Writing in Digital Spaces

While it may not seem related to ethical dilemmas at first, writing in digital spaces (rather than, say, print or environmental) requires a special approach. When looking at a website, email, social media site, etc., people tend to skim. People are much more inclined to read more text when it is off a screen rather than online, so writers must be aware of this and their audience’s needs. Writers shouldn’t burden their audience with sifting through lengthy blocks of information to find what they need; this is where looking through an empathetic lens like care ethics gives writers the skills they need for success.

Often a company will want writers to list or talk about everything that they want customers to know; however, this often doesn’t align with what customers need to know. Being able to be attentive to an audience and responsive to their needs more often than not cuts down on the text and adjusts it to be beneficial to the reader. It can sometimes be difficult to see how a writer can be attentive to an audience they never see, but I’ve found some ways to apply care ethics to the digital realm.

One of the biggest ways I’ve found is through surveys, watching open/clickthrough rates for emails, and checking to see what kinds of calls are coming in from customers to the company. I may not be able to interact with each customer and monitor their needs face to face, but I can get an overall understanding of how our “care receivers'” are doing. This also allows me to focus in on the customers’ needs that they have vocalized and pushed back on the company when they are wanting to focus on information the customers don’t want/need to know. Burdening readers with communications and interactions that are overwhelming and unhelpful (only appeasing internal stakeholders) could be seen as unethical, so it is very important to approach each communication with the reader’s needs weighed most heavily in the decisions.

Creating an Ethical Style Guide

A style guide is an often overlooked yet extremely influential document that guides your company and its ethical approach to materials. If company language is more utilitarian in nature, customers’ needs can be overpowered by company wants.

I have worked to incorporate a care ethics foundation into our company style guide, and have referenced it many times as I direct and guide company communications. I express these editorial standards in my company style guide—especially in regards to digital communications like emails—by including language such as, “Be respectful of our customers’ time. Always be sure to not bombard them with information they do not need to know or questions we do not need to ask.” to convey the importance of thinking of the readers’ needs first. I communicate the importance of keeping the vulnerabilities of our readers in mind through language in our guide such as, “Keeping [the language] simple also helps ensure the language is clear and helpful—not misleading or misguiding in any way. If you are having to make the language complex to get around an issue, then the core of the message should be revisited.”

Customers Want Brands With Feelings

A few years ago I read a book by Kit Yarrow called Decoding the New Consumer Mind. This book examined the fascinating phenomenon of digital interactions with brands. Before the exposure of brands on a digital level and the ability for people to spread thoughts quickly to an extremely large audience, companies could act like just that: a company. However, the ability the Internet has created for customers to interact with brands through emails, social media sites, and websites has created a new desire among consumers: that brands must have a soul.

This has been demonstrated through several different brand/customer interactions throughout recent history—both good and bad—and forces companies to re-examine both what they believe in on a moral and ethical level as well as how they can respond to their consumer on a level that feels human.

Choosing an ethical model that promotes caring and empathy is what will make the difference between a company thriving in online spaces and becoming a beloved brand and being completely destroyed by outraged consumers.

It is imperative that brands take ethical approaches to online communications seriously and engage the customer’s feelings if they are going to survive in this digital world.

Digital Rhetorics and Meeting Everyone’s Needs

Professional digital spaces present an interesting situation: asynchronous (most often) conversations where a balance is attempted to be struck between what we ourselves want to communicate versus what someone else wants to communicate versus what we need versus what the recipient needs. Instead of being in a room where everyone can have a synchronous conversation about what everyone wants and needs, digital spaces create a delicate space of balancing ideas and people.

