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Theorizing Interactivity's Effects
S. Shyam Sundar
a
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Media Effects Research Laboratory, College of Communications, Pennsylvania State
University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Version of record first published: 12 Aug 2010.
To cite this article: S. Shyam Sundar (2004): Theorizing Interactivity's Effects, The Information Society: An International
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DOI: 10.1080/01972240490508072
Theorizing Interactivity’s Effects
S. Shyam Sundar
Media Effects Research Laboratory, College of Communications, Pennsylvania State
University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Noting that interactivity is often defined but seldom theorized
in the literature, this article provides some pointers for developing
theories about effects of interactivity, particularly as it applies to
Web-based mass communication. It first makes the case that inter-
activity is an attribute of the technology and not that of the user.
It exposes the tautology of studying the effects of perceived inter-
activity and calls for the consideration of ontological aspects that
constitute interactivity while specifying its social and psychologi-
cal effects. Theoretical explorations may be categorized in terms
of three classes of outcome measures—behavioral, attitudinal, and
cognitive—as we investigate the role played by interactivity in ini-
tiating action, changing attitudes, and altering the nature of infor-
mation processing. These would result in theories about technology
rather than psychology in that they help us specify direct and com-
bination effects of interactivity, modality, navigability, and other
technological attributes of the Web medium.
Keywords interactivity, media effects, psychology of technology,
web-based mass communication
Like most technological variables, interactivity is a
much-touted but undertheorized concept. It was a mere
buzzword some 20 years ago, then enjoyed considerable
hype during the 1990s, thanks mostly to rapid proliferation
of communication technologies that offered an unprece-
dented range of interactive possibilities. While informa-
tion technologists were mostly concerned about inter-
activity’s contribution to task performance (particularly
efficiency), media scholars became preoccupied with its
potential to fundamentally alter the nature of interpersonal
and mass communication. The notion of interactivity un-
dermines the classical assumption of a passive media audi-
Received 19 November 2003; accepted 26 March 2004.
Address correspondence to S. Shyam Sundar, Associate Professor
and Co-Director, Media Effects Research Laboratory, College of Com-
munications, Pennsylvania State University, 212, Carnegie Building,
University Park, PA 16802-5101, USA. E-mail: sss12@psu.edu
ence, to the point of changing the label of communication
receiver from “audience” to “user.” By interacting with
networked media, users do not simply dictate reception of
information, they become veritable gatekeepers of it, thus
transferring agency from senders to receivers (Sundar &
Nass, 2001). Besides undermining the traditional concep-
tion of communication source, interactivity renders the no-
tion of “medium” problematic, since interactive processes
aspire to achieve seamless transaction between user and
content in a manner that obscures the distinction between
mediated and non-mediated experiences (Reeves & Nass,
1996; Sundar & Nass, 2000).
Much of this preoccupation is premised on the pre-
sumed effects of interactivity, particularly upon users’ ac-
tions, attitudes, and thoughts. These effects, as different
authors have pointed out (see Bucy, 2004a, 2004b; Rafaeli,
1988), are assumedtobe mostlypositive anddesirable, fol-
lowing the dominant conviction of engineers who design
interactive systems for a living (e.g., Hoogeveen, 1997).
However, conceptual models grounded in the social sci-
ences are virtually absent in the literature on interactiv-
ity. As Bucy (this issue) observes, much of the work has
concentrated on defining interactivity and typologizing in-
teractive media, but very little effort is directed towards
theorizing how interactivity affects the act and impact of
communication.
This article offers some possibilities for theoretical ex-
ploration of this rich concept. It first discusses the locus of
interactivityinaneffort toclarifyits status as anattribute of
the medium rather than the user. The article then proceeds
to discuss a sampling of theoretical formulations that seem
most appropriate for investigating the behavioral, attitudi-
nal, and cognitive effects of technological interactivity in
the context of Web-based mass communication.
INTERACTIVITY IS AN ATTRIBUTE
OF TECHNOLOGY
While it may be operationally more convenient to mea-
sure interactivity in terms of user perceptions of existing
385
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386 S. S. SUNDAR
interfaces rather than to create interfaces that expressly
include the various defining elements specified by so-
called n-dimensional models of interactivity (see Jensen,
1998), it would be a mistake to define interactivity as a per-
ceptual variable. To begin with, such a definition situates
the concept in the user rather than the medium, the under-
lying sentiment being one of “I knowit when I see it.” This
further obscures, rather than clarifies, the true meaning of
interactivity.
