The Web as a Rhetorical Place


Nicholas C. Burbules

University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign


            Nicholas C. Burbules, “The Web as a rhetorical place.” Silicon Literacies, Ilana Snyder, ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), 75-84.



            It is a significant feature of the World Wide Web that hyperlinks operate as both semantic and navigational elements. On the one hand, links suggest meaningful associations between web pages or web page elements, and can facilitate the tropic creation of new meaningful associations.[i] These links and associations can be read critically, suggesting ways of thinking about the relations between web pages or web page elements that the authors may or may not have intended.

            On the other hand, these hyperlinks are also navigational pathways: avenues of movement from page to page, throughout the Web. In this context many questions can be explored about how links facilitate or inhibit such movement: for example, how software filters, by blocking access to certain sites, inadvertently also block access to other sites linked to them, including sites that can be reached only via blocked sites.[ii] Issues of access, issues of implicit encouragement of movement along certain paths and discouragement of others, issues of path markers that help users know where they are in the web space, as opposed to those that tend to let them get lost, are all crucial matters of design not only because they can frustrate or discourage users (especially novice users), but also because they determine avenues of discovery that are facilitated or closed off. A critical and reflective attitude toward such experiences can ask how and why they happened, and in this can reveal important characteristics of the Web and how it is constructed. Many have written about the experience of getting lost in the Web, but there have been few explorations of how this experience of getting lost itself constitutes a key potential learning moment.[iii]

            These two dimensions of hyperlinks, the semantic and the navigational, play a key role in relation to each other. In this essay I will discuss how they are inseparable, and how this inseparability in the context of the World Wide Web helps constitute the distinctive kind of place the Web is.

            This inseparability thesis is not all that remarkable. Indeed, the very terms we use for rhetorical associations often imply movement: “trope” comes from “turning,” “metaphor” comes from “carrying over” meanings from one term to another, “metonymy” is often explained as a relation of semantic contiguity, we talk about “turns of phrase” (in other words, many rhetorical terms are themselves figurative). But it is revealing to see this connection played out in the context of the World Wide Web because the Web is contested territory. Struggles over building or controlling “portals” that shape avenues of access to the Web, the ways that search engines direct lines of inquiry into certain sites rather than others, and the various devices used by designers to gain “eyeballs,” that is maximizing the number of visitors who click on the site (whether they intended to come to it or not), all raise the stakes of shaping pathways of navigation for the sake of advertising revenues or for the self-fulfilling notoriety of being a definitive or “most frequently visited” site. The effects of filters to shut off certain parts of the Web, just mentioned, have the opposite sort of influence. Either way, the strategies of channeling and directing navigation through the Web always have significant semantic implications because they shape and constrain the range of possible meanings users can derive from their investigations. While there seems to be a high degree of choice in how and where users move within the web space, the pragmatics of limited time and resources, of inexperience, or of minimizing inconvenience and complexity can all conspire to encourage more passive navigational strategies, and as such, susceptibility to a higher degree of semantic manipulation. Hence it is even more important today to teach (especially novice users) a range of searching and investigative strategies, as well as a certain degree of critical distance from what they do — and do not — find as they explore the Web.



            What are some general features of hyperlinks as they currently operate within the World Wide Web? Several characteristics are immediately apparent. First, these links are bi-directional — users can go from page A to page B and return from B to A — but this relation is not symmetrical. Users must usually perform extra work within the browser’s conventions to return from B to A, and (especially having seen A already) the movement from B to A does not have the same semantic effect as the movement from A to B. For example, moving from a page about IQ and intelligence to a page about the ideas of leading figures in eugenics may make users think about the implications of “innate” theories of intelligence for selective breeding; moving from a page about the ideas of leading figures in eugenics to a page about IQ may make users wonder how intelligent those thinkers actually were.

            Second, hyperlinks are one-to-one links: from a point within one web page to a point within another web page (normally, to the web page as a whole, sometimes to a particular passage or term within it) or, as in tables of contents, to later points within the same web page. This point-to-point movement suggests a binary semantic relation, and not a multiple one; of course, there can be lists of links, and links to links, but each association is still a linked pair. This may not be regarded as a problem if one takes an analytic, atomistic view of meaning; but if one reviews meanings as multiple, mutilayered, and semantically complex (and even internally inconsistent or conflicted), this binary form may have a limited capacity to represent such complexity.

