The need for a critical discourse of interactivity

Abstract of paper given at ECREA, Lisbon, November 2014 – Audience & Reception Studies section

“Towards a critical discourse of digital interactivity: empowerment through strategy and context”


This paper examines the need for a critical discourse of interactivity, a concept at the heart of digital media communication and culture. Interactivity is a (new) media concept, which, although not new in itself, has come to characterise communications. It is closely associated with the ‘empowering’ capabilities of digital media – with the internet in particular – and is frequently implicated in the changes occuring in media and communications structures, relationships and practices in recent years.

Although relatively well developed in academic discourse, interactivity is still a contested concept, (Lister 2003, McQuail 2000). Theorists differ on whether it is a characteristic of technologies, a feature of interface and context, a perception in users’ minds or some combination of these (Kiousis 2002, Reinhard 2011). The literature on interactivity locates user empowerment in the technological and networked aspects of media, facilitating wider access to information and increased potential for user-generated content. Yet, empowerment also emerges from the psychological and sensory aspects of interactivity that facilitate deeper engagement and emotional connection among users.

More than ever, media practitioners and theorists require a critical discourse of interactivity in order to understand, evaluate and improve digital media experiences and communication outcomes for users. Following Jenkins (2000, cited in Salen & Zimmerman 2003), the tangible benefits of establishing a critical discourse are: ‘Training’ (a common toolset for the education of digital media producers), ‘Generational Transfer’ (producers pass on skills and knowledge, rather than continuously reinventing the wheel), ‘Audience-building’ (digital media is reviewed, critiqued, advertised to and received by a literate public in more sophisticated ways) and a ‘Buffer against criticism’ (providing the vocabulary and understanding to discuss and defend interactivity in the context of policy debates e.g. relating to violence in games).

I would argue that deeper analysis of how we talk about interactivity – whether as academics, designers, users or citizens – is essential for evaluating the interactive strategies and contextual challenges and demands of communication.

This discussion is based on findings from a large historical study of public discourses on interactivity (Barry, 2012). Public discourse offers an alternative dataset for examining a concept represented in many different ways arising from everyday media practice. Historical analysis decouples interactivity from specific technologies and follows the reach of discourses and effects beyond individual communication events and their immediate participants.

This extensive discourse analysis studied the ‘talk’ about interactivity, from the birth of the Internet to the rise of social media, revealing at least nine themes or ‘styles’ of representation, the most consistent of which was its ‘empowerment’ effect. Further, a number of influential ‘discourse communities’, were identified including the commercial ICT and digital media sector, cultural theorists and educational and academic sources. Examination of the complex discourse structures within which these communities negotiate such concepts offers insights into communication power structures and the reach of discourse itself.

Finally, the paper briefly presents work in progress from a new dataset, examining pedagogical and professional discourses around interactivity, to complement public discourse and build theory towards a critical discourse of interactivity.

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