Being Somewhere: The Meaning(s) of Location in Mobile Rhetorical Action

Jason Swarts, North Carolina State University

(Published February 28, 2012)

By some estimates, upward of 85% of American adults own a mobile phone, and 90% live in a household where one is used (Zickuhr 2). Among subscribers, 47% access data of some sort, whether that is restaurant reviews, driving directions, movie times, sports scores, or local news (Purcell, Raine, Rosenstiel, and Mitchell). They use this data to coordinate with people and environments (Ling and Yttr). Mobile device users have long been interested in data, but what differentiates the data of today from that which users accessed on personal digital assistants and other ancient predecessors of the modern smart phone is that the data changes in value and meaning across locations of access. Location is meaningful as a context in which people understand appropriate and possible ways to respond to messages, but in an era of mobile data use, location is an increasingly complicated and conflicted concept that resists stable and singular definition. Sampled from a stream of city-specific Twitter messages, we can see a number of ways that locations are casually invoked in messages that have implicit and explicit cues about how they are to be taken up and acted upon.

Some locations refer to identifiable regions or buildings or addresses, for example: “I’m spending the day at Cincinnati Premium Outlets.” The message suggests to the tweeter’s followers that they might use the information to meet up, and the location suggests that the purpose might be to go shopping. In this case, the location identified clarifies a manner in which the message can be turned into rhetorical action, the result of which is an effect in the world brought about through the information-mediated organization of actors, whether human or non-human. Drawing on Ann Freadman’s work, rhetorical action accomplishes “uptake” or the conversion of information to actions in the world. The message moves followers to a particular action by providing a business name that can be used with a mapping application. Another more interesting example is “DENSE FOG ADVISORY UNTIL 10AM. THICKER EAST OF CINCINNATI.” The message indicates a fairly unspecified geographic location, “east of Cincinnati,” and yet it does communicate other aspects of location that are pertinent to how the information is used. Recipients know a general geographical area in which to exercise caution. They also know a time frame during which that location will require extra caution (i.e., from now until 10 AM). The message is less specific about the rhetorical action and uptake it is supposed to achieve. The interpretation is left open, as weather conditions merit. Still another example is “At LinkedIn LIVE Raleigh at RBC Center with @[username].” We get a location that is more or less explicit, an indication of the time frame when this location is meaningful (i.e., now), and a sense of why it is meaningful because of who occupies it. All of these locations hold significance for the tweeters, and assuming that the choices of what to say are deliberate, we can also conclude that those location attributes (e.g., names, times, regions) are also significant for using the location in support of rhetorical action.

As these examples indicate, locations matter, enough so that people consistently inquire about them in even the most routine wireless and mobile communications (Gant and Kiesler 122, 130). Yet empirical and anecdotal evidence alike underscores a location “paradox” engendered by mobility (Arnold 244). Mobile devices allow us to be less tied to locations, whose boundaries are increasingly blurred and overlapping, but data sharing and coordination requires awareness of location as a context of action. The paradox is accentuated at the same time it is rendered invisible by getting collapsed into the operational concept of “location” found in many mobile applications. There, location is a combination of place-based attributes, such as sizes, addresses, and names, but also cues about the most conventional activities occurring there (e.g., shopping, hiking, etc.) and the relationship one is anticipated to have with other inhabitants.

This proliferation of meaningful attributes about location has much to do with the mobility afforded to both the creators and consumers of these messages. When people are mobile, location is destabilized, doubled and redoubled in meaning, making it challenging to understand locations as contextual constraints on rhetorical action. Still, we have come to rely on the complexity that attends mobility because of the flexible mediation it allows. Mobile devices of all kinds, but phones most iconically, have contributed substantively to a reorganization of our social, professional, and civic lives. Barry Wellman described this reconfiguration as "a paradigm shift [. . .] in the ways in which people and institutions are actually connected. It is a shift from being bound up in homogenous ‘little boxes’ to surfing life through diffuse, variegated social networks" (10). The invocation of a Kuhnian paradigm is appropriate in that mobile devices change how we see our tasks, environments, and the people around us. The networking afforded by these devices has become a “horizon of thought and action” – not just a model that correctly or incorrectly describes our world but an inherent condition or prevailing cultural logic that frames how we conceive of action at all (Castells; Eriksson 318). As Wellman sees it, such networking has shifted attention away from locations as points of stability toward locations as networks of people, buildings, events, data, and other human and non-human actors that interact around a representation of the location they share (16, 18).

