Interactivity is regarded as one of the most critical concepts in new media theories due to the increasing popularity of interactive media such as the Internet, computer games, and computer-mediated communication (CMC) media. Despite the explosion of theoretical discussions on the concept of interactivity, a precise explication of the concept is yet to be accomplished. As a result, this concept often implies different things to different people in different contexts.
Three main views of interactivity – technology-oriented, communication-setting oriented, and individual-oriented views – can be categorized from the previous literature. First, technology-oriented views regard interactivity as a characteristic of new technologies (usually containing a computer as a component) that makes an individual’s participation in a communication setting possible and efficient. For example, Steuer (1992, 84) defines interactivity as “the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time,” and argues that interactivity is a stimulus-driven variable determined by three technological structures of the medium: speed (the rate at which input can be assimilated into the mediated environment), range (the number of possibilities for action at any given time); and mapping (the ability of a system to map its controls to changes in the mediated environment in a natural and predictable manner). Similarly, Heeter (1989) proposes six dimensions of the technological structure of interactive media determining the level of interactivity: complexity of choice available; effort users must exert; responsiveness to the user; monitoring information use; ease of adding information; and facilitation of interpersonal communication. Although technology-oriented approaches have been most popular in academic discussions, they have inherent problems in that even the same medium can be considered as having a different degree of interactivity according to the way it is actually used by an individual. For example, if a user has competence in using every command of a computer game, the user may feel much more interactivity in playing the game than a novice user. Therefore, the notion of interactivity as a characteristic of a particular medium is null in that a medium itself cannot have a fixed degree of interactivity.
Second, communication-setting-oriented views consider interactivity as a processrelated characteristic of a communication setting. Rafaeli (1988, 111) defines interactivity as “an expression of the extent that in a given series of communication exchanges, any third (or later) transmission (or message) is related to the degree to which previous exchanges referred to even earlier transmissions.” Focusing on the diverse content styles of communicated messages, Chaffee and his colleagues (1985) propose seven dimensions of interactivity according to which the level of interactivity varies: acknowledgment (simple acknowledging of previous message); monitoring (keeping track of all previous messages); processing (paraphrasing and summarizing); interpreting; evaluating; challenging (response in opposition to previous messages, or suggesting alternatives); and eliciting general affect (moving beyond the specific topics and giving a general statement). Communication-setting-oriented definitions, which emphasize mutual exchanges of information, also contain problems in that they make unrealistic assumptions that every participant of a communication setting wants the same level of information exchange and that the actual exchange of information is the first condition for interactivity. However, a symmetrical flow of information is rare and interactivity can occur without the actual exchange of information. For example, in a massive multi-player game, a participant may feel a high level of interactivity by merely observing and reading other players’ behaviors and text messages, even when she or he is not actively participating in virtual social interaction. Most fundamentally, these definitions cannot explain the fact that interacting participants in the same communication setting could have different levels of interactivity. That is, these definitions cannot explain why players of the same computer game can feel different levels of interactivity even when they are part of the same communication setting.
Finally, individual-oriented views define interactivity from a technology user’s perspective. Emphasizing individual differences in communication needs, Ha and James (1998, 461) define interactivity as “the extent to which the communicator and the audience respond to, or are willing to facilitate, each other’s communication needs,” and propose five dimensions of interactivity according to five fundamental communication needs: playfulness (entertainment experience); choice (availability of choice and freedom from restrictions); connectedness (feeling of connection to the world); information collection (data gathering); and reciprocal communication (two-way communication). This shift of attention from technology to individual users opens a space in which to generate theories that can cut across different technologies. Existing individual-oriented views of interactivity, however, cannot be successfully applied to human–machine (or human–computer) interaction settings, because they were made in the context of humanto-human communication settings (i.e., mediated interpersonal communications) in which at least two interacting humans are required. Therefore, a possible human–machine interaction, such as that between a game player and an autonomous software agent in a game world, cannot be easily explained by existing individual-oriented definitions.
In order to solve the various problems of the early definitions, interactivity should be regarded as a perceived characteristic of a communication act, which varies according to a communicating actor’s perception. That is, interactivity is not just a given characteristic of a particular medium or a communication setting, but a constructed characteristic of a communication act according to an individual’s perception (Vorderer 2000).
Interactivity has two Latin roots – “inter,” which broadly means “between or among” and “mutual or reciprocal,” and “act,” which means “do.” Together, “interact” means to act upon each other and to have reciprocal effects or influences. Therefore, interactivity can mean “the state of acting upon each other and having reciprocal effect or influence.” This nominal definition makes it clear that interactivity requires two fundamental conditions: at least two interacting partners (usually two persons, or in the case of human–machine interaction, a person and an artifact), and reciprocal effects of an interacting participant’s act on the communication process. Based on the two fundamental conditions raised above, the conceptual meaning of interactivity can be defined as a perceived degree to which a person in a communication process with at least one more interacting partners can bring a reciprocal effect to other participants of the communication process by turn-taking, feedback, and choice behaviors (Lee et al. 2006).
