What Exactly Is 'Interactivity'?

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By: Steve Outing Recently I've been examining a lot of news Web sites as one of the judges for this year's EPpy awards, Editor & Publisher's annual competition for best news Web sites. I just finished reviewing some of the entrants for the category of "most interactive." And, to my surprise, a good number of them I would not classify as being particularly "interactive."

The experience makes me think that perhaps quite a few news site publishers don't understand what it means to be a truly interactive site.

Content vs. human interaction

Now, I'm only one of numerous judges for the EPpy awards, and my fellow arbiters of what's good on the Web may not see things in the same way as I do. Over the next few weeks, we as a group will decide who wins the "most interactive" award, so my comments here won't necessarily reflect the outcome for that particular award.

"Interactive" can encompass many aspects of a Web site. Yes, a site is interactive if it contains a database that its users can interact with to find information specific to them ? for example, a local crime database that shows recent crimes reported near a person's home when an address is input, or an election results database that delivers results based on a person's address.

Yes, online polls are interactive, allowing Web site users to enter their opinions on issues and compare their answers to other site visitors'. Web site features like electronic "postcards," where users can send personalized e-mail greetings to other Internet users, are interactive. Several sites I reviewed cited as interactive the IPIX 360-degree, user-controlled photos that they make available.

While those are all nice features for a news Web site, they are only "interactive" in the sense of letting the user interact with the content. In my view, for a site to be truly interactive ? which is, I contend, an important element for any Web site to be considered successful in leveraging the online medium effectively ? it also must facilitate communication (i.e., interactivity) between human beings. The Internet is clearly a two-way medium, so the sites that excel at "interactivity," in my view, are those that bring people together; they facilitate Web user to Web user communication, as well as Web user to Web site staff members and managers.

How to be more interactive

Here's a check list of elements you would include in the "ideal" interactive Web news site. Many of these were missing from most of the EPpy entries of sites that consider themselves to do a good job of being interactive.

Discussion forums. This one is so obvious that it requires almost no explanation. Yet a surprising number of news Web sites still don't support discussion areas for their users. You don't have a series of discussion boards on your site? Then your users are going elsewhere to converse online, and you're missing an opportunity for repeat usage. Some content areas are simply not complete without a discussion forum. Do you have a pro sports team in your market? Then let its fans talk online via your site. Sports forums are typically the most used discussion areas on news Web sites.

Live chat. Another no-brainer, but many sites don't include chat areas.

Reporter e-mail addresses. Every bylined story should have the writer's e-mail address to facilitate reader feedback. I'll give you a bonus interactivity point if your site also includes writer biographies so that readers can get to know your staff better.

Article feedback mechanism. The truly interactive site will solicit reader comments at the end of every story. Readers use a Web form to write comments which are posted at the end of each article. (An alternative approach is to take the end-of-article feedback comments and place them on a central feedback Web page. Comments are grouped by article, and each story on the site has a link at the end to the user comments page.)

Personal Web pages. Now we're getting to the good stuff. The best interactive sites that I've seen allow site users to create their own Web pages, hosted by the news site. The sites provide form-based page creation tools that allow a user to create a basic page without having to know HTML; the user simply types information into form fields and has the option of uploading photos or artwork to be included on the page.

User hobby/special sites. Taking the personal Web pages concept a step further, a small number of news Web sites (notably Florida's Sunline, which pioneered the concept) create special sections where Web users can create personal tribute pages. A boats page features user-created pages with photos of and text about private boats. A cars page on Sunline features pages where users have even contributed recordings of their autos' engine sounds. A pets page lets users show off their animals. A tributes page lets friends of the recently deceased post their remembrances about their loved ones or friends. And so on. Now that's interactivity ? allowing the public to publish content that's important to them (no matter how mundane it may seem to we publishing pros), as a means of getting users to have a strong personal connection to your site.

Birth, marriage, death. Births, marriages and deaths are anything but mundane, yet they often are ignored or get scant play in traditional newspapers. But an interactive Web site can allow new parents to create a personalized baby page; newlyweds to post photos of their ceremonies or honeymoon trips; or family members to create tribute pages to a deceased loved one. Such sites can include virtual "guestbooks" where friends and family can "sign in" and leave their best wishes or condolences.

Community group pages. The concept of "community publishing" defines interactivity. The interactive site will allow community groups and organizations to publish their own content, providing simple Web publishing tools to facilitate the group's publishing activities without hand-holding from the host Web site staff.

