If there are two buzzwords in electronic publishing, they are multimedia and interactivity. Many commercial Web publishers have adopted those words as their mantra, filling their online publications with videos, audio, animations, chat rooms and many other features.

But a look through many online journals produces nary a multimedia or interactive element. I'll tackle the multimedia issue in a future column; for now, let's look at the issue of interactivity and its usefulness for electronic-journal publishers.

Defining Interactivity

Interactivity can mean at least two very different things. The first is described in a recent piece on Hotwired's Webmonkey site:

At the most basic level, I want Web sites to react to me the same way the guy at my neighborhood video store does. He recognizes me, remembers the kinds of movies I like, and recommends something I haven't seen yet but am sure to enjoy. He also performs the very important task of stretching my interests to genres I might not normally sample.[1]

This type of interactivity, a kind of personalization, is particularly useful for general-interest Web publications, which offer a wide range of features for a diverse audience. For example, a newspaper Web site may well have all the traditional newspaper sections — national, international and local news; sports; arts; features; and classifieds — as well as online-only features such as restaurant finders, calendars of events, etc. No one is going to want to explore all those areas on every visit to the Web site; a visitor may just want to get an update on the latest presidential scandal or find the closest Thai restaurant. The interactive technology that offers related articles or hunts down nearby restaurants substitutes for the browsing that people typically do in newspapers as they seek specific information.

Most online journals differ from general-interest Web publications in a few key ways: They have a finite content area and a specific audience. I'm not likely to stop by the online version of the Performing Arts Journal if I'm looking for information on abnormal psychology. Also, the contents of a typical journal are limited to a handful of reviews and articles, as opposed to the hundreds of articles that may appear in a daily newspaper — and the hundred thousand or more that may be archived on a newspaper's Web site. So getting to what I need doesn't require much effort, or much help.

On the other hand, if I have stopped by an online journal and spent some time reading articles in a particular topic area, it would be nice to get an e-mail notice when similar articles are put online in future issues. I might be asked to register for such notices, or sophisticated technology might keep track of who I am, and when I return to the site I could be presented with material likely to grab my interest. At the very least, a publisher can gather a great deal of information about visitors by asking them to fill out a brief online registration form, such as the one used by Hypertension Dialysis Clinical Nephrology.

The Other Interactivity

But even more worthy of consideration for electronic journals is a second type of interactivity. That type might be referred to as community-building. Creating a community that readers cannot wait to return to should be one of the key goals of Web publishers.

A good Web site is not as much a publication as it is a place. In her account of starting the online version of the Washington Post, Mindy McAdams notes that publishers without much experience online tend "to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read." [2] But those with more online experience think more about other aspects, especially connections and communication among people.

That's a profound change, and one that many Web publishers who worked for old media are finding hard to adapt to. But if there is one key to keeping visitors stopping by a site, that is it.

The building blocks of community

Some of the ideas that can be used to build community are far from new. Print journals often offer special issues that collect essays along with replies and responses, in an effort to start or broaden the dialogue on an issue. For example, a recent issue of New Literary History, available both in print and online, is structured that way.

"Most electronic journals resemble mausoleums rather than salons"

Such an approach seems perfectly suited for online journals, where the discussion can continue indefinitely, rather than ending when the ink dries on a page. And indeed many electronic journals describe themselves as "major international forums" for discussion of one topic or another.

But the reality of what's in the online journals doesn't bear those claims out: Most electronic journals resemble mausoleums rather than salons. An article is published and that's the end of the story.

Contrast that to the open forum in Noetica: A Cognitive Science Forum, which adds commentaries to its articles as they are received (after the commentaries themselves go through a review process). That approach makes a reader eager to return and follow the discussion.

Even a community-building feature as simple as letters from readers is missing from virtually every online journal I've looked at. While an occasional maverick does include letters, for the most part feedback is not solicited. In many cases, there is not even an e-mail link to the publisher. In commercial online publishing, in contrast, many operations provide the e-mail addresses of writers and editors, and staffers read and respond to the incoming e-mail. The Detroit News [formerly http://data.detnews.com:8081/feedback/lettersindex.hbs] online site prints a sample of its daily mail — and responses — each day.

A good electronic journal also might serve as a place to get updates on current research, as well as a place where researchers can pick one another's brains on a topic. Yet there seems to be little evidence that this ever happens.

The (inevitable) downside

Any of those attempts at interactivity spell more work for publishers. But the work will be time well spent: E-mail and discussion forums provide an important chance to get to know your audience and their wishes and expectations. Online surveys can help, too: Even the high-and-mighty New York Times has asked the readers of its online publication to answer a few questions "to help us build a news and information resource that best meets your needs." Questions range from your income and gender, to whether you use the Web at work (and how fast your connection is), to whether you subscribe to the New York Times, to whether you drink espresso or latte — and whether you have heard of Starbucks. (If you don't have a free subscription to the online Times, you will not be able to see the survey; you can register for a subscription at the Times' Web site.)

A truly connected online publication can be dizzying at times, as Hotwired columnist Jon Katz writes:

Response to columns is diverse, fast and furious. The line between friend and foe is fuzzy, with critics becoming close friends and admirers turning ugly at the drop of a column. Still, we are a community of sorts, bound by the experience of communicating with one another in this way.[3]

Wanted: an ending for this column

As usual, it's my intention to practice what I preach, so I invite you to let me know how you're using interactivity in your online journal. Just drop me a line at lieb@towson.edu. I'll update this column in coming months with your feedback. I'm interested in failures as well as successes, questions as well as answers. Comments, criticisms and suggestions for this column also will be welcome. With your help, we'll build our own online community, a place I hope you'll look forward to visiting again and again.

Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University.


1. Jeffrey Veen, "Interactivity: Follow your Audience," Webmonkey. [formerly http://www.hotwired.com/webmonkey/98/07/index3a_page5.html?collection=design]return to text

2. Mindy McAdams, "Inventing an Online Newspaper" [formerly http://www.sentex.net/~mmcadams/invent.html]return to text

3. Jon Katz, "Mixed Media," Netizen [formerly http://www.hotwired.com/netizen/netizen/96/46/index3a.html]return to text

Links from this article

Hypertension Dialysis Clinical Nephrology (http://www.hdcn.com/)

New Literary History (http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/new_literary_history/)

Noetica: A Cognitive Science Forum (http://psych.psy.uq.oz.au/CogPsych/Noetica/)

The Detroit News [formerly http://data.detnews.com:8081/feedback/lettersindex.hbs]

New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/info/survey/survey.cgi?survey96)

The author wishes to thank David Wizer of Towson University for editorial review.