Take Take Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, NC. At once, it is part of a university campus, but also a location at the boundary of a residential and commercial area of town. It is on a city street. It is a historic location. On Thanksgiving Day, it is part of a 5k route. Which of these identifiers fully captures its role as a context of meaning? It is all of them and none of them. In the absence of a definitive identity, we perform locations with the information we bring to them or that we can access through the interfaces of applications that make these locations visible and shareable. What the concept of location mashes together are the qualities of place (an ordered, proper, and stable representation of elements) and space (a motivated enactment of a place). The distinction is complicated and hardly settled, but for my purposes, we can draw on a few affinities across uses of the terms. My preference comes from Brewer and Dourish:

"Seeing the social as effectively separate from and consequent to an underlying physical world of which spatial dimensions are essential properties […] confuses the world itself with the concepts that we use to understand and refer to that world. The very features that the geometric view describes as ‘essential’ properties of the everyday world—orthogonal axes, infinite planes, and dimensionless points—are themselves social products, and elements whose appropriate use is negotiated through linguistic and social interaction” (964)

Importantly, spaces are "the outcome of particular ways of reasoning about and representing the world" (965), that may be anticipated in an ordered, place-based representation of location but that may also be in conflict with operational renderings of locations as units of information for supporting rhetorical action and uptake (Bidwell and Browning; Landgren and Nulden; Straus, Bikson, Balkovich, and Pane).

To situate the issue on more familiar ground, the problem of understanding location is connected to how we understand context as an aspect of a rhetorical situation in which we would interpret a message or create one. Lloyd Bitzer argues that context is a critical component of a rhetorical situation, out of which we expect words and information to acquire meaning, allowing us to “[alter] reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action" (3). What Bitzer describes is the outcome of what I have been calling rhetorical action and uptake. When we are mobile, however, the configuration of contexts of action change. More than just change, they overlap and become more complicated. We experience these contexts as hybridic (de Souza e Silva; Swarts and Kim), shaped by slow moving qualities of material places and fast moving qualities of discourse by which those contexts are also marked (de Souza e Silva and Sutko). Context is reducible to neither; instead, the material and the discursive are “doubled” (26) where information about location is mediated by perceived physical qualities of the underlying place that afford possible utterances or “possibilities for becoming” (34). Our ability to recognize the range of possible utterances hinges on our decisions about how to represent the complexity of those locations. We know that context is shifting, emphasizing both place and the possibilities for action in it, as in Figure 1, which renders location as commercial, suggesting an appropriate rhetorical action and uptake, reinforced by the kinds of actors captured in the representation (e.g., businesses).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Mobile application showing current location and businesses in close proximity.

Contexts also acquire meaning in how they express possibilities for movement, as in Figure 2, showing different ways one might experience a location whether choosing to travel by bus, car, or shoe leather (Figure 2). The application wants us to see location as a point on a grid, connected to other points by public roads, bike paths, and walking paths. In this way, the interface mediates by controlling the possible meaningful interactions with a given location.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Car, bus, and foot routes maintain same view of the locations through which those routes pass.

