Part four of this five-part series looks at how interactivity forms the basis of true online journalism, and explores ways to think about interactivity in practice. This will form part of a forthcoming book on online journalism – comments very much invited.
In his 2001 book Online Journalism, Jim Hall argues that, in the age of the web, interactivity could be added to impartiality, objectivity and truth as a core value of journalism. It is that important.
Interactivity is central to how journalism has been changed by the arrival of the internet. Whereas the news industries of print, radio and TV placed control firmly in the hands of the publishers and journalists, online you try to control people at your peril.
It is important to remember that people use the web on devices – whether a computer, mobile phone or PDA – with cultural histories of usefulness or utility, very different to the cultural histories of television, radio or even print.
People go online to do something. Companies that help with that process tend to prosper online. Those that attempt to curtail users’ ability to do things with their content often find themselves on the end of a backlash.
News is, of course, a service. But up until now news organisations have been under the mistaken impression that it is a product. The web is reminding them otherwise.
What is interactivity?
Interactivity is not video, or ‘multimedia'; it is not flashy bells and whistles. At its core, it is about giving the user control.
One way of conceptualising this is to identify the types of control that users might have. In doing this, I would suggest two dimensions along which interactivity operates.
Firstly, time and space; secondly input and output.
Control over time and space
Where broadcast required the user to be present at a particular time, and print to wait for the next edition, technologies such as Video On Demand (VOD), personal video recorders (PVR) such as Sky+ and TiVo, podcasts, mobile phones and websites allow the audience to consume at a time convenient to them. The PDF newspaper is another less successful development that also allows readers to avoid the dependence on print and distribution cycles.
Similarly, whereas television has normally required the user to be physically present in front of a static set, the spread of mobile phones, mp3 players and portable mpeg players and wifi laptops allow the audience to consume in a space convenient to them. Portable radio and portable newspapers have always had this advantage.
In mapping these it becomes clear that control over time and space tends to centre on hardware, and miniaturisation.
Control over input and output
With linear media such as TV, radio and print, the consumer relies on the ability of the producer, editor, etc. to structure how content is presented – in other words, the output. New media allows the audience to take some of that control. Examples include:
- At a basic level, hyperlinks allow the reader to dictate their experience of ‘content’ through their choice of clicks.
- With online video and audio, the user can pause, fast-forward, etc. – and if it has been split into ‘chunks’, the user can choose which bit of a longer video or audio piece they experience.
- RSS allows users to create their own media product, combining feeds from newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers, and even del.icio.us tags or Google News search terms.
- Database-driven content allows the user to shape output based on their input – e.g. by entering their postcode they can read content specific to their area. At a general level search engines provide a similar service.
- And Flash interactives allow the user to influence output in a range of ways. This may be as simple as selecting from a range of audio, video, text and still image options. It may be playing a game or quiz, where their interaction (e.g. what answers they get right, how they perform) shapes the output they experience.
In terms of input, again, the old media model was one that relied on the producer, editor, etc. to decide on the editorial agenda, and create the products. The audience may have had certain avenues of communication – the letter to the editor; the radio phone-in; the ‘Points of View‘, but the staging, shaping, editing and distribution of that was still up to professional media producers.
The new media model, as Dan Gillmor points out, is one that moves from a lecture to a conversation. So:
- Blogs, podcasts, vlogs, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc. allow the audience to publish their own media
- Forums, message boards, chatrooms and comments on mainstream media blogs allow the audience to discuss and influence the content of mainstream media, as well as engaging with each other, bypassing the media
- Live chats with interviewees and media staff do the same.
- User generated content/citizen journalism sees mainstream publishers actively seeking out input from consumers, from emails and texts to mobile phone images, video and audio.
- Wikis allow the audience to create their own collaborative content, which may be facilitated by mainstream media
- Social recommendation software like del.icio.us, Digg, etc. allow users to influence the ‘headline’ webpages through bookmarking and tags.
- A similar but separate example is how page view statistics can be used by publishers to rank content by popularity (often displayed side by side with the editorial view of what are the ‘top stories’)
- I hesitate to add the last example but I will anyway: email. Although we could always, in theory, contact producers and editors by telephone, they didn’t publish their numbers on the ten o’clock news. Email addresses, however, are printed at the end of articles; displayed on screen alongside news reports; read out on radio; and of course displayed online.
In mapping these examples you might argue that this second dimension of interactivity is more about software: from email clients, web browsers and hyperlinks through to content management systems such as blogs, wikis and forums, and more recently web-based services like social bookmarking sites, website statistics and social networking.
What does this mean for journalists?
For journalists, the rise of interactivity means thinking about how you can give control to your readers – who are now, of course, users.That means giving control over the time and place they use it – so, making content downloadable, for example, or bookmarkable, or emailable, or bloggable. Allowing them to put it on their social networking page. Allowing them to sign up for email or text or RSS updates.
It means putting your content where the user is, not the other way: which means thinking of places like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, iTunes, and Flickr – in turn, driving new traffic back to your own site.
And it means giving control over the input and output – ‘calling out’ for contributions when you first start working on a story (usually via your blog or Twitter account); allowing comments on what you’ve written; creating a space for further development and discussion via a forum or wiki or chatroom. Making your raw material available so others can build on it, or even point out corrections.
It means thinking, when relevant, not of linear products like a 500 word article or 3-minute package, but packages of information that the user can navigate in their own way, from a mix of audio, video, text and animation to database-driven packages that deliver specific results to specific enquiries.
It means thinking of ways to engage the user: could we do a game about this? A quiz? Create a tool? Invite users to pose the questions to our interviewee? Involve them in the investigation from the start?
And it means realising that the process is not one-way, or even two-way, but three-way, which is the subject of the final part of this BASIC Principles series: Community and Conversation.