How many social media notifications does the smart phone nearest you have on it, clamouring for attention, reaction or interaction? How meaningful are they and the responses they elicit – especially compared to the events like those of the Arab Spring or a national election? These are the questions Interactivity forces us to confront as individuals even as it considers the wider ramifications of mass participation in new media and the resulting, sometimes illusory, interactivity. Whether you’re social media savvy or just socially interested, Interactivity has a lot to offer.
Despite the apparently ever-shifting and impermanent nature of new media and the way institutions and the establishment may attempt to manipulate its channels and their users, Alec Charles has produced a book of admirable scope for its length (210-20 pages), with a useful structure – read it cover to cover or cherry pick your preferred chapters. He laces together research and popular culture from the past three decades in a cross-disciplinary approach that surprises and delights with new insights and I-remember-that familiarity. Charles is firm in his opinions of the significance of new media and the roles it plays (always backed up by a plethora of references), but acknowledges the continuing development and evolution of new media channels: ‘if we are not in Kansas anymore, then we are also still a very long way from Oz’.
A far cry from an ‘evangelist cyberutopianist,’ Charles’s assessments are thorough and by no means coloured by un-necessary pessimism – indeed, by asking questions to which the answers may be disappointing, Interactivity can make for some uncomfortably honest reflections. Particularly for those inclined to be optimistic about the role online communities and interactions can play in the democratic process, their influence on traditional media or the purposes for which individuals use them. Without dwelling on the obvious, the context is cogently provided for each topic, so even if you missed the launch of David Cameron’s 2006 video blog (Webcameron) or the ‘Networked Nation’ story in 2010 you’ll still see how it illustrates the relevant point.
The above two British examples should not imply that the scope is limited to British politics and society, however; the range of the book is refreshingly international. While intimately acquainted with the British media and political scene, Alec Charles’s references encompass Estonia, Japan, America and Egypt too. Indeed, the extensive references to other studies give a solid feel that counterbalances the ‘blurring of the spaces between news and non-news […] the virtual and material, of fantasy and history’ that permeates online content, exacerbated as it is by the internet hoaxes reported by traditional media sources.
Even though Interactivity shines a bright interrogative light onto assumptions about new media, perhaps one of the more comforting aspects of it is that, unlike so much of new media and its content, Interactivity will still be around and relevant in a four, five, even ten years, both as a book and a rigorous study. Maybe the historians of the future who eventually write theses on the social anxieties of the early twenty-first century will cite this book alongside fiction like David Wailing’s (presently) futuristic stories inspired by social media. Although as Chapter One contains a catalogue of examples of poor human behaviour enabled by and often blamed on new media – think cars driven off road and over cliff edges following a satnav’s directions – one hopes they’ll read the whole thing!
You may not agree, or want to agree, with Charles’s conclusions, but Interactivity is guaranteed to make you think and then think again when you next log-on.