Ultimately, when choosing how to represent locations as contexts of rhetorical action, designers must make choices, but in doing so must remember that all places commit users to particular ontological and epistemological engagements with those locations. Materially, we look at the configuration of a place and its furnishings to determine how best to engage with the people and things we find there (Brand, Whyte). The furnishings invite a response in the way that receiving a message in a particular location invites a response that is appropriate for uptake in that situation, whether determined materially (Heath and Luff, Suchman), professionally (Berkenkotter and Hanganu-Bresch, Mirel), or legally (Schryer, Afros, Mian, Spafford, and Lingard). Although locations may provide some physical constraints on how messages result in uptake, the process is also shaped discursively through the ways that we talk about locations. To start, the discursive representations we choose for locations portray the motives, intents, and experiences found there (Tuan 179) even while stifling their flexibility and dynamism. As an operational concept in mobile applications, locations are portrayed as stable and place-like even though they are the sites of potentially complex and unpredictable rhetorical action. Thus, to take location as a focal point through which to understand rhetorical action, we must develop a more complex understanding of location as a unit of information. To get a sense of how we might accomplish this task, we can look at the ways that location is invoked in mobile messages.


The data analyzed in the remainder of this article will suggest what mobile users find meaningful about locations. An analytic presupposition is that mobile users reference attributes of locations that they find meaningful to the uptake of their messages. By examining the kinds of locations and attributes associated with them, we can come to understand how those representations of location invite utterances that support meaningful rhetorical action. Questions considered include:

  • What locations do mobile users find meaningful?
  • What information needs do users invoke location to address?
  • What attributes are invoked to invite effective uptake of messages within a particular locational context?

Data Collection and Reduction

I required access to a sample of messages from users who are all equally likely to use mobile applications for the same reasons. A colleague and I chose a small, criterion-based sample of messages drawn from public Twitter streams, aggregated online at ( This data collection was considered IRB exempt.

We chose four locations of equivalent population, all rated in the top 30 of Forbes’ “most wired” cities at the time of data collection: Raleigh, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and Miami (Woyke). We speculated that in cities of approximate size, mobile subscriber base, and supportive connectivity infrastructure, the users’ whose tweets we sampled would all have similar motivation and ability to tweet about locations. We collected one month of tweets from each city’s archive on Happn.In, and worked through the data inductively, filtering tweets by those that mentioned a location, where one either was or would be. Tweets that implied but did not name a location were eliminated from analysis, as were tweets that mentioned locations in the past. The selection rationale was that the tweets containing information about locations in the past tense were not likely to be used for coordinating action. In effect, we selected in tweets that appeared to invite a response, utilizing information about location provided by the tweeter. Based on this filtering of tweets, we felt confident about having selected tweets where the location information would motivate rhetorical action.

Data Coding and Analysis

Following Brewer and Dourish’s suggestion that locations can have place-like and space-like attributes we started a provisional catalog of location codes (Huberman and Miles, Saldaña 120). Based on a close reading of 10% of the tweet data from each city, we extracted locations, looked up any that were unfamiliar, and aggregated them into broader location types (Table 1). We compared the location types across cities to arrive at a common list, and then segmented the tweets into nominals to separate locations for coding.

Table 1

Table 1: Location codes derived from a catalog of locations generated on Twitter.

For instance, a tweet that said “at Starbucks” would be coded as a “Building” since it referenced an enclosed structure. “Behind Starbucks” would be coded as “Area” since it referred to a non-specific location in an open space.

After compiling the location categories, the next coding pass sought to differentiate locations based on place-like and space-like qualities. Places included: Buildings, Paths, Roads, Areas, and Geographical locations. Spaces included: Events, Relational, and Transit locations, all of which defined locations by the traces of activities occurring there. The purpose of coding locations on these grounds was to group them together on the expectation that they would express similar kinds of locational attributes.

The third coding pass attempted to look at representational choices made about locations. A set of provisional codes based on Curry’s distinctions between topographic (i.e., lived experience), chorographic (i.e., functional), and geographic was used to reclassify the locations (681) and point to the kinds of information tweeters included in support of rhetorical action.

Results: Types and Uses of Locations

Alone, the frequency data do not tell us much, other than that users do talk about locations and that those locations are conceptually complex. What is more interesting and closer to the issue of how locations work comes out in the qualitative analysis in the next section. Before moving there, a few patterns are worth noting. First is that Twitter users did reference locations:

  • Cincinnati: 506 location references in 948 tweets (53.3%)
  • Miami: 603 location references in 1104 tweets (54.6%)
  • Minneapolis: 88 location references in 152 tweets (57.8%)
  • Raleigh: 116 location references in 194 tweets (59.7%)

Although the overall volume of tweets differed across cities, the relative frequency of location references per tweet was similar.

