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Contingent Interactivity and News Story Navigation: An Experiment
The presence of interactive elements on Web pages is not always enough
to make a difference. For example, Sundar et al. (1998) created a highly
interactive political website which did not result, as hypothesized, in study
participants' developing favorable attitudes toward the candidate.
And Lee et al.
(Lee, Lee, Kim, & Stout, 2004) found that sites with interactive features of
comparable quantity and quality were perceived to have differing levels of
interactivity. Two conclusions can be drawn from these and other
1) structural interactivity does not always promote actual message exchange by
users and 2) when effects are dependent on user activity, manipulation of Web
features alone may be inadequate to isolate causal mechanisms. Measures of
users' interactive behavior can improve the validity of results
This experiment examines user navigation of news stories on the Web
and tests for differential effects of hyperlink placement. News
two dominant approaches to placement of links in stories. The first strategy
mirrors the structural approach mentioned above, links to related material are
provided in pre-determined navigation areas such as the right side of
or at the bottom of the primary text. The other approach is contingency-based
(Sundar, Kalyanaraman, & Brown, 2003). The links are provided within the text
at content-appropriate locations.
These two popular approaches to the design of Web news stories provide
a test of interactivity conceptualizations: structural versus
contingent. Based on
our reading of the theoretical literature reviewed below, we
predicted a stronger
effect on user behavior of the design based on contingent interactivity.
Online Journalism Research
Researchers have been examining the ways the Internet has affected
journalism since the mid-1990s (Garrison, 1997; Ketterer, 1998; Martin, 1998;
Singer, 1997). At first, the changes to storytelling were minor.
was ample content online, little of it was interactive or
significantly different from
traditional media (Barnhurst, 2002; Massey & Levy, 1999). That began to change
as Web editors for national news outlets increased the number or links used in
stories, providing easy access to related information and giving the
control over content selection (Li, 1998). And the move may be
beneficial to the
content creators: increased site complexity has been linked to higher
(Bucy, Lang, Potter, & Grabe, 1999). One study of U.S. national news websites
found the use of links tripled from a mean of 3 in 1997 to more than
9 four years
later (Tremayne, 2004).
If the number of links offered within online news stories has increased, it
may follow that readers' use of such links has also risen. But this
gone largely unexplored. What evidence there is suggests moderate use of such
links at best. Eveland and Dunwoody (Eveland & Dunwoody, 1998) found some
use of linear "next page" links and very little use of nonlinear
links in a study of
users of one science news website. Coyle and Gould (Coyle & Gould, 2002)
examined users' clickstreams, paths generated during Web navigation. They
found two dominant patterns. First, users often pop into and quickly
back out of,
a particular page, and second, more complex, longer-term use of certain sites
occurs as well. The first finding matches conventional wisdom concerning
readers of online news, that they are in a hurry, and spend little time on the
average news page (Keraghosian, 1998; Pew, 2000). One study found that
online readers get what news they want in about 17 minutes a day (UCLA
Internet Report, 2003).
Communications researchers have also examined the impact of hypertext
on readers' ability to learn and remember what they read (Eveland & Dunwoody,
2001, 2002; Eveland, Marton, & Seo, 2004; Lee & Tedder, 2003; Tewksbury &
Althaus, 2000; Tremayne & Dunwoody, 2001). The results are mixed but the
most common result is that hypertexts do not outperform linear texts. What is
less clear from the literature is the relationship in these
hyperlink placement and user behavior. When learning outcomes are negatively
associated with hypertext treatments, is it because users fail to use
the links and
miss parts of the text or do they use the links and experience
load and diminished performance? The present design provides a simple test of
the relationship between hypertext design and interactive behavior.
It has been difficult to make definitive conclusions regarding the
prevalence and impact of interactivity because different
measures are used for the variable. This is a common situation, particularly
when a concept is new (Chaffee, 1991). Because theory construction begins
with concepts (Hage, 1972; Shoemaker, James William Tankard, & Lasorsa,
2004), it is important for scholars working in a particular area to
reach some level
of conceptual agreement. Efforts in this direction have been pursued by a few
researchers who have identified three approaches scholars have used in studies
concerning interactivity (Kiousis, 2002; McMillan, 2002). These investigations
focus on structures, process, and users.
Channel Structures as Interactivity The affordances and constraints of
communication technologies, particularly new media, were the initial focus of
many researchers working on interactivity (Rice, 1984, 1988; Williams, Rice, &
Rogers, 1988). Under this view, media can be characterized as more or less
interactive (Steuer, 1992). For Steuer and other writers on the subject, a
structure that allows for synchronous message exchange is important (Ball-
Rokeach & Reardon, 1988; McMillan & Downes, 2000; Ogan, 1993).