Digital interactions in a business setting can ensure they are approaching a communication ethically (at least by care ethics standards) by looking at what they (the company) want to say versus how it will affect the audience and how the audience will receive the information. For example, if a company wants to have a higher search ranking and knows that having business locations listed on Google will increase their search ranking, their needs are clear. They have the option to connect their company to a physical location even if it is not an actual store: so they are faced with a dilemma that can be routed differently based on what ethical model the company follows. If the company follows a utilitarian ethical model, they will feel it is acceptable to list store locations that are not real because they will get higher search rankings and have exposure to people who want their product. However, if a company is established in a care ethics model, they will look at how this will affect the company’s care receivers (the customers). Will customers attempt to drive to the fake location and be frustrated? Will this create confusion and distrust between customers and the company? These are questions that care ethics attempts to satisfy by saying that what is best for everyone involved, not just the company, is the ethical route to take. So striking a balance could be that the company lists any real locations it has to increase its search ranking and customers are taken care of by being able to trust that the company will meet their needs.

In terms of online classrooms, the unique challenges of this digital space can be difficult to overcome. As we’ve seen in all digital spaces, it can be difficult to not just blurt out our ideas or feelings, seeing the interaction as solely between us and an abstract idea that we either agree with or need to disagree with/attack. This behavior is lessened in a face-to-face classroom because we are taught from an early age to be more empathetic in face-to-face social interactions. This can be carried over into an online experience, however, through instructing students (and, as professors, remembering ourselves) that each of the comments is attached to a physical person. Before they post any comment or response to another person’s comment, each student should ask themselves, “Would I say this thing/say it in this manner if I was speaking with them in a physical room?” Approaching interactions in this manner allows for all parties to meet their needs; helping all communications in the space be delivered in a respectful, caring manner.

The nature of digital spaces makes it easy to focus on the only person we can physically see—ourselves. By reframing digital spaces via ethical models that focus on human interactions and relationships, we can attempt to bring in the human element into digital interactions.

How Care Ethics Can Be Applied to Digital Writing

Often it is easy to see the overall benefit of applying ethics–especially care ethics–to both personal and professional interactions. I can be harder to see the connection between care ethics in digital communications beyond not lying or presenting misleading information to customers. While these are both extremely important standards for all digital communications, there is a more subtle approach that can be extremely effective in creating an approach of care to digital interactions.

The following is an example of an original deferral email that was sent my way for editing, and under it is my revised version. I will then go into explaining how I have applied a care ethics model to the email. I have removed the personal information regarding the company and recipient, and the copy with _ implies dynamic content.


Dear NAME,

This email confirms in writing the details of your telephone conversation with a COMPANY representative on ENTER_DATE_HERE, regarding the agreed upon amendments to your System Purchase and Services Agreement.

During this phone conversation, you and the COMPANY representative agreed that COMPANY would (1) defer your monthly services fee for ENTER_DEFERMENT_MONTHS months, beginning on ENTER_START_DATE, and (2) extend the end date of your agreement by ENTER_NUMBER_OF_MONTHS months. After the ENTER_DEFERMENT_LENGTH deferment ends, you will resume paying your monthly services fee through the end of the extended term.

All other terms, provisions, covenants, and conditions set forth in the agreement shall remain in full force and effect, except as expressly modified by our agreement set forth herein.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us.

For your reference, your Service Number is: 5611101.





This email is to confirm the deferment of your COMPANY monthly payment. Your service will be suspended for ENTER_DEFERMENT_MONTHS beginning ENTER_START_DATE. Your service will resume on ENTER_RESUME_DATE.

Once your deferment ends, you will resume paying your monthly service fee through the end of your extended contract.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

Thank you,



Now, it may seem that I simply shortened the email, but because my choices were guided by a care ethics approach, I was able to create an email that not only fits the medium better (digital communications need to be short) but also focuses on the needs of the reader.

Because Joan Tronto’s four principles of care ethics (attentiveness, responsibility, competence, and responsiveness) guide my writing and editing decisions, I am better able to approach an email with the reader’s best interest in mind. For example, the original email is not only extremely long, but it includes a lot of information that the company wants to say but the customer doesn’t need to know. Burdening the customer with this information could be seen as unethical from a care ethics approach because the email doesn’t meet the standard that is created when the people most vulnerable to the decision (the reader in this situation) is not weighed more heavily.

