Thursday, 25 October 2007


In expanding my previous post on All In The Mind about perception playing a part within interactivity I am re-reading Kiousis' paper "Interactivity: a concept explication" and here is my summary as I go through his thesis. I make no apologies for this post being a summary: just look on this post as watching me wrestle with attempting to explicate my own understanding of interactivity and in doing so help you to do the same.

Kiousis concerns himself with how theoretically and operationally interactivity should consensually be defined. In doing so he suggests that interactivity is a variable factor of media and psychology, and is affected by people's perceptions. Kiousis draws attention to the need to really agree what interactivity means before researching its many empirical studies of its effects. His paper attempts to do just that. He first discusses the assumptions made by researchers regarding their understanding of the term. Generally we are discussing interactivity in the context of new communication technologies (DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach, 1989) and, for most of the last 10 years, online (Lanham, 1993; Stromer-Galley, 2000). But, as Kiousis argues, interactivity is applied to empirically recorded conditions without actually considering what is meant by 'interactivity' in the first place. The term is ambiguous and I would argue suffers from the same problems as the words 'art' or 'artist'.

Everybody perceives they understand what 'art' and an 'artist' is, but in practice no-one can agree on a consensual definition (isn't that right Martin!). The problem with perceiving an understanding of the concept leads only to ambiguity, and that is not helpful. I am not after quantifying the unquantifiable but so far I applaud Kiousis' desire to reach a consensual definition. He acknowledges the term suffers from the many academic and professional perspectives and, like us all, he seeks to synthesize these into a coherent definition. Although communication technologies are often cited Kiousis has found the term has non-communication perspectives too. Therefore his literature review focuses upon the explicit meanings of interactivity due to the interdisciplinary nature of the sources of research.

Third-order Dependency
Referring back to the theme of my previous post Kiousis quotes S.J. McMillan, "while some scholars see interactivity as a function of the medium itself, others argue that interactivity resides in the perceptions of those who participate in the communication." (McMillan, 2000). It is this point of tension between medium and perception that I find fascinating. His review starts with 1940s Cybernetic Theory where interactivity is seen as an attribute of the communication channel where communication is seen as a "dynamic, interdependent process between senders and receivers." (Kiousis, 2002). But with the rise of New Media, Kiousis narrates that during the 1980s a new 'conceptual deliberation' was forged in the literature by S. Raffaeli and F. Williams (et al) into third-order dependency. Williams cites this as "the degree to which participants in a communication process have control over, and can exchange roles in, their mutual discourse is called interactivity" (Williams et al, 1988). Interactivity has "transfered from channel to message relationship" (Kiousis, 2002).

This aspect of third-order dependency ties nicely into the outline definitions I highlighted in my post on Semantics. Under the concept of third-order dependency the definitions of EXERTIVE (Heeter, 1989), INTERCHANGEABLE (Rice, 1984) & (Rogers, 1995) and TWO-WAY EXCHANGE (Rice and Williams, 1984) and (Rheingold, 1993) no longer appear to contradict each other. But is this as full a definition of interactivity as we can get? Kiousis sees this approach to interactivity as restrictive as it does not take into account modification as suggested by Steur as "the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real-time". In the typology of interactivity this definition falls under a technological heading and can be judged effective through the functions of range, speed and mapping capabilities of the medium being used, whilst still giving the ultimate control to the user. But with control the user can use whatever controls they feel they need. No more. No less.

Range of Functionality
This does not make a new medium even more interactive if the user only uses the minimum of the functions. I have just upgraded my mobile to a Nokia N95 because it is the only phone I can view PDFs on. I didn't upgrade because I wanted a super-computer in a mobile with WiFI, 5m mega-pixel camera and a multimedia console all-in-one. I probably wont use a fifth of the phone's functionality over the next 18 months. I perceive I wont need them, so I wont use them. I am over-burdened by the range of functionality, therefore my approach to the medium's interactivity is psychological rather than functional.

Nokia N95

Heeter summarizes interactivity thus (Heeter, 1989) with my annotations drawing from the definitions listed in my Semantics post:

• Complexity of choice available (allocution)
• Effort the users must exert (exertive)
• Responsiveness to the user (two-way exchange)
• Monitoring of information use (registration)
• Ease of adding information (modification)
• Facilitation of interpersonal communication (conversational)

Information Speed and Timing
The exertive nature of the effort the user applies to the medium, together with the complexity of choice available must have a perceived response for the user. There is another argument that interactivity is the "extent to which the communicator and the audience respond to, or are willing to facilitate each other's communication needs" (Ha and James, 1998). Whether the response or facilitation is synchronous or asynchronous, dependent upon the speed of information flow through a system or the degree to which the user can control that rate in real-time response (synchronous) or delayed-response (asynchronous) as in email. Interactivity defined through a lens of communication sees itself as ascribing "human" characteristics.

When we communicate with/through an interactive system, whether we are communicating with another human or computer, we perceive this communication as an extension or simulation of our face-to-face communications. The common ground between speed of information and the timing between communications needs the difference between realness and interactivity to be clear, otherwise the boundaries between physical and mediated realities will be blurred. New Media's procedural and participatory environments are deemed the elements that make this media interactive (Laurel, 1991). Laurel has developed her understanding of interactivity toward a perceiver-based position. She sees interactivity occurring when "you either feel yourself to be participating in the ongoing action of the representation or you don't."

This post is taking longer than I thought to summarize Kiousis' paper so I'll post at this point and then come back and continue it later. Not exactly a cliff-hanger but I need to get on with other work. Check back soon and/or comment on my summary so far. This is, after all, only my own ruminations on the subject of interactivity and is not set in stone. If you think I'm way off mark I'd like to hear your point of view.


DeFleur, M.L. and S.J. Ball-Rokeach (1989)
Theories of Mass Communication. New York: Longman.

Heeter, C. (1989)
‘Implications of New Interactive Technologies for Conceptualizing Communication’, in J.L. Salvaggio and J. Bryant (eds) Media Use in the Information Age: Emerging Patterns of Adoption and Computer Use, pp.221–5. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kiousis, Spiro (2002)
Interactivity: a concept explication New Media & Society, SAGE Publications, Vol4(3):355–383

Lanham, R.A. (1993)
The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Laurel, B. (1991)
Computers as Theatre. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

McMillan, S.J. (2000)
‘Interactivity is in the Eye of the Beholder. Function, Perception, Involvement, and Attitude Toward Web Sites’, in M.A. Shaver (ed.) Proceedings of the 2000 Conference of the American Academy of Advertising, pp. 71–8. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.

Rheingold, H. (1993)
The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Rice, R.E. (1984)
‘New Media Technology: Growth and Integration’, in R.E. Rice
(ed.) The New Media: Communication, Research, and Technology, pp.33–54. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rice, R.E. and F. Williams (1984)
‘Theories Old and New: The Study of New Media’, in R.E. Rice (ed.) The New Media: Communication, Research, and Technology, pp.55–80. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rogers, E.M. (1995)
Diffusion of Innovations (4th edn). p314. New York: Free Press.

Steur, J. (1992)
‘Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence’, Journal of Communication 42: 73–93.

Stromer-Galley, J. (2000)
‘Online Interaction and Why Candidates Avoid It’, Journal of Communication50(4): 111–32.

Williams, F., R.E. Rice and E. Rogers (1988)
Research Methods and the New Media. New York: Free Press.

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