Across tweets, some location types occurred frequently: Events and Buildings. After Events and Buildings, the amounts of other locations dropped off (Table 2).

Table 2

Table 2: Frequencies of location types across data sets.

Tweets referencing Buildings included:

  • “Been hearing sound checks for Macy’s Music Festival all day at Paul Brown Stadium. It is going to be a zoo downtown tonight.”
  • “Open House Sunday, July 12 from 1:00-5:00 at 1121 Madruga Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33313.”

and Events included:

  • “Yeah-free slurpees @7-11 tomorrow.”
  • “If you are attending LinkedIN Live Raleigh Summer Edition tonight, go to RBC VIP parking.”

Less common, but certainly interesting, were Relational locations:

  • “At the Hive with WakeYR peeps: We’re getting ready for Charlie Daniels Band.”
  • “Love the triathlon going on by Lake Nomis. Don’t like cars flying down my alley since the roads are blocked. SLOW DOWN! There’s kids around.”

and Path locations:


Locations ranged from the expected to the novel, and each invoked a particular context for rhetorical action with their own appropriate or expected modes of uptake. Buildings emphasized actual built locations and invited uptake dependent on chorographic information such as street addresses and building functions (e.g., a business, an arena, etc.). Other locations, like Events, emphasized the importance of temporal information. They underscored topographic information about locations, emphasizing experiential understandings and invoking appropriate conceptual and experiential schema for practicing that space (Massey). Relational locations, likewise, pointed to the significance of topographical information: the people whom one might know and who occupy that location. Path locations also drew on topographical information concerning one’s awareness of location and movement through it, while connecting that information to geographical information to show potential or actual interactions. The point of cataloging these locations is to indicate that a recipient’s ability to act on a message (i.e., the tweet) might hinge on their ability to make those locations representationally visible in geographic, chorographic, and topographic ways. As noted earlier, however, mobile applications often flatten locations, filtering in or out the kinds of information that make locations meaningful as contexts for rhetorical action. As tools that support our ability to move between locations and engage in rhetorical action, mobile devices at once create the exigence for location-mediated rhetorical action while filtering that action through potentially impoverished representations of the rhetorical possibilities those locations hold.

We can see in those locations the kinds of representational differences that made them valuable as contexts for motivating rhetorical action.

Some locations foregrounded topographical representations:

  • Event: temporary or conditional locations that are defined by an event occurring there. The location is significant while the event is happening and either ceases to be significant or changes in significance afterward. Codes: Event:Area (N=161 [19.7%]); Event:Building (N=300 [36.8%])
  • Social: locations defined by interactions with other people or that are defined by some personal significance (e.g., “my house”). Codes: Relational:Area (N=23 [21.1%]); Relational:Building (N=46 [42.2%]); Relational:Event (N=43 [39.4%])

Chorographic locations referenced symbolic representations that might appear on common mapping applications (Curry 685). Examples included references to place names, commercial areas, school zones, and voting districts. These were locations whose symbolic representations indicated particular actors, identities, relationships, and histories as well as conceptual and experiential schema for inhabiting those roles (Tuan 18, 45). Three in particular:

  • Municipal: locations defined primarily within or around cities/towns (e.g., street addresses, neighborhoods) or by function (e.g., parks). Codes: Road:Building (N=19 [40.4%]); Road:Area (N=10 [21.2%])
  • Commercial: locations defined and identified by a particular commercial activity, such as bars and amusement parks. Codes: Geographical:Building (N=108 [36.1%]); Building:Event (N=300 [52.6%])
  • Transit: locations through which people or things move, such as roads, airspace, rail stations. Codes: Transit:Area (N=4 [26.6%]); Transit:Event (N=4 [26.6%])

Finally, there were references to geographic locations, which differed from chorographic locations because of an emphasis on spatial descriptions that were geometric or otherwise quantifiable (Curry 685). These were locations marked by GPS coordinates, elevations, and cardinal directions.

