A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture

What if Interactivity is the New Passivity?
Jonathan Sterne / McGill University

consumption is happiness

What if Interactivity is the New Passivity?1

Let me begin with an allegory. In Malcolm Bull’s wonderful essay, “Where Is the Anti-Nietzsche?” he proposes that a properly radical reading of The Genealogy of Morals would refuse the text’s preferred modes of identification.

Through the act of reading, Nietzsche flatteringly offers identification with the masters to anyone, but not to everyone. Identification with the masters means imaginative liberation from all the social, moral and economic constraints within which individuals are usually confined; identification with ‘the rest’ involves reading one’s way through many pages of abuse directed at people like oneself. Unsurprisingly, people of all political persuasions and social positions have more readily discovered themselves to belong to the former category. For who, in the privacy of a reading, can fail to find within themselves some of those qualities of honesty and courage and loftiness of soul that Nietzsche describes?

To find the anti-Nietzsche, he suggests that readers identify with the losers, the subhuman and the philistines in his texts. We should identify with the lambs instead of with the birds of prey.

In this column, I want to suggest an analogous strategy for thinking through the politics of activity and passivity in television and new media. For however much television has been legitimated in the last decades, new media savants still regularly hold it up as an icon of mass stupefaction, conformity, and passivity. I don’t think I’ve ever read an issue of Wired without a potshot at passive consumption, with old-style television as the ideal-type. Or consider the ad copy for Peter Lunenfeld’s new book The Secret War Between Uploading and Downloading.

In The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading, Lunenfeld makes his case for using digital technologies to shift us from a consumption to a production model. He describes television as “the high fructose corn syrup of the imagination” and worries that it can cause “cultural diabetes”; prescribes mindful downloading, meaningful uploading, and “info-triage” as cures; [...] After half a century of television-conditioned consumption/downloading, Lunenfeld tells us, we now find ourselves with a vast new infrastructure for uploading. We simply need to find the will to make the best of it.

While it’s bad scholarship to argue against blurbs, and while I actually agree with the participatory spirit behind Lunenfeld’s point, please allow me this one excess, and I’ll try to stick to his words between the inverted commas and not those of MIT’s copyeditor.

Leaving aside decades of debate within studies of television and mass culture2, the blurb proposes that downloading—and television—embody a passive, ideological form of consumption, whereas uploading is presented act of participation and production (even though it, too, is often a form of consumption). And therein lies the problem.3

upload failed

Some of my favorite social thought from the 1970s and 1980s emphasizes a point analogous to Lunenfeld’s: activity, participation, interaction, interconnection—these will be the solutions to the alienation of the modern world. In writing on music, especially, the language turns utopian. Charles Keil (1994) argued persuasively that musical meaning is formed through participation in musical events, and not in the text or score. Christopher Small (1977) waxed poetic about a world where the distinction between musician and non-musician no longer existed, and Jacques Attali imagined a world of “composition”—expanded out from avant-garde jazz—where the means of creativity inhered in each person (1985, 135).

Yet that same rhetoric works differently today.4 Active participation is now a privileged mode of consumerism. As Jodi Dean has written, “our deepest commitments—to inclusion, equality and participation within a public—bind us to practices whereby we submit to global capital” (Dean 2002, 151). Contemporary media beg for and sometimes demand active participation. They ask their users to intertwine them with as many parts of their lives as possible. It is not just so-called social media (a misnomer if there ever was one—since all media are by definition social). Magazines and newspapers implore us to write back and explore on multiple platforms. TV shows ask us to go online and participate in discussions and games, books get their own Facebook pages where readers are asked to “like” them, software companies put together “street teams” of users willing to promote them in a manner analogous to what concert promoters used to do.

There are some great things to be found in a more apparently participatory culture, and certainly there are even more great things in cheap access to the means of dissemination. This is a point long repeated in studies of radio and cassettes, and much of the current excitement about the political promise of Twitter, for instance, follows on this model. A mobile phone and a little know-how gets you access to a potential world of auditors. Writers like Henry Jenkins (2006) have eloquently shown the ways in which platforms for online participation can make media more responsive to fans, audiences, and users. Though to be clear, for Jenkins this participatory culture is an amplified version of participatory cultures that emerged around radio and television, not a development in opposition to supposedly pacifying media.

