Interaction vs. reaction: But enough about you…

The problem with media’s definition of interactivity is that’s all about controlled reaction to media’s agenda: Come talk about our stuff. It is designed like a children’s museum, with buttons you can push to keep you busy and happy. That may not be the intent, but it is the result and message of forums and chats and blogs that are about what the newspaper publishes. And it misses the point.

Interactivity is about more than reaction. It is about creation. It is not about controlled authority. It is about sharing authority.

That is a lesson newspapers and media companies need to learn. And that need is evident in the kerfuffle over interactivity and invective at In my earlier post, I addressed two fundamental misunderstandings of interactivity that this incident exposes: that people are concentrating on the negatives (the misuse of interactivity by a few blinds them to the value of the whole) and that they think we need someone to tell us who the bozos are (aka, enforcing civility).

But it struck me after writing that that I was missing the forest for the kudzu. The real value of interactivity is that it empowers. The real potential of interactivity is that it extends news and journalism and news organizations and communities to create. It’s fine to have forums to argue over ombudspeople, if that floats your boat.

Among the ways that interactivity can be used to empower the public and create value:

* Hyperlocal reporting: You know the drill — NashvilleIsTalking, Baristanet, NorthwestVoice, and my wish that somebody will podcast my local school board meetings so I can listen since I can’t attend. Newspapers can’t be everywhere, but readers are.

* Collaborative reporting: The community can join together to throw their information into the crockpot. Maybe everybody shares their horror stories with dealing with town hall and building inspectors to throw the bums out or they create a data base of health care hassles to build a case for change.

* Problem solving: The crowd is wise and our crowd is wiser, every media brand should believe. So why not throw problems out to the people when the experts we go to all the time fail: What should we do to fix that health care mess? Define a school that works.

* Aggregated smarts: Why not have our audiences Digg our stories — and others — to create the front page of the people? Doesn’t mean the editors can’t have one, too. But why can’t and why shouldn’t the people? See also Flickr interestingness for the aggregated taste of the crowd. The crowd is smart if you know how to count them.

* What’s missing: Rather than making interactivity about what we’ve already written about, wouldn’t it be better to find out what we’re not covering? Ask and listen.

* Shared knowledge: See an earlier post about turning the newsroom into a classroom. Why not create the means for people who know what they’re talking about to teach what they know?

* Social moments: Any friend of mine is a friend of yours, eh? So shouldn’t news and media be hosting Meetups so folks can meet each other? In the old days, we didn’t want to meet our readers. Now, we want our readers to meet each other. And who knows what wonders will ensue?

I know that’s amorphous, but I’m trying to assign buckets. What have I missed? What examples can you throw in? What should interactivity really mean?

: SHAME ON ME: In my standard lists of interaction locally I should always include Phillyfuture, which Karl Martino start and which is even endeavoring to help save a paper.

  • RK


    All good points. Your enthusiasm for community and interaction is infectious, although there are moments when it comes across as a bit naive (only a bit:-)). A few thoughts of my own to yours.

    That communal feeling we get when we are among the real people is because, among other things, we feel the empathy of the other people. In blogs that empathy has so far been elusive (perhaps it is difficult to retain it.) In blog interaction, I think, a person reads the other person’s comment/opinion, judges it primarily for its intellectual content but reacts to it emotionally (may be even vice versa, as opposed to a healthy mix of both.) We haven’t been able to create an environment where text and context go together, although we know what it looks like. Explicitly moderated discussions are unreal in that, they don’t reflect average everydayness, hence don’t reflect real communities.

    And I am sure all bloggers/commenters have noticed this, that the longer a blog has been in existence, and the more it builds its loyal base, the more it creates a feeling of alienation to the newcomer. When we see four or five people talking, not all of us feel comfortable walking in and joining the conversation, it feels like walking into a private conversation, though taking place in a public space like a street corner.

    In spite of millions of people using it and blogging on it, internet is a very narrow pipe and doesn’t yet provide the wider perspective that one gets instantly in the real world. And this obsession with digg-like rating for entries/comments is simply unreal. You know this sort of rating doesn’t happen in real communities, so why do it on the net? Just because blogging software technology is primitive doesn’t mean we should alter our behavior to cater to it? I mean it’s like “lord of the flies” on the internet everywhere these days, we are all behaving like little children lost in an island and with no “external world” as such, eventually become self-destructive. OK, I don’t mean to sound all pessimistic but I would rather we caution one another on the artifacts of the internet and unnatural behavior it sometimes forces us into.


  • Blogs “alienate newcomers”? “Empathy”?

    Don’t know what RK is talking about.

    Anyway it is a good post on interactivity. My two cents it that interactivity is good for the audience/customer in a way that may not be so obvious.

    Posting comments provokes thought and clarity for the author. It is one thing to read an article and shake your head in disagreement, but quite another to sit down and pen a cogent rebuttal. Personally I have learned so much more from “interacting” with rather than simply consuming media.