Characteristics of media channels have been operationalized and used as
indicators of the level of interactivity for a particular
(Aikat, 2000; Bucy et al., 1999; Ghose & Dou, 1998; Ha & James, 1998; Massey
& Levy, 1999; McMillan, 1999; Sundar et al., 2003). In this sense,
can be seen as a variable of quality of the media (Choi, Miracle, &
Lombard & Snyder-Duch, 2001; Roehm & Haugtvedt, 1999).
User Perception as Interactivity Some researchers have used
interactivity as a perception-based concept (Bucy, 2004; Chung & Zhao, 2004;
Jee & Lee, 2002; McMillan & Hwang, 2002; Wu, 2000). Bucy says locating
interactivity as a perceptual variable encourages "the concept's theoretical
development by enabling empirical measurement through attitudinal and
emotional scales" (p. 377).
McMillan and Hwang (2002) used an 18-item scale to measure
perceived interactivity (MPI). This MPI scale was applied in a subsequent
experiment to compare the effects of structural and perceptual interactivity
(McMillan, Hwang, & Lee, 2003).
Jee and Lee (2002) used a nine-item scale adapted from Wu (2000) to
measure perceived interactivity. They found that need for cognition and web
skills were predictors of perceived interactivity, which was
with attitude toward product-related websites and intent to purchase.
Interactivity as a process of contingent message exchange This line of
inquiry was advanced by Rafaeli (Rafaeli, 1988). To Rafaeli,
interactivity "is a
process-related construct about communication" (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997).
Interactivity in this sense requires an exchange of communication where
successive messages are contingent on prior ones. Rafaeli's conceptual
definition has been accepted by a number of mass communication researchers
(Ha & James, 1998; Newhagen, J., & Levy, 1995; Sundar, Kalyanaraman, &
Brown, 2003), although operationalization of this concept is often ignored.
Ogan (1993) applied the work of Rafaeli and Ball-Rokeach and Reardon
(1988) to an examination of an electronic bulletin board. A
would involve an examination of channel features but Ogan looked at the
exchange of messages present there, a process-oriented approach.
Interactivity in Experimental Research Although the three approaches to
interactivity reviewed above are found in the communication
literature, in studies
based on experimental designs two are emerging as the more common
conceptualizations: process (or contingent) interactivity and perceptual
interactivity (Tremayne, 2005). Channel structures are typically
affect either of these interactivities, but fewer scholars are
willing to define the
concept in purely mechanical terms. In the present study, we test the
two types of hyperlink structures on contingent interactivity. The
focus on this
aspect of interactivity is not meant to diminish the importance of perceptual
factors but, because perceptions of interactivity are likely affected
by the process
of message exchange, it is first necessary to establish the conditions under
which this type of interactivity flourish.
As outlined above, a number of Hypertext-based interactivity
researchers have compared different types of hypertext structures on
a variety of
dependent variables, often those associated with learning. In news on the Web,
hierarchical link structures dominate. There is main page of text,
small) number of links to other pages or modalities, and in some cases more
links from there. What has not been examined is the effect of link placement
within the page. Two approaches are used by the industry.
First, many news sites place contextual links in areas separate from the
primary text. Theses links to prior stories, background material,
flash animations, etc. are contained along the side of the page, at
the bottom of
the page, or sometimes in a box within the main text.
The other approach is to link related information directly from the main text
at a number of discrete points. For example, a country name appearing in a
story might be clickable and provide the reader with a regional map.
Or, a textual
reference to a prior development might appear as a link to an archived story.
Prior research on structural and contingent interactivity suggests these
two approaches may lead to differing patterns of user behavior. In the former,
the structures for interaction are present but the placement of links does not
encourage cognitive recognition of message relatedness (Tremayne &
Dunwoody, 2001). The second technique, however, presents the links at the
precise moment of message relatedness. The user can expect a contingent
response, one directly related to the sentence or phrase being linked from.
In a study of interactivity on candidate websites, Sundar et al. (1998)
found that politically involved study participants did not respond to
in the hypothesized manner despite using a website with structures that were
highly interactive. This is because, they surmise, the human-to-human
interactive features did not yield immediate results. Structural
not always result in process-based, or contingent, interactivity. A
using a contingent-based hypertext design proved more fruitful (Sundar et al.,
A similar issue was raised in an experiment by McMillan, Huang, and Lee
(2003). Contrary to expectations, the researchers found that a
treatment site with
the fewest interactive structures scored well with participants on
the site. They attributed this result to the presence of one
particular web feature,
a virtual tour. Although it was one of the only interactive
characteristics of the
site, it may have been heavily used. A measurement of actual site use by study
participants might reveal the true causal mechanism.
For the purposes of this experiment, we aligned in-text link placement with
contingent interactivity and out-of-text link placement with
and make these hypotheses:
Placement of links could also affect how a user reads or scans a document.