            Third, hyperlinks are, given current technologies, static: the same link will always take users to the same URL unless the author changes the underlying HTML code (of course, what is found at that URL may change, may be frequently updated, etc.). This relates to a fourth aspect of links — that they are author-driven. While there are emerging ways for users to modify links, annotate them, or add to them, in practice most users take the links they are given for granted. Because they are static and operate almost instantaneously, they tend to be invisible as moments themselves. Even pointing out that links are not simply navigational tools but ways of conveying meaning comes as a surprise to users who simply regard them as short cuts to move around the Web (as with “worm holes,” Web users go in one place and instantly come out another).

            Fifth, there are different ways in which a hyperlink, and the content of the link, can be represented. Often, for example, a link is simply described by the URL to which it will carry users; or it is described by the title of the page, or a key word, or the name of the page’s author or sponsor, and so on. Sometimes the link is represented graphically, even when the content that it is linked to is not graphic at all. There are many possibilities here, but speaking broadly the designer can create certain expectations about the site linked to, by how the link is represented; this interpretive set may be ironic, critical, or humorous, but typically it is “literal” in the sense that the representation in the link is intended to tell users more or less straightforwardly what they should expect if they go there. Still, this is not necessarily the case, and here again there are possibilities for semantic playfulness and complexity.

            This brief survey of the structure of hyperlinks as they currently work in web pages suggests some of the ways in which their semantic possibilities are limited by their navigational features. The binary, static form of hyperlinks tends to encourage more associationist relations of meaning. Their forms of representation and their author-driven constraints tend to encourage more literal interpretations of what the links are connecting. Users can reinterpret these associations, can question them, can add to them their own meanings, or they can use the links in ways that go at cross-purposes to what the authors might have intended — but all of these responses require some additional effort and, usually, some consciousness of what the intended purposes of the link were, as well as a decision or choice to use it or interpret it differently. Such responses involve raising to consciousness the fact of the link as a non-neutral design decision, and as an occasion for critical analysis and reflection.

I have discussed elsewhere these second-order activities of actually questioning and critically interrogating links, and resisting the associations that they invite users to make without thinking.[iv] When users do this, new possibilities emerge, not only for avoiding manipulation or being led to connections that insinuate meaningful relations without arguing for them, but also for forging more dynamic and creative understandings of the material at hand. This suggests that the function of critically hyperreading is not just negative, rejecting misleading or manipulative associations; it also creates room for new ways of interpreting the links users encounter, which is in one sense a part of forging new links of their own. But as I have stressed, these semantic possibilities relate to, and can be constrained by, navigational possibilities. Some connections are simply closed off (you can’t get there from here), as when filters intervene; there are meanings to be derived from that fact, but users cannot work with material that is not available to work with. When links offer only the options of going forward or back along a linear sequence, they constitute a relatively more closed semantic system than when A goes to B goes to C and beyond (this might be termed a more rhizomic architecture). Bookmarking sites, and organizing those bookmarks in a browser, is one way of clustering linked sites and creating an idiosyncratically meaningful way of relating them; but this is a limited technology and, unless users post these in a way that is accessible to others, they have no influence on how those links will be read generally.



            When I call the Web a rhetorical place, I am choosing that term over rhetorical space for an important reason. A place is a socially or subjectively meaningful space; it shares both the navigational and the semantic elements I have been discussing. It has an objective, locational dimension: people can look for a place, find it, move within it. But it also has a semantic dimension: it means something important to a person or a group of people, and this latter dimension may or may not be communicable to others.

Calling the Web a rhetorical space captures the idea of movement within it, the possibility of discovering meaningful connections between elements found there; but it does not capture the distinctive way in which users try to make the Web familiar, to make it their space — to make it a place. Individual users do this by selecting a home page for their browser, by bookmarking sites, by visiting the same familiar sites frequently, and by making their own web pages. Groups online do this by creating online communities, or by constituting themselves as a “web ring,” linking their pages to each other. These strategies involve carving out or creating a more familiar, accessible subset of the Web as a whole, and marking in various ways (individually or collectively) a set of meaningful relations within that zone. When users are in a place, they always know where they are, and what it means to be there.

