Interactivity- The Positives and Negatives
Interactivity is a topic which is debated and discussed on a regular basis by all involved in online journalism but which has not achieved a satisfactory conclusion. Almost all facets of online journalism have interactivity at their core.
The mass appeal of blogs, social networking etc- the majority of which are free- has left journalists and their employers lagging behind in trying to increase loyalty and revenue for their online business model.
Interactivity is one of the main tools in combating this, how it is utilised and its challenges are of paramount importance. All involved in journalism now realise that the user and how they interact with content is the most important aspect.
Jim Hall, who wrote a book called ‘Online Journalism’ made the case for interactivity to be added to the core values of impartiality, objectivity and truth. This sort of language is only an example of the growing stature in which interactivity is held.
“The web is the ultimate customer-empowering environment. He or she who clicks the mouse gets to decide everything. It is easy to elsewhere; all the competitors in the world are but a mouse click away.” Jakob Nielsen, ‘Designing Web Usability’
Customer empowerment is where interactivity truly comes in to its own in the context of online journalism. Up until the invention of the internet the mass media was almost all one way traffic, in other words the journalists and editors told the stories they wanted to tell and the stories they thought we, the customer, wanted to hear based on weak foundations of cost and their own bias. This rang true in all of the older mediums; be that radio, television or print.
The avenues for feedback were limited to letters or phone calls to the ‘powers-that-be’ in each organisation. Even then they got to decide, for the most part anyway, whether these letters/opinions were shown to the wider public.
The nature of the internet age means the public no longer need to tolerate this, if one site decides to ignore or even delay a person’s voice being heard, it is the user’s prerogative to find another one which won’t. As Fritz Van Exeter, editor of the Dutch newspaper ‘Trouw’ suggested if you want to take you time to think about what direction you want go in as regards comments, or your online presence, you will be “perceived to be as slow as the postman”. The instant access of broadband means demand for instant gratification has never been higher.
“The zeitgeist of the net is centred in interaction and interconnectedness, not ‘I-will-publish, you-will-accept’. The Net is not a megaphone. The Net is a conversation.” the social media commentator, J.D. Lasica.
This quote draws attention to the need for boundaries and lines to be drawn between roles of users and roles of the professionals. Interactivity, after all, can do harm as well as good. The user must perceive as though they are having an interactive experience all the while never letting them be in complete control of output.
It does not come down to censorship but quality control of the interactivity. Message boards, feedback, videos et al are in need of monitoring. If there are no editorial decisions being made on contributions made by the public, then the credibility and quality of any site can be sent in to a downward spiral.
All the most successful online journalism websites have different ways of letting the user interact with the output of the site while still holding the reigns of the content. Sites from the popular Irish website ‘www.politics.ie’ to the Fox news website allow users to partake in the output of content on their sites; although neither has quite achieved the perfect balance of interactivity and effective control as of yet.
It could be argued that the creators of online websites already have a lot of influence on the sort of interaction there is. After all they can choose what key words and websites to hyperlink; act as gatekeepers for message boards; decide what sorts of flash media and RSS feeds to make available for the user; and in the case of many news websites decide what the topic of the daily opinion is.
The two aforementioned sites, ‘politics.ie’ and the Fox news site give us good material for this point. On one side there is http://www.politics.ie which gives users a very high level of interactivity but also takes away the faceless aspect which can lead to so much unhelpful contributions. Ratings are given to each user depending on what comments they leave etc, so ego and consequences are involved as they would be in real life.
Then there is Fox, their ‘uReport’ citizen journalism feature on ‘Myspace’, which allows users to submit videos, is a popular interactive medium, but a lot of the videos featured are of poor quality and can be quite frustrating and futile in terms of functional journalism.
Where the line is drawn between editing and controlling interactivity is a matter of much debate and is ultimately down to each site. The suggestion of gatekeepers is regularly made, where professional journalists would be hired to make editorial decisions, but this would be extremely time-consuming and financially unviable for most news sites which struggle as it is.
The internet, almost certainly, is the medium of the future and journalism must adapt if it is to survive. The internet has all the power of television except people can choose their viewing times. It has all the information of newspapers except it has free, endless sources of it. It has videos, pictures, audio and written word in abundance, none of the other mediums have its strength, power and versatility.
As more money is redirected from television and print media towards attending the habits of the internet savvy generation, the more journalists must bow to certain pressures.
This is likely to grow exponentially as younger generations come through, where mobile phones become mobile laptops and the internet is almost an extension of the psyche. Dial-up connections will be to our children what dinosaurs were to us!
Those who resist this tide of change, towards online information seeking and entertainment, will get left behind. Those who do not realise how important and influential this dynamic medium will be laughed at. The journalists who do not realise the potential power, and challenges, of interactivity will soon be out of a job.
Interactive Options in Online Journalism: A Content Analysis of 100 US newspapers by Tanjev Schultz, University of Bremen
A Case Study of the Interactive Nature of Nigeria’s Online Guardian by O. Foloyan
`Interactive’ Online Journalism at English-Language Web Newspapers in Asia by Brian Massey
 Interactive Options in Online Journalism: A Content Analysis of 100 US newspapers by Tanjev Schultz, University of Bremen