Perceptual measures stress the “experience of interac-
tivity” (Bucy, 2004b) and therefore lend themselves to a
skills-based determination of interactivity. Therefore, the
correlation between perceived interactivity and other self-
reported variables is a reflection of the users in the sample
rather than the technologies they are asked to evaluate. It’s
simply self-fulfilling. If I am skilled enough to ably use a
given interface, I would rate it as quite interactive. If not,
I would rate it poorly. As a result, a high-end virtual real-
ity (VR) system that requires advanced skills is likely to
be rated lower in interactivity than more usable everyday
applications such as e-mail. Indeed, perceived interactiv-
ity is probably confounded with perceived usability of the
system.
In the perceptual scheme of things, technology is a con-
stant. So are “medium” and “message.” The only thing
varying is (individual differences in) users’ ability to use—
and hence rate—any given interface. If we were to theorize
about the psychological effects of interactivity using such
a technologically independent conception of interactivity,
then we would be building knowledge about people (i.e.,
theories of psychology) rather than about media. There’s
no danger in this as long as we remain satisfied with simply
exploring uses (and gratifications) of media and don’t as-
pire to understand howvariations in information and com-
munication technology affect users. Furthermore, given
that perceived interactivity locates the concept within the
individual, that is, as an individual-differences variable, it
hampers the possibility of discussing it at a mass or societal
level.
Another downside to the perceptual approach is the
lack of specification about which technological elements
contribute to—or detract from—interactivity. All we can
say is that a system that is rated as interactive will also
be rated higher or lower on an outcome measure or de-
pendent variable. Apart from training users to become
skilled at using the system, it would be difficult to as-
certain what promotes the perception of interactivity in a
system. Under this scheme, we may find that television
is considered more interactive than the personal computer
(see Morrison, 1998), but we cannot tell why—other than,
of course, that people are probably more skilled at using
television.
Given these limitations of the perceptual approach, it
is incumbent upon us to treat interactivity as an attribute
of the technological interface rather than the media user.
Perceived interactivity is, at best, a manipulation-check
item, a control variable, or even a dependent measure, but
should not be the major independent variable of interest to
effects researchers. In message research, when we want to
investigate the effects of suspense, we would use level of
exposure to suspenseful stimuli as the independent vari-
able, not the viewer’s perception of suspense as the pre-
dictor. Similarly, interactivity is a message (or medium)
attribute, not a user attribute.
Using perceived interactivity as a manipulation check
does not necessarily make it a mediator of interactivity
effects; it simply verifies that the manipulation “took.” In
other words, users of ICTs realize the interactive potential
of the interface feature being tested. Howmuch of that po-
tential is explored during the course of interaction with (or
through) technology is a behavioral consequence of the
feature’s interior design, or programming (see Stromer-
Galley, this issue), rather than a mental construction. By
randomly assigning participants to different ontologically
specified interactivity conditions, we can rule out individ-
ual differences in the exploration of interactive potential
and isolate the contribution of technological, as opposed
to simply perceived, interactivity on outcome variables of
interest.
INTERACTIVITY EFFECTS ON BEHAVIOR
In a provocative essay on interactivity in society, Bucy
(2004b) asserts that “technological definitions are concep-
tually limiting . . . in that they do not take into account
how different media may be experienced by different user
groups.” Yet the experiential aspect of interactivity is not
part of its definition, but rather its effect, specifically a be-
havioral effect. To again invoke a message-effects analogy,
it would be tautological to define filmed horror in terms
of audience members’ response, that is, how scared they
get. That is why horror is often defined in terms of the
presence of certain aspects of the message—frightening
scenes, gore and death, the presence of a monster, and so
on. Likewise, interactivity should be defined in terms of
the presence of specific ontological characteristics (e.g.,
control, choice, contingency) in the interface. How users
interact with the system under conditions of high or low
interactivity is an effects question.
Whether it is with another person (computer-mediated
communication, CMC) or a system (human–computer in-
teraction, HCI), interaction is an obvious behavioral con-
sequence of interface interactivity. Therefore, theorizing
can proceed along the lines of determining the mecha-
nism by which interactivity causes interaction, in terms of
both nature and volume. When conceptualized in terms
of speed of system response (Steuer, 1992), for exam-
ple, interactivity may be associated with physiological
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THEORIZING INTERACTIVITY’S EFFECTS 387
excitation, which then translates to clicking action (Sundar
&Wagner, 2002), following the excitation-transfer predic-
tion (Zillmann, 1983). When conceptualized in terms of
customization, interactivity is negatively associated with
interaction because the high personal relevance of con-
tent under levels of high interactivity obviates the need to
explore (Kalyanaraman & Sundar, 2003).
