The term interactivity is often used to distinguish newer digital media from older analog media. Such theorization of the concept has been a mainstay among media scholars (Reinhard, 2011). Yet what may have been perceived as interactivity when the concept was first identified within communication studies decades ago (e.g., Bretz, 1983) is no longer necessarily relevant to contemporary notions of interactivity. Moreover, because many interactivity researchers focus on typologizing and definitional concerns of the concept rather than on building on the findings of earlier studies, “interactivity researchers have developed a real knack for ‘rediscovering the wheel’” (Bucy, 2004, p. 375).
Interactivity refers to two distinct phenomena: between people and between people and computers or networks (Stromer-Galley, 2004). Interactivity is thus an elusive concept because it is both a property and an activity (Richards, 2006). As a descriptor for the uniqueness of contemporary media and the way they differ from previous media generations, we define interactivity as users’ capability to design for themselves their own media environments, including the identity of those they converse with, and the ability to contribute their own content to these environments. This definition, broader than more common descriptions such as a “twoway vehicle for networked sociality” (Van Dijk, 2013, p. 5), is required owing to the dramatic changes in the capabilities of media technologies in recent decades. It is a useful definition as it describes at the same time a conversation between two people as being interactive and the capability of an individual to design a mediated environment in which he is participating.
Before the advent of the Internet, the only somewhat interactive medium ordinary citizens could engage with was the telephone. Even as choices for sources of information grew, the actual role of the individual user was very limited. A good example of the understanding of this limitation is the legal definition the US Congress chose for cable television, the most information-rich resource of the pre-Internet era, which is described as the “one-way transmission to subscribers of...video programming, or... other programming service, and.iubscriber interaction, if any, which is required for the selection or use of such video programming or other programming service.”9 In other words, according to this definition, users’ interactivity is limited to their competence to select dictated content and use limited services.
Indeed, even the interactivity of the Internet has been a myth for most of its existence, a term too broad to be considered useful (Manovich, 2001) and more often than not overestimated or misunderstood (Schejter, 2003). Interactivity in the early days of the Internet was more the ability to use a computer and to search through massive quantities of information actively inputting search words yet passively consuming the information output.
Contemporary media have changed that situation, as computer- mediated interactivity added interpersonal elements to the interaction. As a property, interactivity is one of the characteristics of contemporary media that distinguishes them from old media. The levels of interactivity in computer-mediated communications from the very start were not subject to mobility or available in multimediated formats, hence they provided a significantly different user experience. As a human action, interactivity in contemporary media provides a capability to mediate between platforms, settings, content, and users. Interactivity is the action by which content is generated (Richards, 2006). It is thus the concept that ties users, be they consumers, prosumers, or citizens, to the output of the mediated communication process.
The effect of interactivity impacts old media forms and changes them, contributes to civic and political speech, and affects the structure of the marketplace. Thus, for example, journalism is being transformed by interactivity between readers and journalists and through the emergence of new forms of citizen journalism. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that audiences rated highly interactive journalists to be more credible than those who are less interactive in social media (Jhang & Lithau, 2015). This transformation can be seen as positively reengaging audiences yet threatening the traditional core values of journalism (Pavlik, 2001).
Interactivity serves as a conduit for civic participation, although that potential is yet to be realized. On the one hand, civil society actors in the USA believe social media are tools that can help facilitate civic engagement and collective action (Obar, Zube, & Lampe, 2012), yet as Livingstone (2007) demonstrates, among young people (in her case a sample of British youth), political and civic sites serve mainly to facilitate the acquisition of information and less as a means to further engage with either the civic or political spheres or as a catalyst for political discussions among the youth. Swigger (2013) identified a correlation between engagement in interactive platforms (in his case Facebook) and normative positions of users; the more active the online usage, the greater the importance the users attach to freedom of expression.
The transformation of media institutions caused by interactivity also affects one of their main features—their role in the marketplace. The notion of interactivity has been found to be valuable as a business tool (e.g., Chen & Yen, 2004), raising levels of satisfaction effectiveness, efficiency, value, and overall attitudes towards Web sites (Teo, Oh, Liu, & Wei, 2003). Indeed, “the balance of power over marketplace meaningmaking is shifting from marketer to consumer to the extent that media usage migrates from broadcasting to interactivity. The new marketplace rewards more participatory, more sincere, and less directive marketing styles than the old” (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009, p. 4).
Studies have identified three dimensions of interactivity: the form of interactivity, the purpose or motivation for interactivity, and the context of interactivity (Nash, 2012); in addition, they have pointed out three types of potential audience: noninteractive, average, and interactive audience. Interactive audiences are younger, more engaged online, and have higher electronic word-of-mouth value than noninteractive audiences (Yang & Coffey, 2014). However, the physical aspect of interactivity is only part of the story. Cognitive, affective, and interpretive behaviors also affect its impact. The potential for interactivity in itself, though, is not enough. As Humphreys, Gill, Krishnamurthy, and Newbury (2013) note, “Just because Twitter affords greater interactivity...does not mean that it necessarily is more interactive” (p. 426). From a social standpoint, in order to ensure media materializes its interactive informational, civic, and economic potential, at least three conditions need to be met: media should be accessible to all, allow individuals to speak out, and create opportunities for individuals to be heard.