The Meaning Of Interactivity

I had a great chat with a fellow documentary filmmaker yesterday at Breken Kitchen (my new favorite place in NW Portland). We talked about many things, but the topic that really got me thinking was about the word: Interactive. What does it mean to be approaching and defining interactive experiences in a world that is addicted to providing interactivity, from cradle to the grave?

Simply defined as “a continuous two-way transfer of information between a user and the central point of a communication system, such as a computer or television,” interactivity has morphed from a passive system where there is one active participant getting information from a single system, to an active system where there are multiple users constantly receiving media-rich content from multiple systems, utilizing multiple devices on several networks, all simultaneously connected.

Today, interactive experiences are in abundance. We are heavily interactive because of social media and mobile technology, which provide instant access to more people and more information. But just because we have commoditized our access to others, our identities, and our information sources, does this change the underlying and philosophical nature of being interactive with other people or systems of information?

While listening to my friend talk about interactivity, I was thinking and processing everything above, remembering when interactive web design and multimedia production was the rage, when he threw the curve ball, striking me out: “Interaction is reaction to a story.”

Nothing to do with technology, everything to do with the message. Interaction is what we think about the stories that we are told. Interactivity is a method of processing and analyzing the information that we have mined in our digital networks. In many ways this reactionary definition of interaction and interactivity returns us to the simple definition with a twist: “The continuous two-way transfer of information between a user and a [story].”

We measure what we know to be true and false against the stories that we are told, thus shaping, morphing and evolving the way we think and feel about particular subjects. This is by no means a passive process, because the stronger the story, the bolder the message, the longer it takes to be in a continuous conversation with that story. We will be continually challenged to test our assumptions against the greater narrative and we will be immersed in an interactive process that shapes our individual worlds in ways that we didn’t know was possible.

An interesting view of interactivity and as I test what I know against this thought of interaction being a reaction to a story, it gets me excited about the power of a well-told story. Stories that endure the test of time can change the world. They can challenge assumptions, reveal prejudice and bias, and can show people new ways of thinking. But the hardest thing to do in life is to tell compelling stories that have depth, meaning and vision. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try.