Adding user comments to pro criticism. The truly interactive site will allow its users to voice their own opinions alongside those of its professional critics. The theater review by the staff critic will invite site users to rate the play and post their own comments, which appear adjacent to the "professional's" opinion. A staff movie review on a truly interactive site will include a chart showing the rating breakdown of Web site users who have taken an opinion survey about the movie ("30% gave it 4 stars," etc.), so readers of the staff review can compare the critic's assessment of the film to that of people who have seen the film.

Build interactivity into stories. Often, a news story will present an opportunity to get the public directly involved online. A piece about a controversial campaign TV commercial can invite reader comments about the ad, or include as a "sidebar" a Web user poll about the ad, for instance.

User polls, done the right way. As I've written about in the past, online surveys are rife with the opportunity for misleading results. The ideal (interactive) way to handle public opinion surveys is to operate them the traditional, scientific way (random phone surveys), but let online users take the same survey as the phone respondents and then compare their answers to the results of the scientific poll.

Use online comments as a reporting tool. The truly interactive news site will not only solicit user comments, but also use them as part of the news organization's reporting. The story about youths having trouble finding summer jobs, for example, can ask Web site users to contribute their personal stories. Reporters can follow up and interview some of the people who have posted their experiences online. To sum up, interactivity has a technological component and a human one. While the former can make for a useful Web site, without the latter, a site cannot be termed truly interactive and thus does not make the most of the online medium.

WebPAD skepticism

My recent column about Cyrix Technologies' portable WebPAD tablet Internet access design specification generated some skepticism by readers. Pat Roche of Alberta, Canada, wrote:

"WebPAD sounds like the ideal portable electronic device to replace our very portable printed newspapers and magazines ? except that it lacks portability! Unless I'm passing a half dozen kidney stones, I should be able to print out enough stuff to get me through a session on the john. As for reading in the tub, do I really want to risk dropping something that costs about $500 US in water? ... I would never buy this kind of device unless I could take it on the bus or the plane or to the coffee shop. Then ? and only then ? would it compete with printed periodicals, in my opinion. ...

"Where the portable 'tablet' would really work, I believe, is for information that is continuously updated. This is where push technology would really work for me ? rapidly download the entire contents of today's New York Times, Calgary Sun and Canada's two national newspapers into a device I could read while eating lunch or waiting for a meeting to end."

Online publishing consultant Vin Crosbie thinks devices based on WebPAD have a dubious future. He writes:

"Over 500 years ago, the businessman Sir Thomas Gresham observed that the base drives out the rarified. This is no less true today in marketing online. The basic drives out the elaborate, universal purpose devices prevail over single purpose devices. Companies like Cyrix might temporarily have a market for portable Web browsing devices that weigh over a kilo and require recharging. But such devices are doomed to be dead technologies like the eight-track or videotex."

Crosbie says a digital publishing technology that shows far more promise is "electronic paper," on which research is moving forward at the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts. Crosbie continues:

"Though still in the laboratory stage, this technology exists and should soon be marketable. Imagine flippable pages capable of displaying any magazine or newspaper in the world. Imagine a book that can become, either permanently or temporarily, any book in the world. This technology has far more usefulness than a bulky tablet that can display only a single page at a time. Moore's Law apace, I expect to see such reusable electronic hardcover and softcover books and magazines on sale in my local stores within five years. ..."

On a related note, this week 3Com's Palm Computing unit announced that an upcoming version of its handheld Pilot personal organizer will include wireless Internet access. It is expected to be available on the market sometime in 1999 and is expected to cost under $800. Some major Web publishers -- including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Weather Channel -- have already announced plans to produce custom Web pages for Pilot users when the devices are available. Apple Computer also is working on a palmtop device that will offer wireless Internet access. Expected to be ready in the first half of 1999, Apple's unit is expected to be a pricier $1,000-$1,200.

Errata

It's time to 'fess up to a couple boo-boos in recent columns. In my last column I cited several banner ads as being ineffective, and provided links to view the actual ads. Alas, I forgot that some of those were dynamic links and thus the day after I checked to see if they worked and found that they did, they no longer pointed to the right ad. Oops.

Also, in my column about Cyrix's WebPAD tablet technology, I mistyped Roger Fidler's name. It's Fidler, not Filder.

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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