Writing studies specialists have used a variety of terms to understand texts that make use of technologies and semiotic resources besides alphabetic print (Lauer, 2012), including multimodalityremixnew media, and digital rhetoric. Scholars theorizing each of these terms generally all acknowledge that writing with digital and other technologies always involves multiplicities. However, as Horner et al. (2015) point out, there is a problem in imagining multiplicities as additive and discrete rather than intertwined. The emergence of the terms like transmodality and transmedia highlights the fact that there are uses in attending to interactions—negotiations, translations, and combinations—of writing across modes, media, and technologies rather than viewing these phenomena as autonomous entities.

Shipka (2016) and others have used the term transmodality rather than similar terms like multimodality to align with translingual frameworks that foreground practice over product and that attempt to avoid artificially separating out one language from another, one mode from another, one technology from another. Horner et al. (2015) define transmodality as as a disposition rather than a practice, a way of understanding the world in contrast to the standard/single language and modal norm (SL/MN). SL/MN, the dominant paradigm, spuriously contends that monomodal or monolingual forms of communication can exist; a transmodal disposition, by contrast, acknowledges that all writing is multimodal (Ball & Charleton, 2015) and that modes are contextually contingent (Horner et al., 2015)—that is, their meaning-making potential always relies on the possibilities that a rhetorical situation can accommodate and not signs as carrying intrinsic meaning in and of themselves. A transmodal disposition attends to the mixing and interpenetration of modes and holds that modes must be defined by relationships to other modes, to media environments, to cultures, to materials.

Transmedia is often traced back to Jenkins’s (2006) foundational work and refers to ecosystems of communication that manifest across different recognizable media systems, such as books, television, comics, or video games. It is often linked to a convergence culture where technologies like mobile phones and computers have become capable of allowing consumers to interact with various forms of media through the same device, leading to the formation of new blended genres and the remediation of texts into different forms of media (Alexander, 2008).

A variety of other terms have been deployed to refer to the movement of composing across media and modes:

Diverse semiotic resources playing a collaborative in accounting for the success of an activity, where language or autonomous texts are not predefined as the sole, superior, or separate medium of consideration. Semiotic resources are not organized into separate modes; instead, all modalities, including language, work together and shape each other in communication (Canagarajah, 2018).
convergence culture
A model of media as collaborative, participatory, and distributed (between audiences, authors, industries, and platforms) enabled by globalization, mobility, and technologies that allow content to flow across platforms; convergence culture contrasts with the siloized, monolithic texts of media monopolies that dominated the 20th century (Jenkins, 2006).
Growing out of theories of semiotics and intertextuality, which hold that signs get their meaning from other signs and texts get their meaning from other texts, intermediality is the idea that media are interconnected and get their cultural meanings from other media. Intermediality highlights how different media refer to and depend on one another; how media interact as elements (not merely "platforms" in communication strategies; and how media are parts of a complex cultural ecology (Jensen, 2016).
The representation of one medium in another, such as a digital PDF that remediates a book or a website that remediates a dissertation. Remediation always involves translation of the affordances of one media to another. It also encourages audiences to "look through" one medium like a window to experience another (Bolter & Grusin, 2003).
Creative recombination of disparate materials to make a new compositions through juxtaposition. Essential to remixing is the performance or delivery of the resulting assemblage (Banks, 2014; Palmeri, 2012).
The process of moving semiotic material across modes, from one mode to another. Since one-to-one replication of meaning from one mode to another is impossible due to their uniquely different affordances, transduction always necessitates transformation in some way (Bezemer & Kress, 2008).
Content that is remediated and dispersed across multiple media forms, often interlinking, overlapping, and referencing other instantiations (Jenkins, 2006).
A disposition that considers diverse material, spatial, embodied, linguistic, and modal resources as intertwined and inseparable elements of all acts of communication. (Horner et al., 2015).

Writing studies, media studies, and rhetorical theorists continue to invent new ways to describe the powerful changes to communication introduced by 21st-century technologies. Their slippage and overlaps point to the ways new media and multimodal composition have become slippery and challenging for the disciplinary structures of the academy to label and study.


An interface is a “surface lying between two portions of matter or space, and forming their common boundary,” or, in a less literal sense, a “means or place of interaction… a meeting-point or common ground between two parties, systems, or disciplines” (OED). In the digital age, the term most frequently refers to a screen or graphical user interface, but interfaces needn’t be electronic or technically sophisticated. Carnegie (2009) notes that a printed page can be considered an interface as it serves to mediate not only a reader’s interaction with it in material ways (e.g., encouraging or impeding readability through typeface and document design) but also the reader’s interaction with the author of the text and the ideas the author intended to communicate. An interface, then, is the material space where meaning or matter crosses between agents through interaction. The material crossing through an interface often becomes transformed in the process.

