clarifies how bloggers are able to shape the news agenda through public argument” (p. 142). Pfister argues that “logos, the invention of public argument, is central to the blogosphere”, and that the invention of novel arguments is a “fundamental contribution that bloggers make to public deliberation” (p. 152). To elaborate on how blogs and networked media in general lend themselves to invention, Pfister highlights three themes demonstrated in these media: speed, copiousness, and agonism.

Regarding agonism, Pfister writes that agonism has been used to dismiss contributions from the blogosphere all together due to the fragmentation and discord that agonism in the blogosphere is perceived to produce. Pfister suggests, however, that agonism “can be partially recuperated by noting how it fuels inventional processes” (p. 154). Pfister foregrounds the role of hyperlinks in contributing to agonism in blogs and networked media: “The dialogic and disputatious nature of invention is particularly on display in the blogosphere because of how hyperlinks direct attention to others’ arguments” (p. 154). This consideration of positive aspects of agonism in online deliberation resonates with Weger and Aakhus’ use of “wit testing” in examining argumentation in online chat rooms.

In their discussion of chat room arguments, Weger and Aakhus note the phenomenon of “flaming”, the “practice of issuing personal attacks in online forums through acts such as name-calling, ridicule, and personal insults” (p. 31). Like agonism in in Pfister’s discussion of blogs, the phenomenon of flaming has been cited to dismiss online deliberation as fractious and unproductive. Weger and Aakhus suggest, however, that elements of these practices and related phenomenon may be similarly recuperated. One aspect of this has to do with exposure to different arguments. “Engaging in chat room dialogue exposes participants to a variety of opinions, attitudes, and sources of information that they may have never encountered otherwise” (p. 36). Also, “chat room participants arguing with each other over issues of public importance may create a sense of community and a sense of connection to the larger ‘public’ as a whole” (p. 36).

Weger and Aakhus approach online deliberation primarily from the perspective of argumentation theory, as opposed to Pfister’s foregrounding of rhetorical theory. Yet their conclusions and implications share several similarities. Both analyses acknowledge how agonistic argumentative practices can undermine productive deliberation, while also considering novel and positive aspects of agonistic discourse uniquely afforded by the online context. Both also connect newer forms of many-to-many communication to existing theories of argument and public deliberation, showing how these theories can help to understand these developments while allowing for new perspectives to emerge.

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