More generally, certain forms or elements of interactive
interfaces may be more successful than others in issuing
calls to action. And certain individual-difference variables,
including skill level, may help explain how those calls
are interpreted differentially and why some calls result in
greater interaction than others. When considered at the ag-
gregate level, the social phenomenon of digital divide is
really about the differential ability and/or desire of differ-
ent social groups to respond to the online medium’s calls
to action.
At a more complex level, theorizing may involve other
technological variables related to interactivity. Interactive
interfaces are often constructed around a series of hyper-
linking structures, so interactivity tends to be confounded
with navigability, that is, the degree of navigation afforded
by the interface—but not always (Sundar et al., 2003).
This raises the possibility of considering interactivity and
navigability together as predictors of user behavior. Calls
to action issued by interactive devices may be more pro-
nounced under conditions of higher navigability, but are
also more likely to be ignored given the multiplicity of
options for clicking on hyperlinks.
Testable hypotheses can also be generated by consid-
ering interactivity with other formal features, such as an-
imation. For example, we could predict that, given ani-
mation’s potential to attract attention, interactivity would
result in higher interaction when calls to interactivity are
signified by animated, rather than static, icons. Further-
more, we could propose that the presence of animation on
the interface that is not visually connected with interac-
tive devices will serve to distract users from engaging in
interaction. Content variables may also be thrown in the
mix. For example, we could propose that animation would
additively combine with interactivity in stimulating inter-
action on a political web site but animation would serve to
diminish the behavioral effect of interactivity in the case
of online advertisements, given lowclick-through rates for
web banners.
These kinds of psychological considerations have
broader implications, both in the construction of mass
communication on the Internet and in gauging society’s re-
sponses to such communications in general. For example,
the general social stigma attached to pop-up ads signifies
not only the effectiveness of such devices in tricking users
to orient toward them (Diao & Sundar, in press), but also
a societal response to a technology that forces users to en-
gage in interactions that they did not solicit. The fact that
users necessarily have to interact in order to close down
the pop-up window(just like they necessarily have to inter-
act with unwelcome telemarketers) makes such commu-
nications particularly loathsome, whereas interruptions by
commercials on television tend to be socially tolerated be-
cause receivers are thought to be generally passive while
using the television medium and not engaged in ongoing
transactional interactions.
INTERACTIVITY EFFECTS ON ATTITUDES
The generally positive expectations of interactivity noted
earlier are based on favorable attitudes generated by user
perceptions of interface design, especially its functional-
ity and user accommodations, including navigability and
organization, aesthetic appeal, information accessibility,
and the like. Given this, it is again problematic to employ
a perceptual definition of interactivity because we come
very close to operationalizing the independent or predictor
variable in terms of the dependent or outcome variable. If
we are serious about building theories that delineate the
nature of interactivity effects on attitudes, then we have to
clearly situate interactivity within the medium or the mes-
sage so that we can objectively determine its contribution.
By contributing to seamlessness in interaction or a sense
of telepresence (Coyle & Thorson, 2001), higher levels of
interactivity may be theorized as contributing to more pos-
itive social responses to computers (Reeves &Nass, 1996)
simply on the basis of good design and ease of use. Acom-
peting theoretical proposition could be that interactivity
gives the illusion of agency or human presence (Sundar &
Nass, 2000), thus encouraging the categorization of com-
puters as fellow social actors, leading to mindless applica-
tion of social rules and expectations (Nass &Moon, 2000).
Under this formulation, the nature of the invoked agency
(machine or programmer, for example) would likely dic-
tate the degree and valence of user ratings (Sundar &Nass,
2000).
Users’ attitudinal responses to interactivity may also be
based on a simple evaluation (of interactive devices them-
selves), as in the case of most advertising and consumer
behavior studies. We could theorize about these responses
using formulations readily available in social psychology.
For example, Sundar et al. (2003) discuss interactivity in
the context of dual-process persuasion models, as a poten-
tial peripheral cue or a central message argument depend-
ing on the conceptualization. If interactivity is operational-
ized in terms of the bells and whistles on the interface, it is
thought of as a peripheral cue that contributes to positive
attitudes via mere association. But, if it is based on the
contingent transmission of threaded messages, then it is
more likely to trigger closer scrutiny of message content.