The term “perceived” means that the interactivity defined here is more concerned with the individual’s subjective perception than with objective technology characteristics. “Communication process” means a type of communication act such as interpersonal conversation, TV watching, playing computer games, using a computer, and so forth. “Interacting partner” can be a person or an artifact such as an avatar, a software agent, or a robot. “Reciprocal effect” means that an act by an interacting partner should bring a result in the form of visible changes to the acts of other interacting partners in that communication process. “Turn-taking” means the change of role between and among interacting partners. It is different from feedback in that it is over a longer time period and requires interacting partners to formally take the other’s role. “Feedback” means interacting partners’ reactions to the other interacting partners’ messages or behaviors. “Choice” means interacting partners’ selection from various sets of available options or possibilities provided by technologies.
This definition of interactivity can be applied to broad areas of communication settings, including interpersonal, mediated, and even human–machine interaction situations. It assumes that the level of interactivity varies quantitatively across individuals and each given communication process. Therefore, using the same technology or being in the same communication setting does not guarantee the same level of interactivity. For instance, computer game players can feel different levels of interactivity depending on their experience and behaviors during the game. The level of interactivity becomes higher as players acquire more confidence about the process through their own efforts and experiences.
Measurement And Findings
Reflecting the three approaches to concept explication, there have been three major methods of concept measurement (Kiousis 2002). Measurements based on technologyoriented views try to objectively examine the technological properties of a system (or a medium) on the basis of key technological dimensions such as speed, range, mapping, modality, and usability or easiness of the system. Studies in this tradition tend to manipulate the objective level of interactivity by changing the technological features of a system (e.g., the length of delay in feedback, the number of available channels for interpersonal communication, the number of options available for maneuvering a virtual world). Measurements based on communication-setting-oriented views focus on the flow and changes of communicated messages, and examine processes of joint actions between and among interacting partners. For example, through content analyses, researchers identify the level of spontaneity, patterns of turntaking, degree of reflection on prior messages in overall messages, level of agreement among interacting partners, and pattern of changes in message content (Rafaeli & Sudweeks 1997). The third set of measurements emphasizes user experience, and tries to measure perceived level of interactivity. Through interview and questionnaire, researchers ask how users evaluate the interactivity of a particular communication system or a medium. Usually, items for measuring perceived interactivity are about the degree of similarity between nonmediated and mediated interaction, level of psychological proximity among interacting partners, and subjective evaluations of a system’s interactive features (e.g., speed, range, and mapping of the system) and usability. In some cases, the perceived level of interactivity can be objectively and indirectly measured by physiological symptoms of psychological involvement such as heart rate, skin conductance, and blood pressure. Extra caution should be observed in interpreting physiological measures because they are only proxy.
Prior studies indicate three general effects of interactivity: attitudinal, cognitive, and behavioral (Sundar 2004). The attitudinal effects of interactivity are more feelings of presence, social responses to systems or media, more intense involvement in communication process and message, and positive attitudes toward advertised products and political candidates. Some findings on threshold effects of interactivity, however, suggest that the relationship between the level of interactivity and positive attitudes toward advertised products or political candidates might not be linear (Sundar et al. 2003). Cognitive effects are more attention to and memory of communication content, enhanced cognitive processing of messages, and more learning in an educational context. Too much interactivity, however, can cause cognitive overload and disorientation, and eventually hinders learning (Ariely 2000). The behavioral effects of interactivity are heightened interactions among interacting partners, physiological excitation, elimination of unnecessary communication caused by misunderstanding, and even more buying in commercial websites.
- Ariely, D. (2000). Controlling the information flow: Effects on consumers’ decision–making and preferences. Journal of Consumer Research, 27, 233 –248.
- Chaffee, S., Rafaeli, S., & Lieberman, S. (1985). Human computer interactivity: A concept for communication research. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, May, Chicago.
- Ha, L., & James, E. (1998). Interactivity reexamined: A baseline analysis of early business web sites. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 42, 457– 474.
- Heeter, C. (1989). Implications of new interactive technologies for conceptualizing communication. In J. Salvaggio & J. Bryant (eds.), Media use in the information age: Emerging patterns of adoption and consumer use. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 217–236.
- Kiousis, S. (2002). Interactivity: A concept explication. New Media and Society, 4, 355 –383.
- Lee, K. M., Park, N., & Jin, S. (2006). Narrative and interactivity in computer games. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequence. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 259 –274.
- Rafaeli, S. (1988). Interactivity: From new media to communication. In R. Hawkins, J. Wieman, & S. Pingree (eds.), Advancing communication science: Merging mass and interpersonal processes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 110 –134.
- Rafaeli, S., & Sudweeks, F. (1997). Networked interactivity. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 2. At http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol2/issue4/rafaeli.sudweeks.html, accessed May 20, 2006.
- Steuer, J. (1992). Defining virtual reality: Dimensions determining telepresence. Journal of Communication, 42, 73 – 93.
- Sundar, S. (2004). Theorizing interactivity’s effects. Information Society, 20, 385 –389.
- Sundar, S., Kalyanraman, S., & Brown, J. (2003). Explicating website interactivity: Impressionformation effects in political campaign sites. Communication Research, 30, 30 –59.
- Vorderer, P. (2000). Interactive entertainment and beyond. In D. Zillmann & P. Vorderer (eds.), Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 21–36.