There is unnecessary copy in the first email (“in writing,” “telephone conversation,” “service number” etc.) is very wordy and burdens the reader with too much copy as well as information they either already know or is implied. By including the service number, for example, will make it easier for the company representative to look up their case, but because the representative can also look it up by email, phone number, address, or name, it makes more sense to not clutter the email with information that doesn’t make the email more readable to the customer. The only information a customer will want to see confirmed is that their deferment has started, how many months it will include, and what date the deferment will end. They will also want a way to contact the company if they need more help. By hyperlinking the “contact us” in the email, this also alleviates the time it will take for a customer to search for a way to contact the company.

By keeping the email short and sweet, it not only applies the standard of keeping digital communications shorter than print communications, but it also focuses on what the care receiver needs rather than what the caregiver wants. Knowing the best practices of digital interactions as well as the need to apply care ethics to digital situations helps writers ensure their content is both effective and ethical.

Taking Action as Writers

It is always important for writers to feel in control of and morally confident in their writings. Care ethics can be applied in the professional world by empowering writers to be advocates for equality and empathy when presented with something that doesn’t have the readers’ best interests in mind—caring for their readers’ needs and emotions. Often writers feel they don’t have a say in the writing process and that they are just supposed to write what they are told, but when writers apply care ethics theory to their work they find it is their moral duty (via attentiveness and responsibility) to be active participants in ensuring care ethics are applied to the text and that the customers’ needs precede the company’s wants. By including care-focused guidelines in a communication’s approach, a writer can create an email/document/brochure/etc. that is customer focused and solves the dilemma of how to apply care ethics on a more global scale.

Brenda Sims provides a great example that uses a care ethics approach in her article Linking ethics and language in the technical communication classroom. She presents the situation of an engineer an technical communicator writing a report on airbags that only had 60% inflate fully in the final test. The writer and company could advertise that all the airbags inflated, none of the airbags failed to inflate, or that only 60% of the airbags fully inflated. While none of the options are technically incorrect, only the last option has consumers’ best interest in mind—who also happens to be the person closest to the issue and therefore, according to care ethics, should have the most consideration. So, if the writer, engineer, and company were following care ethics values and had the Tronto’s four principles of care ethics in mind, they would know that the only ethical option they have is the last choice.

Care Ethics and Feminism

Within feminist theory, where care ethics originated, there are many different veins of thought; however, there are some common threads within the theories. Mary Lay listed out some common feminist characteristics in her 1991 article Feminist theory and the redefinition of technical communication. She said the shared characteristics include:

  1. Celebration of difference
  2. Theory activating social change
  3. Acknowledgment of scholars’ backgrounds and values
  4. Inclusion of women’s experiences
  5. Study of gaps and silences in traditional scholarship
  6. New sources of knowledge—perhaps a benefit of the five characteristics above (p. 349–350)

This list of characteristics that traditional feminist scholarship all share is reflected in the care ethics model. For example, the study of gaps in traditional scholarship is precisely what led Carol Gilligan to challenge the justice-based morality measurement system her mentor used. From that, she developed and built up the theory of care ethics.  The inclusion of women’s care-based approaches can also be seen as moral maturity in Gilligan’s theory, where moral maturity was previously measured with a more masculine outlook in the justice-based measurement. Some feminists challenge this care-centered approach, saying that it engenders caring to women. They argue that the different ethical approaches of men and women are a result of societal constructs and that assigning “caring” to women further perpetuates the societal expectation on women to be nurturing. However, care-focused feminists assert that caring is not a woman’s approach, but rather a human approach and that applying relational ethics and care ethics to different moral dilemmas produces a more well-rounded ethical approach to situations and people than the objective and detached justice ethics.

In regards to care ethics and feminist theory in technical and professional communications, Erin Frost, a professor at East Carolina University, asks some very important questions in her 2016 article Apparent feminism as a methodology for technical communication and rhetoric. “How might feminist technical communicators persuasively point out the bias inherent in all worldviews, even those that people often perceive as neutral? How might they intervene in unjust situations, particularly in technical contexts in which objectivity is highly valued? And how might they best decide which situations are most deserving of this sort of attention?” (p. 4). By acknowledging that all communications are built on a worldview and ethical model (or lack thereof), different approaches to ethics can be explored and matched with the model that fits, which, in my opinion, if often care ethics.