But we need to ask after another issue. At least in for-profit sectors, the goal of most institutions during the broadcast era was to produce measurable audiences for sale to advertisers. It was to attract attention. In that sense, there is a smooth continuity with the internet era, where media organizations also hope to produce attention that can then be parlayed into one or another form of market value. When people’s participation becomes someone else’s business—and here I mean business in the market-share and moneymaking sense of the term—the social goods that are supposed to come with it can be compromised. If you want democratic participation, you also need a reflective populace. If you’re going to break the fourth wall in your theater production or installation piece, the participants have to be able to take on some kind of critical perspective on the work in order for it to have any avant-garde potential.

eyes are open

Online video binds interactivity to advertisers

The demand to participate can become coercive, exhausting the very collective faculties it officially celebrates. While interactivity can be imagined as the “like” or “retweet,” it also encompasses the “agree to terms” button. The supposedly democratic call to dialogue and participation can turn sour when people have good reasons and desires to retreat. In his discussion of Melville’s famous story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” John Durham Peters calls this the “cold righteousness of dialogism,” a “moral tyranny” of the call to the other to interact on a subject’s pregiven terms. “Dialogue’s supposed moral nobility can suffocate those who prefer not to play along” (Peters 1999, 159).

The issue here isn’t that we need a pure space from which to critique capitalism—for you as reader and I as writer are always already compromised. It is that we need some occasions for reflection that aren’t simply subsumed under the sign of participation. My colleague Darin Barney has written beautifully on this subject, arguing that any kind of meaningful political—and I would add cultural—judgment requires some assertion of distance, some strategic and temporary disengagement on people’s own terms. This is not to say all participation is bad, any more than it is to say that all consumption was bad in the golden age of mass culture criticism. Neither activity nor passivity are goods in themselves; both have roles to play in culture, politics and personal life.

What if all the bad things that media critics have been said about passivity for the past century or two are now equally applicable to all the demands to interact, to participate? What if interactivity is now one of the central hinges through which power works? In many moments today, the most compliant gesture we can make is to consent to interact on the terms presented to us by our software and machines. This pull is especially strong in those commercial platforms that celebrate their own difference from the so-called passive media of previous decades, and in the process monetize their users’ participation either directly or indirectly. What if—from time to time—we chose not to identify with the interactive promise of new media platforms or for that matter new media art? What if, when the new media savants lambast so-called old media audiences as denizens of passivity and ideology, we say, “yes, that’s me”?

play jazz

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. grantneufeld via Flickr
2. jeremywilburn via Flickr
4. Adbusters, 3 April 2012

Offline sources:

Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cooley, Charles H. 1909. Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Dean, Jodi. 2002. Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
Keil, Charles. 1994. “Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music.” In Music Grooves, 96-108. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rosenberg, Bernard, and David M. White, eds. 1957. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America. New York: The Free Press.
Small, Christopher. 1977. Music-Society-Education. London: John Calder.