Scanning of news by readers has been an object of study for decades (Graber,
1984). Graber examined the impact and limits of media cues in influencing
Users will exhibit more interactive behavior in the
contingent interactivity condition compared to the
Users will spend more time in stories overall in the
contingency condition than in the structural condition.
Users will spend more time reading linked pages in the
contingency condition than in the structural condition.
There will be a correlation between number of links
selected and time spent in stories.
reader behavior. Do links in text increase or decrease the amount of
reader engages in? Eveland and Dunwoody (Eveland & Dunwoody, 2002)
found that users in a nonlinear Web condition engaged in more skimming and
selective reading of material than those in a linear print condition.
In this case we
find it reasonable to consider the contingent interactivity condition
as the more
nonlinear of the two and therefore:
Hypothesis 4: Users in the contingent interactivity condition will report
a greater degree of scanning than those in the structural
A number of researchers have begun to explore user traits and their
with engagement in interactive behavior (Chung & Zhao, 2004; Heeter, 2000; Jee
& Lee, 2002; Pavlou & Stewart, 2000). We recorded a number of demographic
variables as well computer and Web experience, self-efficacy toward use of
online news and 10 news topic interest items. Using these variables
the following question:
Research Question: What individual traits are associated with interactive
behavior levels ?
Procedures A two-factor between subjects design was used. Participants
(N=44) were recruited from journalism and communication courses at a
southwestern university and received extra credit for participation.1 Prior to
treatment exposure study participants filled out an informed consent
and a preexperiment
questionnaire to collect demographic and other data. After each
experiment session another questionnaire was used to gather self-reports of
media exposure and use.
All experiment sessions occurred in computer labs familiar to all of the
study participants. Each lab was equipped with approximately 17 PC computers.
Participants The majority of the participants were female (86 percent), in
their junior year of college, and the average age was 21 years old (SD = 1.2).
The homogenous sample was considered acceptable for the research questions
under examination here and, because the manipulation involves different styles
of hypertext layout, younger participants who are familiar with
reading news on
the Web were considered appropriate. On a 7-point scale, participants
comfort with using the Web as 6.4 (SD = 1.2), and they reported an average of
12 years of computer use and 8 years of Internet experience.
The treatment groups were exposed to an online newspaper and given 15
to 20 minutes to view and read the online newspaper over three separate
sessions within a one-week timeframe. The newspaper homepage reflected
1 Alternative extra credit opportunities were also made available.
current news events from that week. Study participants were exposed to a total
of 21 stories but only the 12 stories with at least one hypertext
link are under
examination here. In one condition the 12 articles contained links with the
primary article text. This is the condition intended to promote contingent
interactivity (see Figure 1 below). The other treatment group users
following a structural interactivity approach with links appearing
along the righthand
side of the story (Figure 2). With the exception of link placement the two
conditions contained identical text and images.
Hyperlink design: Contingent Interactivity
Hyperlink design: Structural Interactivity
links were dropped from both conditions.
Site Use Measures
The content for the treatment sites was taken from the
Washingtonpost.com. Stories appeared just as they did in the real online Post
with the exception of altered link design in the contingent
This alteration sometimes required the addition of a few extra words. In a few
instances where content-relevant locations for in-text links could
not be found the
Two methods were used to track user activity on the sites: self reports
taken after each session and tracking software (a product called ergoBrowser)
that recorded mouse actions and page requests. The self-reports served as
back up measures if the software failed and also allowed for the
some recorded activity could be unintentional or erroneous. For selection of
individual stories by each participant, the two measures were
and combined as a scaled measure (r= .931, p < .001, Cronbach's alpha = .965).
For total stories read by each participant, the two measures were strongly
correlated and combined as a scaled measure (r =.909, p =.001, Cronbach's
alpha = .952). The tracking software was activated prior to each
Participants were allowed to follow hyperlinks but were told not to leave the
Results and Analysis
Descriptive data Study participants read an average of 7.9 of the 12
hypertext stories and spent about 4 minutes total on the homepage. Neither of
these variables differed significantly by treatment group. Study
47.2 minutes reading news over the 3 experiment sessions. Most study
participants, regardless of condition, selected relatively few of the
hypertext links (mean of 1.64, SD = 2.75). The relatively large
reveals another pattern: while many participants selected no links at
all (24 of
44), a few selected 9 or more. A small number of users are
responsible for most
of the interactive behavior on the experimental websites.
Hypothesis 1 Testing first hypothesis required an examination of the
difference in interactive behavior between the contingency and structural
interactivity groups. Those in the contingency group clicked on more
(2.6) than those in the structural group (.64). A comparison of means
statistically significant difference and hypothesis 1 was supported
Hypotheses 2 and 2a These hypotheses involved the difference in the
amount of time spent in stories between the contingency and structural groups.