Composition scholars have been writing about interfaces for some time, with the most influential example being Selfe and Selfe’s (1994) CCC article, “The Politics of the Interface.” In the article, Selfe and Selfe highlight the various metaphors employed by computer interfaces, which often get looked through rather than looked at and which promote the interests of the computers’ capitalist designers. “The interface does not, for example, represent the world in terms of a kitchen counter top, a mechanic’s workbench, or a fast-food restaurant” (p. 485-87), Selfe and Selfe observe; instead, the computer’s dominant metaphor is (still, nearly three decades since Selfe and Selfe’s article was published) a desktop, with file folders, wastepaper bins, and (when Selfe and Selfe were writing) a virtual, white gloved hand for manipulating things in the virtual space. Selfe and Selfe emphasize that certain subjectivities (white, middle-class, male) are tacitly assumed for users and advocate for mapping interfaces as texts and also teaching students to critically design ethical interfaces.

The idea that interfaces are not neutral, created with cultural assumptions “built into them”—a fact often occluded by designers’ desire to make interfaces themselves transparent, invisible—has been a common refrain for scholars of writing, literacy, and media studies (e.g., Bolter & Grusin, 2003; Brooke, 2009; Wysocki & Jasken, 2004). Interfaces are mediation, as much a process as they are material, which makes them difficult to perceive and also persuasive. As Carnegie (2009) points out, the interactive nature of interfaces engenders “increased feelings of empowerment, control, and connection,” resulting in “increased levels of acceptance” (p. 171).

If interfaces are mediation and needn’t be electronics, however, we begin to be faced with the disorientating question of what isn’t an interface?—a question with significant stakes given their ideological power. Grusin (2015) has proposed the concept of radical mediation, which “takes everything as a form of mediation,” including “flowers, trees, rivers, lakes, and deserts; microbes, insects, fish, mammals, and birds; digestion, respiration, sensation, reproduction, circulation, and cognition; planes, trains, and automobiles… it is mediation all the way down” (p. 145-46). Some have tried to narrow the parameters of interfaces. Overstreet (2018), for example, defines interfaces as “the space where the human and non-human meet” (p. 51). However, accelerating technological change—especially the development of technologies that interface more directly than the body than, say, a pencil in the hand—is making it more and more difficult to isolate where that space begins and ends (Fleckenstein, 2012; McCorkle, 2012; Porter, 2003). This nonhuman, posthuman, or transhuman turn—marked by attention to cyborg intra-actions (Barad, 2007; Haraway, 1991), haptics and disability (Watlers, 2014), and technologies that expand the human sensorium and capacity for information processing (Reid, 2019)—pushes us to consider the ways our cognition and bodies are extended by, connected to, and crossed with the nonhuman, how our bodies are interfaces as much as software and pages and screens are.

Reid (2019) draws on David Eagleton’s experiments creating new sensory experiences—a vibrating vest that lets people feel, for example, sound, the movements of the stock market, or linguistic patterns on Twitter in real time—in order to ponder what our transhuman moment means for writing.

In writing studies, principles of mediation and the transit of meaning across material and social boundaries have been been investigated for decades by genre theorists, although few scholars have explicitly conceptualized of genres as interfaces (though see Carpenter, 2009). Genres have, however, been characterized as mediational means (Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010) of activity within a community and as boundary objects (Popham, 2005; Star & Griesemer, 1989), texts that connect or circulate across communities. As both textual forms and social action (Miller, 1984), genres are interfaces between both the human/material and the individual/social. They also interface with other genres, in a a process called uptake, or “the local event of crossing a boundary” (Freadman, 2002, p. 43) or the “interplays between genres, the lines of movement and trans-actions” (Bawarshi, 2016, p. 246). Using the metaphor of a tennis ball being hit across a net, Freadman (1994) argues that genres provoke responses in the form of other genres, and when a genre is “played” (taken up), authors always put their own “spin” on as the rules of the genre “game” are translated into action by participants. This is how new genres emerge, similarly to how Bolter and Grusin (2003) describe the emergence of new technological interfaces through the remediation of extant ones. Conceiving of genres as interfaces shows us how tools for crossing divides play a role in the evolution of textual conventions and communities.

A map of a city with two intersecting lines overlaid onto it
An illustration from Guaman Poma's New Chronicle, which Mary Louise Pratt uses as a case study to construct her theory of contact zones.
A dense web of overlapping red threads from an installation by Chiharu Shiota
Social Interaction

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021