  1. I am certain I heard this phrase from someone else, but a Google search didn’t reveal my source. For now, its provenance remains a mystery. Also, my copious thanks to William Moner and the Flow crew for their help getting my pieces online this year, and to Paul Gansky for the invitation to write. It’s been fun! Thanks also to Carrie Rentschler and Dylan Mulvin for comments on drafts of pieces. []
  2. The locus classicus for my generation was the turn to audience studies in the 1980s and the so-called “active audience” position advanced by people like David Morley and Ien Ang, who studied people watching television and showed that they were not simply passive consumers. This was an important move in the history of cultural studies, because it short-circuited claims that ideology could simply have a textual effect by being there. Of course, this is a very old debate that predates cultural studies and even television. At the beginning of the 20th century, sociologist Charles Cooley wrote that modern media would “enlarge” modern consciousness and facilitate democracy, as well as allow people to find others of like minds (Cooley 1909). Similarly, the range of debate in Rosenberg and White’s classic 1957 Mass Culture collection should be familiar to modern readers, with Henry Rabassiere defending what we’d now call an active audience model against Gunther Anders’ critique of television as a “phantom world” (1957, 158–74). []
  3. There’s a third issue as well. The high-fructose-corn-syrup-causes-diabetes-metaphor moralizes illness as it metaphorizes it. This is a classic American and Protestant trope. It condescends adult-onset diabetics (since the noted evil ingredient has no causal relevance to type I, I must assume this is a dig at type II diabetics—indeed this is a classically Nietzschean scenario where we are asked to identify with people who are clearly not stupefied enough to get diabetes in either its real or cultural form). It ignores scores of epidemiological studies and thereby does no favor in characterizing the social problems it metaphorizes. []
  4. The term “prosumer” is widely used in industries that produce software and hardware for video and audio production, where a large portion of sales goes not to professionals, but to consumers who also want to produce. The term is read differently by different populations—as pretenders to professionalism, as a grade of equipment quality between “professional” and “consumer” and as a name for amateur producers. Paul Théberge brilliantly argued in 1997 that making music—especially electronic music—had increasingly become a form of technological consumption. We could say that for many other kinds of cultural production today. In a way, even though it’s an early example, Microsoft Word is the apotheosis of a prosumer application. It is sold to a broad swath of people who write, whether amateurs, students, or professionals. Indeed, as a writer I have often wished for word processing software better geared to the needs to the academic and book writer, so in my own professional role I guess I also turn my nose up at prosumer applications. []


  • alexj said:


    Terrific article. Thanks.
    I was discussing this from another angle just yesterday in conversation with Natalie Bookchin about her new piece, Now he’s out in public, and eveeryone can see. In this instance, we discussed how by exploding the “interaction” of vbloggers (otherwise caught alone in their rooms) into an actual room (of 18 monitors) and requiring the viewer to walk through this literalized instanciation of cyberspace, Bookchin alters the terms of interactivity to include the movement of the body, and not simply the finger, to include the possibility for sociality (in that others could be in the room with you walking amongst the talking heads), and in relation to responsibility: that the viewer must take account of her relation to the all this discourse (in this case about black mne).

  • Roger Almendarez said:

    Thank you for this article. While I understand the sense of apprehension arising from writing about “blurbs,” I think they serve as a very powerful platform from which your critique can gain steam. Your pinpointing of interactivity as a hegemonic evolution from previous forms of passive media consumption is something that I have lately been thinking about. Whether it be from the critiques of slacktivism engendered from the Kony media bombardment, or a more general realization of the forced necessity of interacting in ever-increasing social media networks, I can’t help but feel the fatigue of investing work and effort into what—at the end of the day—prove to be distractions from the things that serve to progress my life and its goals. Having just run through the jungle that is my RSS feed, I am overcome with the need to justify that work after I deconstruct my day and see the ways in which I avoided doing (1) the work that I have to do to advance my career, (2) the work I’d like to do to better the world, and (3) the fun I’d like to have building my sense of self and connecting with my loved ones.

    While I empathize with this sense of dread from that strain of interactivity, I do not feel that it has to be yet another machine from within which I cog and lose my sense of self. I like media, I like networks, and I like interacting. Whether interactive media serve as forms of social control or not, I do not think this relationship between the user and the media producer is inherent in the tools themselves. Instead, I think that control is determined by the ways we use them. While I think that interactivity can most definitely function as a producer of false consciousness, we all have the potential (in varying degrees) to use it to better ourselves and the world around us; redirecting interactivity for our own betterment is just a matter of reverse engineering power protocols to create our machines. Inevitably, hegemonic institutions will re-reverse our own reconstructions, but that’s the basic interplay of power as it moves between agents. For the time being, though I know it’s completely a result of my own privileged position, I’ll just accept that privilege to feel like that interplay is at least serving to move us all in (what I feel is) the right direction.