  • Geographical: cartographically defined locations marked by measurable means. Codes: Geographical:Path (N=36 [12%]); Geographical:Building (N=42 [14%]).

Each kind of representation commits users to a particular awareness of location as a context for rhetorical action that is accomplished through the concatenation of multiple streams of information, often across applications. For example, chorographic locations are well represented in typical mobile applications, often on a city street grid, showing roads, interstates, and other transit points. These views allow easy coordination with data such as traffic reports and GPS data on bus coordinates. Applications showing Commercial locations connect well with streams of information like customer reviews, social networks, location check-ins, product barcode data, and even itineraries and to do lists. They are highly flexible and combinable data streams. In a broader sense, the extent to which these representational qualities of locations are reinforced by the mobile applications we use to receive messages will determine how well our rhetorical actions are supported in response. When they are not, it is because the representations of location available to us do not render locations visible in a manner that supports the rhetorical action called forth in a given message. In the section that follows, I will demonstrate using two case studies of mobile messages as they might be acted upon using typical location-based mobile applications.

While the locations discussed so far already imply a doubled or hybridized experience, locations are doubled again through combined reference. For instance, Buildings and Events were frequently invoked together:

  • “Tweetup here at Mill City Museum...lots of young ppl here, way to go Citizen's League for getting a good crowd 4 Dan Wilson.”
  • “DJ SIRE ESQ.: Playing a show in Fort Lauderdale, FL at 7:00 PM today at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.”

The appropriate invited uptake in situations like this requires rhetorical action that coordinates people and environments. To attend an event, one needs to be aware of location in two ways: what time is the event in relation to current time and where the building is located in city space. Many of these juxtaposed references say where events are happening, making the event easier to find and to coordinate with other relevant sources of information, like driving directions and the locations of contacts with whom one might be meeting.

Events also blended with Areas, especially when events were moving (i.e., a pub crawl) or distributed (e.g., restaurant tour) or when they spilled over multiple locations (e.g., a block party). Examples include:

  • “Muscle car porn at the State Fair.”
  • “Going to our neighborhood block party - beautiful night for it.”

Acting on these events required transformation of information across modes of representation. For instance, the tweet about a muscle car show may prompt the sharing of information across topographic representations (is the event worth attending) and chorographic representations (where are the fairgrounds and where in the fairgrounds is the event located). The tweet about the block party requires a similar translation, starting with topographic information, the areas of town with which one may have social connections (where this friend lives) and chorographic information (where the block is located). Whether someone chooses to act on this information depends on whether the person sharing it is a social acquaintance and if the event is locatable. Similar analyses apply to other common, compound locations, like Geographical: Event and Building: Area.

Ultimately, we can judge the suitability of mobile applications by attempting to understand the kinds of rhetorical action they mediate and what kind of information about location they offer. The locations invoked in this study suggest a number of information types and associated rhetorical actions:

  • Activities: what is happening in a location and how to participate.
    • “Powderhorn Park fireworks R beautiful & the whole vibe is the Southside of Mpls-that's my hood!”
    • “Massive power outage on the West side of Cincinnati.”

    • Times and Dates: durations and dates associated with locations and how to coordinate.
      • “International Space Station will pass over Cincinnati at 9:27pm tonight. Go outside [and] watch it start from the NW to directly overhead to SE.”
      • “Tonight & every last Friday of the month join the party in Little Havana for Viernes Culturales (7-11PM).”

      • Conditions: the state of a location, expressed as information affecting interactions with that location or its inhabitants (e.g., weather, prices, reviews, rates of movement).
        • “Coffee shop that I'm at blocks SMTP but not BitTorrent. Interesting choice of filters, thank goodness for my awesome firewall at work.”
        • “Downtown is packed with girls going to Beyonce at Target Center. Driving down 1st Ave is not advised.”
        • “Looks like lots of trees are down on houses in Holly Springs... weather updates on the #wral website.”

