Being interactive

Continuing my riff on the four keys to a great news website:

I stumbled across a great quote from the late Douglas Adams, who noted that we think everything invented before we were born is normal, everything invented before we were 30 is exciting, and everything invented after that is an offense against the natural order of things.

"This subjective view plays odd tricks on us, of course. For instance, 'interactivity' is one of those neologisms that Mr [John] Humphrys [BBC news presenter] likes to dangle between a pair of verbal tweezers, but the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport -- the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn't need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don't (yet) need a special word for people with only one head."

I admit I never thought of "interactive" as a neologism, but that explains why there's been so much confusion. For years it's galled me to see "interactive" glued onto the names of organizations utterly opposed to interactivity, as in "Daily Bugle Interactive." Newspaper associations hand out awards in "interactive" categories to websites that glue flashy bling-bling onto old-media, linear, one-way news lectures.

Americans, who pretty much owned the 20th century, are particularly affected by this temporal myopia.

Several years ago my wife and I traveled through Ireland, staying at farmhouses and country homes, eating lamb stew at country inns, and staying up late at little Irish pubs.

We have Irish pubs in America where fake Irish bands set up on low stages, turn on amplifiers, and play for us. In Ireland what I witnessed was entirely different. People wandered into the bar carrying instruments, took over a centrally located table, and just began playing, apparently for free beer. More arrived, some dropped out and circulated. It was hard to tell where band left off and audience began, as the audience might be playing along with silverware and glasses, and singing. It was participatory music.

William Gibson says the future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed. So also the past is still here, and unevenly distributed. If we just look around us we can see that the "normal" human condition just might be a bit different than we assume.

I don't know why "interactivity" is so confusing. "Inter" and "active" are pretty straightforward. "Inter" is about connection. "Active" is about doing. What do people do on your website? Does it have to do with connecting with other people?

The social isolation and disconnection that is the legacy of 20th century mass media is one of the poisons that is behind the steady decline of newspaper readership since 1970. Robert Putnam has documented this decline and has some ideas about how to counter it.

I think one thing newspapers can do is to embrace this concept of interaction. We need to become convenors of community, facilitators of civic conversation, builders of social capital. This is about the actions we take in our geographical communities, not about the technology we deploy on our websites.

It's in our social interests and in our strategic interests. The good news is that it also works in the short term: people love it, respond to it, join in it. Participative components significantly increase the frequency numbers (visits per user per month) of a news website.


I have an old power point presentation that makes this point:

You know the old argument that the Internet won't destroy newspapers because, well, everybody said radio and TV would destroy newspapers, and that didn't happen. What people who make that argument miss is the fundamental difference between the newspaper-radio-tv continuum -- it was all top-down mass media. The Internet is bottom up, user-centered, user-controlled and unconstrained by traditional distribution channels.

Once you grasp that, Interactivity shouldn't be that hard.

Thankfully, I'm now in a place where I can do something about it.