            Calling the Web a rhetorical place suggests, then, that it is where users come to find and make meanings, individually and collectively. It is not simply a huge online encyclopedia, a font of information, or a midden. The Web can be used for various purposes (buying, selling, advertising), but even in engaging these more instrumental functions there is typically a result of learning something, and of learning something about the Web itself. Analogies used to describe the Web (a library, a marketplace, a classroom) often emphasize these instrumental functions — but like a library, a marketplace, or a classroom, the Web is also a place where people come to be with other people. These encounters are not always easy or pleasant, to be sure. As with other public places the Web can be a site of conflict, harassment, crime, crudity, and unwanted company. To avoid such nuisances, users sometimes intentionally truncate their web journeys; they only visit sites approved by authorities whom they trust; they limit their interactions with anyone online they do not already know. The place they have chosen or created is, they hope, a “safe place”; but in making this choice of restricted movement they are also making a choice about restricted meanings.

It is possible to theorize more broadly about what is going on here. There are two distinctive ways in which we turn spaces into places.[v] One is by mapping: by developing schemata that represent the space, identify important points within it, and facilitate movement within the space. A map is never an exact replica (as the story goes, the only map that would be identical would be an exact copy of the original, which would be useless as a map) — a map always simplifies, selects, and schematizes the original, and it is the particular way in which this simplification, selection, and schematization occur that makes the space a place. These are pragmatic activities; we make these, and not other, choices because they allow us to do certain things in the space that are meaningful and important to us. Certainly, there can be multiple maps, and in this sense they constitute different places, even when they refer to the same space.

            Among these many kinds of maps, there are conceptual maps: cognitive representations that focus on key concepts and their interrelations to each other. Here what is highlighted are the meaningful connections in terms of which some ideas are explained or clarified by others; some are instances or tokens of some more general type; some share characteristics that make them seem similar to one another; and so on. These maps typically have a weblike form, and so seem to have an affinity with the links that constitute the Web. But this is only one possible way of mapping it.

            There are also maps that represent patterns of use. Trails that are worn by many feet tramping through forests, or across campus greens, are maps of a sort. Again, they simplify, select, and schematize a space: they identify what is important to the users, they mark out key places, they facilitate movement. They also indicate another important characteristic of maps: how they can also shape and transform the space they represent. This can be seen at work in the World Wide Web, through frequency indicators: page counters, for example, as well as ratings of “most frequently visited” sites. Such representations tend to influence patterns of future use, because they can influence how search engines pick out and identify sites, and which sites get selected for indexes. Viewed pragmatically, the representation is not discrete from the thing represented; it acts upon and is acted upon by it.

            Yet another kind of map is one showing relations of relative centrality and relative periphery, from some point or points of reference. The repetitiveness of “relative” here is not accidental: there can be no absolute center of a space that is any more necessary than any other — in fact, it is as true to say that a center is defined by the map, as to say that the map begins from a center. And a more rhizomic map may have no single center at all. But a map of relative centrality and periphery can still provide a way of simplifying, selecting, and schematizing the pragmatic relation of what is more or less useful or relevant to a given purpose, or set of purposes. This sort of endeavor can be highly useful even if there is nothing necessary about this mapping, or even if others would map it differently — indeed, we should expect that to be true in order for such maps of relative centrality and periphery to be useful to different people (because their purposes and criteria will differ). Clearly this is true of the World Wide Web, and it partly explains why there has still been no settling on a common set of definitive or crucial web sites, although there is of course a set of them that have extremely high rates of usage; even so, they might not be considered very important by their users.

These are some examples of how mapping turns spaces into places, and how these ways of thinking about mapping help us reflect on the kind of place the Web becomes for people. The second distinctive way in which spaces become places is through architecture. A space becomes a place when we build into it enduring structures. Often we live in these structures, work in them, observe or admire them. We are changed by these things we create as we change them — the relation runs both ways. Architecture here is not only the initial design or building, but the transformation of it over time; in this sense, we always help build the structures we occupy, and the structures are not fully finished until they have been used for a while (in one sense, then, they are never “finished”). Here I do not mean architecture only in the literal sense of buildings and bridges; there are architectures also of language, of customs, of complex practices and activities (games, for example). All of these can play a role in transforming a space into a place.