        • People: the presence of other people in a location and their relationship to the user.
          • “@[username] if u come down to moore square to see joan jett, let me know!”
          • “at kings island with [name] she fooling if she think I’m gettin on any roller coasters”
          • “Chill'n with @[username] @[username] @[username] among others in Myrtle Beach.”

          • Trajectories: the direction and speed of a location, object defining a location, and locations within a path that may intersect with a user’s own movements.
            • “en route to sawyer point.cincy fam where you at?!?”
            • “Heading back from the Blue Earth County Fair.”

            Each source of information implies a different kind of appropriate rhetorical action within a fairly complex ideation of location. For instance, the tweet “@[name] if u come down to moore square to see joan jett, let me know!” sends a fairly clear message about uptake. The addressee is informed of a concert (Joan Jett) in a reasonably well-defined area (Moore Square). The implied uptake is for the addressee to come to Moore Square and attend the concert. First one needs to locate Moore Square, which is relatively easy. This information must be coordinated with time information and expected duration of the concert, which is also easy to acquire. Getting to Moore Square, one either needs to locate driving directions or check GPS coordinates of public transportation options to arrive at or near Moore Square within the window of time for the concert. Once at Moore Square, the sender of the tweet must be located, information that may be deduced from looking at photos linked to the original tweet, showing the sender’s vantage point in relation to the stage. I have made this example more complicated than it needs to be, but for a point: uptake results from rhetorical action that utilizes a chorographic and topographic representation of Moore Square. For a relatively simple task, like meeting a friend, the rhetorical effort is not insurmountable, but it is not difficult to imagine a situation in which the challenges are greater, in which the rhetorical action is more complex and the representations of location required for successful uptake are more complex as well.

            When they work well, mobile applications make locations visible and actionable in ways that are rhetorically appropriate. They facilitate locative shifts that allow chorographic locations (e.g., a residence) to blend with geographic locations (e.g., in the path of a storm). Yet some representations of a location that are available may be “under fitted” to one’s expected or actual experience (Bidwell and Browning 17-19, Straus et al.) and may actually inhibit appropriate responses. I will close this paper by considering two examples.

            Challenges to Mobile Messaging: Two Examples

            What the coding of the Twitter data shows us is that when people craft messages that invoke location, they ascribe specific informational attributes to those locations. The importance of location is further underscored and complicated by the mobility of the message creators and receivers, who may experience those locations differently and require different ways of rendering them visible. Descriptively, the Twitter data give us a sense of the range of location types and their informational attributes. What remains to be clarified are two points. The first is that the messages we act upon, while mobile, require specific ways of thinking about location. The second is that the way we want locations made visible and operationally accessible changes in response to temporary needs for coordinating with other data streams (like contacts, lists, emails, and other applications). Many mobile applications, however, deal with simple and mono-vocal renderings of location as chorographic, topographic, or geographic contexts. Effective uptake requires a more dynamic and complex rendering of location, as I will demonstrate with two examples.

            Figure 3 shows a mobile weather alert, much like those many of us receive on our mobile devices. The purpose is to warn of potentially dangerous weather, like thunderstorms, tornadoes, and floods.

            Figure 3

            Figure 3: EMS mobile message warning of a thunderstorm.

            Based on what one can learn from location information in the message and from knowledge of location, the recipient can decide on the appropriate rhetorical action to achieve an expected or prudent uptake. Is it to take shelter immediately? Avoid an area of the city? Is it simply to exercise caution? Another aspect of an appropriate response may include sharing information with others, warning them about the possible threat. The rhetorical situation is one that includes the recipient, who is motivated to keep safe, take shelter, and warn others to do the same. Doing so is the uptake that is invited through the rhetorical action of coordinating that message with a particular awareness of location. The weather system invites awareness of location as an AREA and an EVENT. It requires awareness of where one is located relative to the weather front and knowledge of where others are as well. Knowing how to respond appropriately depends on having information about the location including time/date, conditions, and trajectories. It is already clear that this location crosses location types and draws upon multiple kinds of information, presenting interesting challenges to uptake.