  • Emma Bernstein said:

    Thank you very much for this article, for the questioning of our drives to frequently, and sometimes obsessively, participate in new media forums so as to avoid being seen as uninvolved. I firmly agree that there exists too severe a distinction between the passive and active viewer, with too narrow a definition of “active.” If we are to engage with one another, to find the interactions and interconnections that are “the solutions to the alienation of the modern world,” it should be on each individual’s own terms. Instead, we are faced with an unrelenting “demand to participate,” besieged by commands to post, comment, or re-tweet on every web page. This assault, rather than stimulating thoughtful relations, may engender one of two negative reactions: users are either compelled to respond immediately, failing to digest the material, or become resentful of the infiltration and engulfing of their personal time and space, bypassing the entire process altogether. While we are theoretically free to engage however we see fit, certain developments have made both impulsive and non-participatory reactions to Internet interaction quite dangerous.

    The instantaneity and anonymity of (much of) the Internet allow for impulsive statement making that requires little accountability. This is certainly not always the case – take any one of the recent public apologies for gaffs made on Twitter or Facebook as example – but the very presence of this titanic environment that affords unfettered commentary seems to me to be the opposite of constructive culture-building but, in reality, the very source of our alienation.

    Likewise, the pervasiveness of interactivity via the Internet – even into previously unadulterated settings, such as the workplace – stipulates a particular level of absorption in “the supposedly democratic call to dialogue and participation” to ensure both social and professional success. Social media platforms in particular require significant time and effort commitments to make this guarantee. If the task of making certain that our names and achievements are readily available becomes more important than the act of achieving things themselves, where does that leave us? Such immersion in the digital arena detracts from activity in the earthly one. Indeed, this compulsive participation culture poses a somewhat existential dilemma: if you’re not visible and involved in the global Internet community, who will know you? On a similar note, if you are extremely visible and involved, how do you maintain presence in the physical realm?

    I would like to offer a different form of contribution for consideration under the category of “interactivity,” despite the fact that it is not associated with social media, or any new media platform, for that matter. The water cooler conversation is very much alive and well, and I think we have seriously disregarded its capacity in making citizens feel active and engaged. In the presence of great advancements in technology, it is easy to disregard older means of communication, to forget the power of word-of-mouth. (That is, the power of communicating with your actual mouth, not your Facebook wall as mouth.) If we refuse to “consent to interact on the terms presented to us by our software and machines” this does not make us “denizens of passivity and ideology.” Rather, it illuminates our different role to play in the culture of active citizenship and, perhaps, it makes us old-fashioned conversationalists.

  • Marcus Leis Allion said:

    Interesting read, particularly as I picked up a copy of Miessen’s The Nightmare of Participation today. I’m halfway through but it chimes with many of your own concerns. Here’s a quote:

    One should therefore argue that, instead of breeding next generation of facilitators and mediators, we should encourage the … “uncalled participator” who is unaware of prerequisites and existing protocols, entering the arena with nothing but creative intellect and the will to provoke change. Running down the corridor with no fear of causing friction or destabilising existing power relations, he opens up the space for change, one that enables “political politics”. Given the increasing fragmentation of identity and the complexities of the contemporary city, we are now facing a situation in which it is crucial to think about a form of commonality, which allows for conflict as a form of productive engagement: a model of bohemian participation in the sense of an outsider’s point of entry, accessing existing debates and discourses untroubled by their disapproval


    Miessen, M. (2011). The Nightmare of Participation. Sternberg Press, Berlin.


  • Abe Epperson said:

    No response is equal is something this article made me think. I’ve been apart of this information/media saturated generation for too long to ignore what appears to be the common interaction with the internet. For me, this is no interaction at all. A friend of mine whom I follow on twitter and tumblr is perhaps the most active social media butterfly in my group of friends, however skimming post after multi-daily post, I realized there was little to no interaction in the material at all. A simple reblog holds nothing accountable – there was nothing that appeared in the array that couldn’t have been accomplished with a few mouse clicks. I fear what is becoming the norm is to stare into the abyss of the internet, copy and paste, and type “THIS.” indefinitely.