            Architectures transform not only a space but the patterns of activity for those who occupy them. I think that these patterns can be viewed along five polarities:

(1) movement/stasis

(2) interaction/isolation

(3) publicity/privacy

(4) visibility/hiddenness

(5) enclosure/exclusion

These dynamics can be seen in the structures of the World Wide Web, and in keeping with my analyses thus far, I will highlight the navigational and the semantic impact of these polarities.

            (1) Structures facilitate, direct, or inhibit movement. Structures in the Web (how web pages are designed, how the multiple pages within web sites are organized and interrelated, how links direct movement within and beyond a web site) create the pathways through which users must travel. There are no provisions now for reorganizing these pathways short of replicating the site and rearranging it all on the user’s own server — but then of course it is no longer the same site, the same space, but a new one. Doing so may serve a fruitful purpose in configuring a user’s own place, but clearly it cannot be done for every site users may wish to visit. This suggests an inevitable compromise between the purposes and questions with which users approach a web page or site, and the operations and answers it is willing to provide. It is like visiting a museum, wanting to learn about periods in art, and finding that the rooms have been organized by subject matter or styles of painting; all the information is there the visitor might want, but not in a pattern that supports the inferences he or she is trying to make. Which room to start with? Where to go next? The visitor’s confusion and uncertainty are also a kind of paralysis, even though the design of the museum is, on its own terms, quite clear and easily navigated.

            (2) The design of spaces also communicates assumptions and expectations about social interaction. Architectures, by directing movement, create avenues to bring people together or barriers to keep them apart. In the context of the Web, this is manifested in the ways spaces are made into places that highlight their accessibility to numerous and diverse users, displaying for example not only a rolling indicator of how many visitors a web site has received, but more substantive traces of what they found there and what they thought of it. Otherwise each new user approaches the site as if it had never been visited before (no matter how high the number on the counter). More actively, pages and sites can facilitate direct, synchronous forms of interaction, and clearly this has a profound impact on the impressions and meanings visitors form about the site and its content. Here as elsewhere, this manifests a certain easing of authorial control, since these impressions and meanings will inevitably differ from each other, and from the author’s original intent.

(3) Publicity and privacy constitute a slightly different issue, which is the extent to which an architecture allows or inhibits the disclosure of the participants’ selves, their activities, and not only their words and ideas, to others (and vice-versa). Given the opportunities for interaction just discussed, Web pages or sites may allow or encourage users to reveal their identity and to encounter those of diverse others; or these features may be hidden. Of course, such “revealed” identities can also be performances, but in many instances these performances might be no less an occasion for creative meaning-making and learning (perhaps even more so!). Architectures also influence whether such encounters, when they do happen, are simply displays, or occasions for engaging across such similarities and differences.

(4) Visibility and hiddenness, here, refer to the transparency of architectures, to what they disclose or conceal within, and to what they disclose or conceal about themselves. Another important dimension of web pages and sites is the extent to which they make explicit to the user what decisions or choices are built into their structures (and which could have been built differently). As discussed earlier, the avenues of navigation through a site may make such decisions and choices less apparent, even hidden — or may represent them as uncontroversial, even “natural,” which they never are.

            (5) Architectures also operate through enclosure and exclusion; what is counted in and what is counted out, whether this means a division of spaces, or a way of regulating who or what is allowed within. Elsewhere I have described certain web sites, or clusters of sites, as “gated communities,” built to define a community made special in its own eyes by its privileged access and built to make it feel safe so that others less worthy will not interfere with it. The very attractions of such a partitioned space give rise to its limitations: the risk of complacency and numbing homogeneity. From a semantic standpoint, if we assume that certain kinds of change and development can only come from encounters with new and challenging ideas that cannot simply be assimilated, nor easily dismissed, this architecture of enclosure and exclusion starts looking less like a protective shell, and more like a self-built trap.

            I have been arguing here that the rhetorical possibilities of web spaces need to be understood in terms of the dual character of hyperlinks: as avenues of movement and as occasions for meaning-making. But these links are not all of the same type, and they do not stand alone. Links contain within them already certain kinds of navigational and semantic possibilities, and they tend to encourage some kinds of interpretation and to discourage or avoid others. Moreover, a link is also read differently when it is situated as part of a rhetorical place; a meaningful arrangement of web space, a place that gives links context for and shapes user expectations and tendencies toward those links.