  • Interactivity via comments can accomplish all the goals you describe, Jeff, but there still needs to be a compelling, authentic voice that invites people into the conversation. I’d contrast the (small-scale) success of Henry Abbott at TrueHoop and his invitation to readers to assist him in his investigation into William Wesley with the recent failure of Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere, a noble experiment from which much can be learned.

    Abbott and Gillmor both invited their readers to get involved and participate in the story, but I’d argue that the former has succeeded (so far, at least) where the latter did not because TrueHoop is clearly Abbott’s personal voice–there’s a real guy on the other end of the wire, and he speaks his mind with clarity and force–while Bayosphere always felt anonymous and bland, Gillmor’s good writing and best intentions notwithstanding.

    The lesson for me? Comments and interactivity are the icing on the cake, but you have to start baking with ingredients like individual personality, color and authenticity. Get me excited about you and your ideas, and then (and only then) maybe I’ll care enough to get involved and contribute myself.

    (And although I emailed you earlier about Abbott, I really don’t have an interest in TrueHoop–I just think he’s one of the best examples we have right now of “open source journalism” in action.)


  • Con Repub


    Interesting post, thanks, well put re emergence of shared authority, agree that the recent Post forum set-up was somewhat willfully blind to implications and benefits of interactivity. Also agree with CN re conversion from passive to active voice– better for the readership to create more, passively consume less. Re your possible benefits of interaction, wonder sometimes if they might be sunk by selection bias, conscious or otherwise (and severe selection bias describes well the current broadcast world, word and image).

  • Jeff

    I think we’re still in a transitional phase. The Post’s efforts at developing this interaction wasn’t planned out well and they look foolish.

    Traditional media still plays a valuable role. People want their news, in a capsule, and then they want to move on. Citizens media will kick when there is a local compelling reason that my be a bit controversial – but not too divisive to arouse enough passion to inspire people to change ideas.

  • Great points and ideas all.
    Id agree in theory re the distinctive voice helps to ignite the discussion, and I d also agree with your analysis of Bayosphere (and posted to that effect there a few days ago)… That said, we allow reader comments on every article, both local and wire, so how compelliing and personal a voice will your regular AP story be? still we manage to draw them in.

    We’ve actually effected local civic and business policy change via reader comments on a few occasions, and im very proud of that. Weve had successes and/or sensed potential on all of your points, Jeff, except the first. Im not sure why a formal hyperlocal model isn’t catching on in our area, and Ill devote some time this year to analyze that, but it just isnt the way public wants to get involved around here. Our readers would rather sound off than be burdened with having to write an actual article and be ‘reporting’ on something.

    There is a way to get some hyperlocal reporting in the guise of comments, however; when gas prices rose, i had readers report neighborhood pump prices via comments on our Gas Watch article. They did the same with fire conditions when we had active fires.

    In all this industry talk , i dont think there will be the single magic combination of THE PERFECT WAY to do citizen involvement. Every community is different, and you just have to listen and adapt.

    CaptuosuNut alludes to something we’ve seen that makes the reader comment to me so valuable: when you get reporters responding and doing follow up, honing their work based on reader feedback, then youre getting a better newsroom and closing the gap.

    While Im ready to lay the WP thing to rest, and I do believe Brady is trying hard to advocate transparency and dialogue, the Gas Price forum mentioned earlier reminds me that the general mindset even at WPNI will need to change fully across the board. I visited them last November. When I told them about the Gas Price forum we set up, someone asked, “did you go verify all those gas prices that readers posted?” Thats a real disconnect to what the citizen media movement is about, and shows a lack of trust to the public, in my view.

  • Philly Future – – has had a terrific year:

    *We did a community interview with Dianah Neff CTO of Philadelphia:

    *We also raised awareness of Latoyia Figoria when she was missing and not being covered by the news.

    *We now have 400 members to our site and over 300 local blogs we aggregate as part of our community.

    Our live 8 coverage included a press passed empowered volunteer on site, and live posts by attendees, and a ton of aggregated content from across the region
    These are only two examples in the past year. I can mention many more.

    The regional weblogger meetup we host has grown to be a must go event in Philly once a month:

    Philly Future – on $20 a month hosting – with only volunteers – who are part of the community – and should be mentioned right along side NashvilleIsTalking – which I’m sure has a whole lot more budget.

    Hats off to everyone trying to build services like ours.

  • I think you’re on the money.

    I think it’s more than articles that can have reviews and comments. I think of ads. Aggregregated headlines. Everything. Stefan actually hit most of what I would add.

    Geo-located/map enabled data is an important dimension that is missing right now, from most efforts, because it’s still a bit too complex to tackle – we enable you to post stories to a neighborhood – but that’s not the same – but it has gotten far easier with Google Maps/Yahoo! Maps APIs. There are already some interesting applications of this out here.

  • Damn… that last post had the line (sorry for being spammy!)

