In Theorizing Interactivity’s Effects, S. Shyam Sundar of Penn State University argues that previous means of measures of interactivity are inherently flawed in that they are premised on the individual user, instead of examining the effects on “the act and impact of communication.” (p. 385). Sundar instead explores potential ways to explore interactivity behaviorally, attitudinally, and cognitively “in an effort to clarify its status as an attribute of the medium rather than the user.” (p. 385).
Sundar rejects viewing interactivity as a perceptual variable, because he believes that this and other self-reported variables focus on the users, rather than the technologies through which they communicate. From the perceptual standpoint, technology is constant; the only aspect that changes is an individual’s ability to use it. Because of this, he believes that “perceived interactivity is probably confounded with perceived usability of the system.” (p. 386). Sundar argues that “interaction is an obvious behavioral consequence of interface interactivity.” (p. 386). Thus, he proposes that interactivity “should be defined in terms of the presence of specific ontological characters.” (p. 386). He uses the example of a horror movie: instead of defining a horror movie by how scared audience members get, it is defined by aspects of the message, including the amount gore, death, monsters, etc. When looking at interactivity effects on attitudes, Sanders claims that “we have to clearly situate interactivity within the medium or the message so that we can objectively determine its contribution.” (p. 387). Touching on cues causing a user to scrutinize a message more closely and interactivity impacting attitudes by enhancing user involvement with information, he concludes that “attitudes toward interactivity are probably contingent on both the degree to which interfaces follow culturally accepted norms of interaction and the value placed by a given culture on its offerings.” (p. 388). Sanders briefly explores the cognitive effects of interactivity; citing studies examining stimulus characteristics, he notes that they “are understood to trigger automatic processing which is outside the conscious control of the receiver” (p. 389) but that certain interactive features will cause information to be processed consciously. (p. 389).
Sundar proposes a variety of ways to look at interactivity beyond the individual’s rating of usability. The purpose of his paper is to encourage further research into behavioral, attitudinal, and cognitive ways of understanding of interactivity instead of focusing on individual perceptions. However, his point to focus more on the medium rather than the user’s ability to use it is weakened by his ultimate inclusion of the individual when examining attitude and attention. He claims that attitudes are dependent on cultural norms and that attention is based on the salience of stimuli; however, if an individual is not able to easily or efficiently use a technology despite it being culturally relevant or attention grabbing, how is that technology going to impact the way people use it to communicate?