Thursday, March 27, 2008

The myth of interactivity on the Internet

The myth of interactivity on the Internet

By Gerry McGovern

Interactivity has become an almost sacred tenet of the Internet. Again and again, we are told that interactivity is what makes the Internet really different. However, interactivity on the Internet is often vastly over-hyped.

Words like 'interactivity' and 'community' have been hugely abused and devalued over the last eight years. Nobody would call a group of people in a nightclub a community. However, to some, all you have to do is set up a discussion forum and you have an online community.

If you turn a page in a magazine or book, that doesn't exactly qualify as interactivity. Yet, if you click a link on the Web, many feel you are participating in an interactive activity. The reality is, of course, that the Web is very often the antithesis of interactivity and community.

If commerce is selling with people, then ecommerce is selling with content. If learning is learning with people, then elearning is learning with content. It is the very removal of people—with the consequent reduction of interactivity and community—that has attracted many businesses to the Web. Remove people, the thinking goes, and you remove costs. (In many situations, there is a lot of logic to this thinking.)

Basic interactivity on the Web very often fails. For example, organizations are notoriously bad at responding to email enquiries. In December 2001, a New York Times journalist sent email messages to 65 US senators. She informed them she was doing a story on email message handling by members of Congress. Amazingly, 31 senators didn't reply at all. 27 replied with automated messages. After two weeks, only 7 out of 65 had sent an actual response. Of those responses was one from Senator Phil Gramm's office, which stated that: "The communication that Sen. Gramm values most certainly does not arrive by wire."

A Jupiter Media Metrix survey of 250 retailer websites, published in January 2002, found interactivity sorely lacking. 30 percent of websites surveyed responded within 6 hours. 18 percent took 6 to 24 hours. 18 percent took 1 to 3 days. 34 percent took longer than 3 days or didn't respond at all.

It is still surprising the amount of people who believe that installing some chat or discussion board software will create an online community for their website. The software is only 1 percent of the job. The real work involves getting people to interact.

Online communities are very often more like clubs, associations or gangs, than genuine communities. Properly focused, they can contribute to social bonding and/or aid in the sharing of knowledge.

However, they often are a monumental waste of time. Many advertisers have shied away from such 'community' environments because they tend to contain people with too much time on their hands and too little money in their pockets.

We need to take a more realistic view of what interactivity and community means on the Web. Interactivity starts with having a policy in relation to how quickly you are going to respond to emails you receive. If you don't have that then your online community has about as much substance as a group of strangers in a nightclub.

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