            First, we learn about where the center of the thunderstorm is geographically: 8 miles West of Carpenter, 12 miles Southwest of Hope Mills. Another way to see this EVENT is as a line that extends 5 miles South of Chapel Hill to 6 miles Northeast of Red Springs. The importance of seeing location as a line (i.e., a trajectory) is to extrapolate points of intersection with one's own location, also perhaps represented as a trajectory between two points (current location and destination). So, whether one is stationary (e.g., in a house) or moving (e.g., in a car), pinpointing the location of the thunderstorm requires some transformation across representational states. As an EVENT, this location has meaning as a representation of a weather condition and as a trajectory. The mode of expressing this location fits most map-based representations of location. Complicating the picture is that the line is moving – East at 30 miles per hour. Location is changing and following a PATH that includes: various municipalities, geographic locations, and an airport. While each location can be identified on a traditional chorographic view of the area, the EVENT:PATH, and the recipient’s current location and movement are also relevant for uptake because those locations (self and thunderstorm) will potentially intersect. Also relevant is that the location has a duration (i.e., time/date significance): 4:02 am until 4:45 am. Many mobile applications would be challenged to show locations as PATHS and would struggle to show times/date-dependent locations or EVENTS as locations. Regardless, to utilize the information in this message, one must rely on a representation of location that affords all of these readings.

            Complicating this uptake is that the meaning of the message varies by the recipient’s location. For this reason, uptake is uncertain. There are many ways the message could result in rhetorical action, but we can make the point by considering two: getting out of the storm path and warning others out of the path. Given these tasks, location is meaningful as a coverage AREA. If driving, one can act on weather information by pinpointing a current GEOGRAPHIC location, which is not always easily determined by mediating structures found on roads, coordination with which is achieved only when the location referenced in the message is made visible with information that is compatible with the street signs as the immediately-relevant mediating information source. Information on the sides of highways or interstates may lend itself better to fixing one’s GEOGRAPHIC location. Here, there is need to shift information about location from one mode of representation to another. This shift alone might be supported by a mobile application, but adding the significance of time and trajectory may not.

            For more severe weather, mobile users may need to be aware of where loved ones are. They may need to know about evacuation routes, traffic congestion, and about local hazards, such as downed power lines, downed trees, and fires. All of this information, which is essential to actionable representation of location in a given moment, represents a level of complexity that would be difficult to achieve in a single interface. The result is that one's ability to reason about this location and decide on an appropriate uptake is constrained.

            The broader point I hope to have made through this example is that this message does invoke a sense of location that is as rich and complex as those referenced by the Twitter users, and further, that informational complexity is essential, not peripheral, to how people act on these messages.

            Amber Alert messages provide a nice second example. The website, ( informs potential subscribers that the purpose of the service is to "help galvanize communities to assist law enforcement in the search for and return of" children who have been abducted. The intended uptake of these messages is clear. Information about missing children and potential suspects is sent to mobile subscribers, who participate in the search by distributing the effort otherwise assumed by law enforcement. Those behind the service specify that subscribers can sign up for alerts in their zip code or up to five zip codes, but considering that in some large cities more than five zip codes might be found within the city limits, it becomes clear how these messages are intended for very targeted, location-sensitive delivery.