In summary, I have explained two different ways in which spaces become places — two ways in which rhetorical spaces become rhetorical places. The first is mapping, which is in some ways a more reactive process; a process of representing a space in order to be able to move and work within it. A mapped space takes on the character of a place for those who understand and can use the map. The second way in which spaces become places is through architectures; enduring structures that reconfigure spaces. This is in some ways a more active process, in which the space is not only represented (mapped) but transformed. There are at least five ways in which this transformation affects not only the configuration of space, but the activities and the persons who operate within it. These dimensions determine the kind of place it is.

I do not mean to argue that the activities of mapping and architecture are utterly unrelated or dichotomous. Sometimes a map is prefatory to designing a structure (a blueprint is a kind of map, in fact); sometimes a large, complex architectural layout requires its own map. But the ways in which they influence navigation and meaning-making are different; and in the present context they provide different contexts for thinking about how hyperlinks are interpreted and used.



            By way of a conclusion, I will mention three educational opportunities that seem to follow from this way of analyzing the Web as a rhetorical place.

            The first is that hyperlinks are not simply found. I have tended here to emphasize the ways in which existing links in web pages and web sites need to be critically scrutinized and opened up to alternative interpretations. This is the process I have called critical hyperreading. And for most users, most of the time, this is what they will be doing: working within rhetorical spaces designed by others. Making those into more familiar and fecund rhetorical places will be achieved primarily by mapping activities. At the same time, nevertheless, certain kinds of learning and creativity can only be achieved when users create web pages and sites that contain their own links: links as representations of their own “maps,” and as facilitators of further new possibilities and connections (architectures). Perhaps the five dimensions of architecture described here might provide some guidelines for building more dynamic, open, and productive hyperlinked structures.

            The second point is that for purposes of simplification I have tended to focus on particular features of spaces and places, as if they arose one at a time and could be analyzed separately. But of course that is never the case. We are in many places at the same time: a room, a home, a neighborhood — or, a language, a political group, a religion, and a friendship. Moreover, these places are not always harmonious with one another, giving rise to hybrid spaces or third spaces; positions that can yield up novel and important insights precisely because they do not fall into handy categories or distinctions. In the context of hyperlinks and the Web, this means continually resisting the binary, either/or mindset brought on by pathways that seem to take users only from point A to point B, or back again. It means trying to find within those apparently binary links moments of complexity and even paradox. Learning to do this means being able to adopt an orthogonal perspective on such matters, to think about what is not said as well as what is, and to go beyond the apparent terms of a choice to imagine it as something other than it seems to be (for example, a link between an anti-abortion page and an anti-euthanasia page).

            Finally, I want to suggest, in a very open-ended way, that we conceive of learning in the context of the Web as the achievement of a certain kind of mobility: an ability to move within, but also across and even against the pathways that seem to determine users’ options for navigation and for meaning-making.[vi] We are more mobile when we have the assistance of a good map; we are even more mobile when we have the ability to forge new paths and not only follow the ones laid out for us. Mobility is a capacity to move from place to place, but also a capacity to find and create new places; this is what makes it a valuable model for a certain kind of learning — a kind of learning that goes beyond registering information to forming the capacities of interpreting, evaluating, and adding to what is found.[vii]

[i]  Nicholas C. Burbules, “Rhetorics of the Web: Hyperreading and critical literacy.” Page to Screen: Taking Literacy Into the Electronic Era, Ilana Snyder, ed. (New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 1997), 102-122.


[ii]  Nicholas C. Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr., Watch IT: The Promises and Risks of Information Technologies for Education (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000), Chapter Five.


[iii] Nicholas C. Burbules, “Aporias, webs, and passages: Doubt as an opportunity to learn.” Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 30 No. 2 (2000): 171-187.


[iv]  Burbules, “Rhetorics of the Web.”


[v]  This discussion  is adapted and developed from a preliminary investigation in Burbules and Callister, Watch IT: The Promises and Risks of Information Technologies for Education, Chapter Eight.


[vi] It is interesting here to note as a point of contrast the synonyms that are often given for aporia: being lost, being stuck, being paralyzed, or being numb. See Burbules, “Aporias, webs, and passages.”


[vii]  The author wishes to thank Ilana Snyder for her excellent editorial input and for her more general support in stimulating and encouraging this project.