This puts the focus on the informational component of in-
teractivity, as delivering more information requires more
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388 S. S. SUNDAR
involvement with content. Therefore, one could theorize
interactivity as impacting attitudes by way of enhancing
user involvement with information. Of course, the valence
of the attitudes would depend on the persuasive strength of
the arguments in the information, but one could make the
case that the veryconstructionof the interactive loopserves
as a strong message argument (Sundar & Kim, 2004).
We might get more theoretically adventurous by at-
tempting to predict combination effects of interactivity and
other technological variables (modality, animation, etc.)
on user attitudes. For example, interactivity may additively
combine with a peripheral cue like animation to promote
positive attitudes, but an abundance of such cues may lead
to over-stimulation and negative evaluations (see Bucy,
this issue). The reason for such an outcome should be the
focus of theoretical development. One proposition may be
related to the degree to which these cues, in combination,
detract the user from gaining information needed for eval-
uation. A competing proposition could be that the mere
presence of certain cues (e.g., pop-up ads) alters users’
perception of interactivity (Sundar &Kim, 2004). Another
possibility is that the effect is simply attentional, i.e., more
cues means more distraction.
Now, depending on the object of evaluation, distraction
could be considered a positive or negative contributor to
attitudes. For example, if pop-up ads are so distracting
that they interfere with reception of web-site information,
then user attitudes toward the site may suffer. But if pop-
up ads serve as an optimal distracting cue, then they may
successfully inhibit counterarguments about site content,
leading to greater persuasion (Stavrositu &Sundar, 2004).
Of course, it is likely that at least some of these psycho-
logical effects are affected by broader societal and policy
responses to technological devices such as pop-ups. There-
fore, attitudes toward interactivity are probably contingent
on both the degree to which interfaces followculturally ac-
cepted norms of interaction and the value placed by a given
culture on its offerings, such as greater engagement with
mediated content.
INTERACTIVITY EFFECTS ON COGNITION
By calling for user action, interactive devices on the inter-
face invite users to think about their communication be-
havior, particularly the courses of action they could take
or the choices to avail themselves of on screen. There-
fore, we could argue that user responses to interactivity are
necessarily strategic. This would have implications for the
nature of cognitive processing of mediated information.
As Shapiro, Lang, Hamilton and Contractor (2001) note,
most stimulus characteristics, especially formal features,
in the media-effects literature are understood to trigger
automatic processing which is outside the conscious con-
trol of the receiver and therefore occurs without planning
(Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977). Depending on the particu-
lars of a given conceptualization, certain interactive fea-
tures (such as mouse-overs and sliders in an interactive
news story) are likely to automatically trigger orienting
responses, leading to greater attention to the features. But
the purposive user involvement triggered by (certain types
of) interactivity seems to suggest that interactively trans-
mitted information will be processed consciously (Sundar
& Constantin, 2004). Considering that cognition is cru-
cially determined by the nature of information processing,
an important theoretical issue to be resolved concerns the
automatic vs. controlled processing of interactivity.
Theorizing can also come from the navigational aspect
of interactivity. The enactment effect in cognitive psychol-
ogy (Nilsson, 2000), which posits that action concomitant
with verbal information facilitates encoding, may be used
to service the argument that greater interactivity will lead
to increased learning simply because it involves more in-
teraction with the interface. One recent study suggests that
online information obtained by clicking on a hyperlink is
more likely to be encoded compared to information that is
not at the receiving end of a link (Sundar & Constantin,
2004).
Both interactive features and interactively transmitted
content compete for allocation of processing resources
in the human brain, which means interactivity, especially
when combined with other interface features, may result
in cognitive overload, resulting in disorientation (Sundar,
2000) and better encoding but lower storage of information
(Lang, 2000), among other possibilities. Determining such
trade-offs between attention and memory, and arriving at
threshold points at which interactivity can be cognitively
burdensome, are areas worthy of greater theoretical spec-
ification.
In sum, rich detail on the social and psychological ef-
fects of interactivity may be obtained by first considering
interactivityas a technological variable andthentheorizing
about the various reasons for its main effects on cognition,
attitudes and behaviors. Such an approach may identify
moderator variables (usually other technological features),
leading us to specify interaction hypotheses between inter-
activity and other variables. Careful investigation should
also yield one or more mediating variables that serve to ex-
plicate the causal path by which interactivity affects users.
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