This article by Blather’s Dave Walsh first appeared in The
Irish Times of Monday, September 17, 2001, as Click
here to communicate
Despite all the hype, online interactivity continues to leave us
underwhelmed. Dave Walsh clicks into the world of multimedia to
find out what ‘interactive’ means and why it fails to deliver on
its promises while going too far to deliver the goods
Nearly a decade has passed since we were first treated to "interactive
multimedia", buzzwords which arrived with the CD-ROM revolution
and rapidly suffered overuse. While "multimedia" is relatively
easy to define (the combined use of several media) – "interactivity"
When they first appeared, interactive CD-ROMs were feted as more
than just a receptacle. Apparently, some strange alchemical transformation
had incurred during manufacture, imbuing the discs with occult qualities.
Less facetiously, a CD could harbour a virtual world – from the
practicality of a specialist graphical interface to the complexity
of an adventure game.
It was the tip of a big marketing iceberg. In the years since, we
have been showered with interactive websites, DVDs, games, art installations
and TV shows such as Big Brother.
By the end of the 1990s, when the web had left behind the dull days
of grey backgrounds and black text, interactive hype found a new
home, describing whatever dotcom venture was dampening the palms
of the excitable. Any website that had animations, games or other
gimmicky moving bits was automatically labelled interactive. Websites
using simple text and graphics were just, it seemed, websites. That
vague distinction still persists today – a website using an animation
product, such as Flash or Shockwave, is commonly assumed to be interactive,
whereas anything more straightforward and simple is perceived as
In the parallel universe of the art world, the interactivity label
is similarly bounced about, and seems to appear in the blurbs for
any old installation that enjoys the use of a video projector or
Hillen, who has designed various electromechanical systems for
his own art and for theatre, says "the mere mention of the
word ‘interactive’ has me searching for my revolver – just because
the word is so abused . . ."
What is interactivity anyway? The concept is nothing new – human
communication is the ultimate form of interaction, the yardstick
for all imitators. In the context of electronic communication, interactivity
describes a system or program that maintains an exchange with a
user, alternately accepting input and outputting response.
This definition may mean that any website is interactive. The user
clicks a link – the page changes to another, and hoorah! Interactivity!
Not very exciting, but it’s the truth.
In comparison, a website that proclaims interactivity, but only
offers an array of slow-to-download animations, strobing mouse-overs
and cheesy sounds, is arguably no more interactive than a simple
website – just more bells and whistles.
Surely interactivity should consist of more than gimmicks? Why not
an upfront, personal, engaging experience? On one level (it does
seem that there are actual levels of interactivity, running from
passive experience through to "true" interactivity), the
average e-commerce site offers a personal interaction. A customer
orders a product online, then receives it by post.
This kind of interaction seems more inclined to facilitate a relationship
between the buyer and the seller, rather than between the user and
the medium. A mediated interaction, if you like.
It starts getting weird when the online "shopkeeper" plies
the consumer with specific products, based on an assertion of their
buying habits. This approach can seem a little crude, bizarrely
inaccurate and sometimes patronising – and arguably a form of mercantile
stalking. Simply put, this works on the basis of "you bought
X, therefore you must like Y".
A visit to online bookstore Amazon prompts questions on how corporations
try to assess an individual’s taste. Why are are they recommending
Harry Potter books to me? Because I bought the album Central Reservation
by singer Beth Orton. Where’s the connection? Other people that
have bought a Beth Orton Album have also bought a Harry Potter book
– apparently people who like Beth Orton will like Harry Potter.
Imagine a morning dash to the local shop. The shopkeeper has filled
a rack beside the checkout with items that he thinks you, and you
only, will buy. The selection is based on everything you have previously
purchased, and your profile is compared with other "similar"
customers. When you have skedaddled up the street with your milk
and newspapers, he restocks the "personal" rack, aimed
at the next customer.
Another level of electronic interactivity can be found in bulletin
boards, forums, chatrooms – any kind of website that involves people
Such discussions would not exist in their current state without
the input of their users. The forums on P45.net
provide an example – postings are uploaded by the users – other
people visit, read the postings, reply, and on it goes.
Another spin on this kind of interactivity is www.everything2.org:
the content is made up of input from community members, while the
company behind it provides the vehicle.
Kieran Hanrahan of Modern
Business Management Services, reckons that "interactivity
in website design is down to facilitating any form of communication
and feedback between website visitors and the website owners or
online community members. Moderation acts as a brake on interactivity.
Discussion boards that are moderated in any form – even the deletion
of expletives – are therefore censored.
You can argue that a sort of hierarchy of interactive ‘potential’
exists across the range of web elements that allow for communication
either on \discussion boards, chatrooms etc.\ or alongside the websites
These examples of interactivity, along with personalised shopping
baskets, could be cordoned off under the heading of "computer-enhanced
communication", or mediated interaction. The interactive element
of the sites is a means to communication with other humans, not
an end in itself.
So what of a truly interactive experience, in which a single user
communicates with an electronic entity, achieving some level of
user satisfaction? This is, perhaps, what many people unwittingly
expect from technology, and it could have us straying into the murky
ontological minefield of artificial intelligence.
At its most simplistic level, a truly interactive technology is
one that constantly responds to changing conditions, such as the
actions of the user. Take, for example, a simple survey: on paper,
it is completely static and premeditated; but in an online version,
the choice of the second question is decided by the answer to the
first. This still requires the creator of the survey to write up
a finite multitude of varying scenarios for the survey, rather than
relaying on a computer to think them up on the fly.
In terms of technology, interactivity gives the illusion of freedom
and choice. No matter how flexible an interactive technology claims
to be, the limits are always defined by the creator. The results
can seem no more adventurous than a child’s Fisher-Price activity
centre. When designers and website owners becomes bogged in artifice
and techno-fetishism, the sensual, practical or commercial aspects
of their respective projects are swept aside.
"I think there’s an intoxication with the potential of electronics
in particular, not least because most people have no understanding
of it," says Hillen. "Like the mythical primitives who
go ‘one bean, two beans, loads of beans’, they think that all the
hype about electronic brains is not far from the mark, whereas my
understanding has us a very long way from it."
Keith Jordan, technical director at Rawshot
New Media, a Dublin-based online games and entertainment firm,
sums it all up: "To me, interactive means that both the site
visitor and the site are actively engaged in communicating and exchanging
the two experiences of immersion and captivation in a dynamic environment."
Interactive technology should be involving and personal – like successful
film, theatre or music, it should win over the human user by reacting
and anticipating their needs. Performance is naturally interactive
– the musician engages the audience, the audience reacts (however
favourably), the musician responds, and so on.
To return to the example of Big Brother – love it or hate it – it
successfully manages to tackle the concept of interactive multimedia.
The audience has control in the progression of the plot, viewing
and voting through television, the Internet and by telephone. Pre-recorded
adventure programs, such as Treasure Island, have little hope of
At a basic level, interactivity in new media indicates our ability
to obtain a response from a metaphorical environment. But in a truly
interactive environment, the visitor should have the power to modify
this environment in an original and individual manner, and with
What is Interactivity anyway?