            Consider this example: “AMBER ALERT 7 Richmond VA CAR: Burg Ford Taurus VA, AAA000 CHILD: 5yrs B/F 4.2” 80lbs Eye:brn Hair:blk SUS: 42yrs B/M 5.7” 250lbs Eye:brn Hair:blk CALL: 804-556-6656.” The child and the suspect indicated in the message both have locations that are meaningful chorographically and geographically. The burgundy Ford Taurus occupies a GEOGRAPHIC:TRANSIT location. Chorographically, the car belongs to a particular state registry (MUNICIPAL) and is traveling, presumably, on city roads, highways, or interstates (TRANSIT). Details relevant to establishing this location include the time/date of abduction (if known), trajectory of travel, suspects and companions (i.e., people), and possibly conditions (e.g., if the suspect is armed). Here, location is not just doubled, but tripled. There are the chorographic locations through which one travels, the traveling topographic location that the suspect and kidnapped child occupy (i.e., the car), and the chorographic location occupied by the message recipient (i.e., MUNICIPAL:RELATIONAL:GEOGRAPHIC). Some of these locations are moving and others are stationary. Should someone encounter the suspect vehicle, it would become necessary to be aware of one’s own location and the suspect’s location, linking both to information about movement and speed in order to communicate those details back to law enforcement. To do this, mobile subscribers need both a topographic, chorographic, and geographic awareness their locations.

            Further, whether a person receives the text at all depends on the zip codes in which the subscriber has elected to receive alerts. When travelling, those zip codes may not be reflective of a person’s current location, and so the first point of coordination is to determine if the message is relevant to where one is currently located. Many of these qualities of location are, to a degree, represented in chorographic views, but should vehicles be found off the streets, that information may be more difficult to capture and convey. In this case, appropriate uptake requires articulation of multiple kinds of locational information, requiring multiple ways of making locations visible. Other factors that may complicate uptake come about when vehicles cross boundaries between different kinds of locations: into new zip codes, across state lines, or into different law enforcement jurisdictions. As with the storm location message, awareness of location is pivotal to appropriate interpretation and action. Here also, location is complicated by mobility and the shifting ways in which people are aware their location(s).


            From this analysis of location, we can derive a few lessons. The first is that people mean various things by location, when invoked in the context of a message. The list of attributes, including conditions, times/dates, and trajectories is not likely to be exhaustive, but instead indicative of the kinds of information that people will use. These data represent a snapshot of location at a moment in time, when those representational attributes were rhetorically meaningful. The uncertainty of mobile rhetorical action means that the full complexity of relevant location attributes cannot be known ahead of time. At best we can only be aware that the significance mobile users attach to location will vary with the discourses used to engage with other actors, whether people and other sources of information.

            My particular concern, as a technical communicator, is with the way that representations of location make assumptions about how people reason with or rationalize location-sensitive activities, especially those that require the coordination of different sources of information and, through that, the coordination of groups of people. If we can think about location as information, with immutable, mobile, combinable, and coordinative properties, we can begin to think of ways that studies of use can influence the construction of those representations, so that the immutability of information about location does not become a hindrance to use. Thinking of alternatives will require us to consider more closely how location matters for responding to messages within mobile contexts. It will require closer consideration of the discursive activities in which mobile users engage. It will require us to consider how location is transformed into information that can be adequately captured in a mobile interface. How can locations be made to represent time-based information? How can locations better capture the perspective of being "in" a location and the ways that being so located holds meaning? Accomplishing these tasks may require reconceptualizing locations in network terms, as linked-together bits of compatible information that are heterogeneous and separate but that serve a rhetorical purpose when combined in a moment of mobile rhetorical exigence. These are questions that we, in writing studies, are uniquely qualified to investigate, and this article is intended as a step in that direction.


            1 My intent is not to resolve conflicts in the literature about place and space, for that discussion is too rich and sprawling to treat adequately here. Instead, I will take a stance and draw on common aspects of some definitions of place and space, namely that places are ordered, official, and planned. They are sites of power, authority, and strategy. Spaces are not so much physical as they are traces of practices enacted in a place, whether in accord with the strictures of place or against them. Relating these terms to rhetorical activity leads me to think of locations as being places in that they are operationalized as ordered, conventional contexts for the uptake of messages but also as spaces where routine uptake or rhetorical action is possible but potentially destabilized by our desire to be mobile and to take up messages in subversive or unexpected ways. The conflict I aim to point out is that mobile applications want to operationalize locations as places but our mobility results in spatial practices that may chafe against the mono-vocal presentations of location as a place.

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