Those in the contingency group (1647 seconds) did not spend more time in
stories than the structural group (1654 seconds). Hypothesis 2 was not
supported. However, those in the contingency group (192 seconds) did spend
more time in the hyperlinked stories than those in the structural group (54
seconds). A comparison of means was significant and thus supported
hypothesis 2a (t=-2.55, df=42, p<.01, one-tailed).
Hypothesis 3 Hypothesis 3 involved a correlation between the amount of
links selected and time spent in stories. The result was insignificant and
hypothesis 3 was not supported (r=-.12, p=.225, one-tailed).
Hypothesis 4 A two-scale item was used to assess selective scanning
(Eveland & Dunwoody, 2002). These two items, "I only read the parts of the
story that looked important or interesting," and "I skimmed through
were strongly associated (r = .816, p<.001, alpha = .898) and
combined to form a
measure of selective scanning. Hypothesis 4 looked at the difference in the
degree of scanning done in the articles between the contingency and structural
groups. The contingency group (6.3) did not show an increase in the amount of
scanning over the structural group (7.0). Hypothesis 4 was not supported
(t=1.296, df=42, p=.20).
Results for the research question concerning individual traits on interactive
behavior proved to be insignificant. An exploratory analysis revealed no
significant effect of demographic factors (age, class, gender).
Another group of
variables tested against the two conditions was on based on their
interest in a
variety of news topics (business, crime, entertainment, gay issues,
science, sports, terrorism). No significant associations were found. Lastly,
computer and web behavior (number of years of computer use, number of years
of web use, comfort level with the web, comfort level with online
news) was also
examined and no significant associations found.
Discussion and Conclusions
The results indicate that those in the contingency group were more likely
to click on the hyperlinks provided in the text of the article than
those in the
structural group where hyperlinks are presented apart from the primary text.
Likewise, those in the former group spent more time in the linked pages than
those in the latter condition. Hypotheses 1 and 2a were supported.
This did not
translate into a significantly greater amount of time spent in the 12
stories overall, nor was the amount of time spent in stories
associated with the
number of hyperlinks selected; hypothesis 2 and 3 were not supported. Finally,
an anticipated effect on scanning of hyperlink design was not supported; study
participants in both conditions reported a fairly high level of
The results reported above have significance both practically and
theoretically. At a practical level the results of hypotheses 1 and
2a can provide
news editors with insight as to the potential of online news articles
related or contextual information. If the editor has an interest in
navigate the hyperlinked material, he or she can expect the best
results by using
in-text, message-related hyperlinks. This is a style used relatively
news stories but quite often by bloggers. This study suggests link
traffic is driven
primarily by these text-based links rather than those appearing apart from the
At a theoretical level this study suggests the superiority of process or
contingent interactivity for manipulating user behavior. If the investigated
dependent variables are thought to be affected by user behavior, this type of
conceptualization and operationalization may be more fruitful than simple
Our finding, or lack of a finding, concerning the impact of hyperlink
placement on selective scanning needs more investigation. It could be that the
presence of either type of link design is sufficient to promote
scanning or it may
be that readers have developed a habit of reading news on a computer in this
As mentioned earlier in the literature, the popularity of hyperlinking in
recent years and most recently the phenomenon of linking in blogs demonstrates
that there is an online audience interested in seeing this form of
and context of information. As online newspapers in today's media landscape
seek ways to bring more readers into their website, looking to
hyperlinking in the
text itself may provide the potential for a growing their reader
base. The more
time a user spends on these pages, and we found evidence of increased time on
the linked sub-pages, the more time a user is likely to spend on a
the site overall.
Recommendations for further study We sought to answer a heretofore
unexamined question regarding link designs in online news stories and found
that in-text links are far more likely to be selected by users than
on the side or bottom of news stories. Links that are carefully crafted for
message-relatedness do a better job of eliciting user attention. What are the
consequences of this for online storytelling and the processing of
readers? These are worthy areas of future inquiry.
The present design was used to capture and record actual user behavior
during online news consumption. Prior studies had manipulated interactive
structures and looked for effects on dependent variables without taking this
middle step. The result was often lack of clarity in determining causal
mechanisms. We recommend that future examinations of interactivity consider a
measure of contingent message exchange to determine if user behavior really
does change the way we assume when we manipulate channel features.
Finally, this study made no measure of perceived interactivity but such
measures are useful, especially for cognitive dependent variables. While we
argue that contingent interactivity is an important predictor of
there is little doubt that perceived interactivity can have outcomes
on many of the
same dependent variables. Using measures of both contingent and perceived
interactivity, a clearer picture of causal mechanisms is possible.
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