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  • There is, though, the possibility–the way things are now constituted on line–that there aren’t enough individuals to sustain the great things you’re suggesting, Jeff. We talk alot about Old Media needing to change, but are some of the most vocal members of the Audience ready to put aside the instant-gratification jones they get from hit-and-run invective and be happy with true, transparent dialogue and participation? It’s going to take an awful lot of smart, thick-skinned folks taking the initiative to implement the the things you suggest in order to turn around the newsgroup/flamer mentality that is still a major part of interactivity on the ‘net. As long as people still get something for screaming at the tv, they’re going to be hard-pressed to see the really great benefits of interactivity.

  • Tish is correct. Most political related blogs are all one-sided, filled with vicious comments about ‘the other side’. The concept of ‘Citizen Media’ may be sound as a concept, but the participants need to mature as a whole to make it work. Whether it is covering local happenings or major events, a true lack of professionalism can easily come out.

  • It’s going to take an awful lot of smart, thick-skinned folks taking the initiative to implement the the things you suggest in order to turn around the newsgroup/flamer mentality that is still a major part of interactivity on the ‘net. As long as people still get something for screaming at the tv, they’re going to be hard-pressed to see the really great benefits of interactivity.

    But here is the real value of moderation; you can see the direction of dialogue and channel it acordingly. Its about listening to your readers closely enough to be responsive.

    Jeff is right, 4 days is way too long to react, and its also my view that reader comments that arent moderated, or at least monitored, is hardly interactive. Youre a passive facilitator for a dialogue thats going on without you. I think a lot of people posting and punditring about this incident dont quite see the” emperor has no clothes on” aspect here.. Where in hell is the interactivity in letting readers comment then ignoring their input till its too late?

    I’l give an example. NM has a huge, chronic DWI (driving while intoxicated) problem. Lots of fatalities. This summer another incident was the straw on the camels back. 2 days and 300+ comments full of rage and invective at the perp. A reader suggested (though I’d like to think I would have come to the same conclusion) a different thread solely for ideas, proposals. So I created the forum, and the rule was “no rage or venting, we’re done with that, or go to the other one. Here, all we want is porposals, ideas, recommendations. If you were sherriff, governor, lawmaker, what would you have done?”

    Response was huge, state agencies got involved, town hall meeting, etc.. all because we were there at a turning point in the thread and could be responsive to the public current. Many many other examples I could cite, but the key is being engaged and responsive. Had i not been approving all of those comments, I would have missed that oppotunity.

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  • But here is the real value of moderation; you can see the direction of dialogue and channel it acordingly. Its about listening to your readers closely enough to be responsive.

    yep…takes time to moderate well. and it takes patience to follow a moderated conversation. it’s not instant gratification, which some folks are misconstruing with free speech.

  • I think there’s a difference between news and “interactivity” that is being obscured by the fact that you used a news site as the model. Tish and others’ comments notwithstanding, I think we are moving to a “news” model that will, slowly, converge on Shirky’s differential from years ago. News used to filter then publish, the net phblishes then filters and blogs are part of the filtering process, along with Digg, technorati etc.

    I don’t think that internet news will become more “professional” at all. It will get more participation, better tools, more subtle and accessible filters and we will “read through” the noise as we now “read through” the editorial stance and the political bent of the Washington Times.

    Interactivity on the other hand is about the tools you offer your users and I keep hammering on the 3 I’s of interactivity.

    Initiation – The user has to be able to initiate a process, the personla diaries on kos are a good example,

    Intervention – the user has to be able to step into an existing process somehow, again comments, are a good example of this, i can argue a case without your control and, as long as we have civil discourse, both our points will stay up and available to anyone.

    Influence – sometimes it is the sight of you changing your mind, or shifting your position in response to something that someone has said, that matters over time as your partners in blog gain confidence in your humanity and authenticity, but so do tools such as the recommendations and ratings at Kos. Not just because I can influence the content and the tone of the day, but because if I make a good enough case, I can change the agenda of the whole site. As with the current campaign to influence the Democrats to filibuster Alito.

    That started out as posting among the regulars, co-opted the blog, attracted Kerry and Kennedy who supported and surfed on the wave.

    THAT is interactivity. It is also news.

  • “Sociability was frequently dismissed as idle gossip, and especially in the early days of the telephone, was actively discouraged.

    Yet the most successful communication technologies, the mail and the telephone, reached their full potential only when they embraced sociability and those “useless calls” as their goal. That seemingly idle chit-chat not only provided direct revenues, but it encouraged the diffusion of the corresponding technology, and made it more useful for commercial and other applications. Such social interaction frequently function to grease the wheels of commerce.”
    “Profits of the telephone industry have dwarfed those of Hollywood.”
    Andrew Odlyzko

    Content is king, content is not king…
    People prefer their own content.
    That is why interactivity is so important.
    Nothing is as interesting as talking about themselves.
    That is why the average guy will ALWAYS prefer to do a telephone call instead of assuming passively what broadcasted by others.
    Even a football game is interesting the moment he can comment it.
    Just plain watching without impersonification is not the same.

    That is also why the surfing the Internet is more succesful than plain reading, you can, if you want, immediately comment and communicate.

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