    I’m definitely one of these old media supporters since somehow I have become embittered and pessimistic about the use of the semi-anonymous interactions. One example of a social media change that particularly warmed my heart was the story of Carly Fleishmann, a teenage autistic girl who can’t speak or even sit still for longer than a few minutes, but she has a twitter feed. I saw the story first on Dateline, which plugged the twitter feed and her own site. On my arrival, I found that most of her time spent is plugging petitions and getting letters written to politicians about autistic awareness. This community is completely immersed within a goal and uses social media sites to spread the word. Another example is the recent KONY 2012 campaign. The world was a-twitter, but within a few weeks, there was no trending, no obvious action was taking place. I’m not asking if it was worth while, but was it successful?

    I don’t think the internet is bereft of letters to the editors or meaningful social interaction, however, if we aim to see what the true impact of more users logging on these media sites, we need to also assess the level of interaction with the content. I find this website, in particular, makes great use of its crowd sourcing, often finding comments more salient than the source articles themselves. These go in the good social interaction category, as it asks the user to participate in the dialogue not just needlessly retweet memes. I find it hard to come out with any point about the systemic aspects of these media engines, it seems at the end of the day, all I could be saying is that people are sometimes terrible or “they’re doing it wrong.” But I do feel that regardless of the problem, a possible byproduct of this trend could affect how we interact in the future. My mother wrote letters to the editor and wrote to her congressmen and women, I learned positive interaction with my surroundings from her. Will future generations fall into the reblog abyss and view their own personal blogs more as opportunities for celebrity than avenues for bettering the world?

  • Andrew Piper said:

    Thanks Jonathan, great piece. You put in far clearer terms the impressions I was having about the values of passivity today:


    Here’s a funny anecdote from the parenting front lines about how we’ve come to value passivity (and TV) in the face of interactivity’s demands on us and our kids:

    When I was talking with another parent about boys’ addiction to iPads (and pocket Nintendos), he said: yeah, I’ve gotten to the point where I scream, will you put the f^&%$ing iPad down and go watch TV!

    Anyway, as you say, I think we’re getting back in touch with the value(s) of passivity these days. I think there’s a much more complicated temporality to “critique” or “being critical” than academics have traditionally argued for.

  • Felix said:

    Something that I think might be related, which I’d love to read more about, is the way youth culture turns passive consumption into active expressions of culture. Examples I can think of are slash fiction, musical mashups, home-made video productions of popular novels, or just the way kids love to draw Garfield and Snoopy. It’s interesting and inspiring to me how we seem to have an innate desire to create culture, even within a capitalist framework that attempts to hand us – or rather sell us – every cultural product.

  • John Evans said:
  • Robert Ashmore said:

    Thanks for the interesting and provocative article. You’ve drawn attention to the causes behind a problem that I have observed in internet commentary. Speaking from personal experience, I have tended to avoid message boards and comments sections, since I have found that those comments that are genuinely useful tend to be camouflaged by swaths of hurried, poorly-thought-out, self-gratifying, knee jerk reactionary, and / or deliberately inflammatory posts. Internet commentary, I think, is largely defined by this compulsion to become involved. The pressure to become a contributor encourages the commenter to strike widely and often – they are pushed to publish many commentaries on many subjects, which precludes the notion of deep, introspective thought. Indeed, such behavior arguably plays into the hands of the powers-that-be: if diffuse and hurried commentary is the norm, it makes it less likely that thoughtful commentary will be generated or noticed.

    When I first began teaching introductory writing to college freshmen, the textbook I was assigned to use emphasized John Keats’ descriptions of Negative Capability: when one is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is a fundamental concept, yet I feel that many of us commentators – scholars and nonprofessionals alike – neglect it. We “irritably reach after fact and reason” – that is, try to make sense of things by stating whatever explanations first come into our heads – rather than remain in the silent state of “uncertainty, mystery, and doubt” long enough to fully comprehend the problem. The post itself becomes the ultimate goal, rather than the quality of the idea that it is trying to communicate. Under such circumstances, our commentaries threaten to become nothing more than meaningless exercises in self-gratification.

    I do not know what practical solution I might forward, though. To attempt to differentiate between “good” posts and “bad” posts threatens to set up an elitist hierarchy in which some voices are privileged above others. Perhaps all we can do is, as individuals, follow Bartleby’s example and “prefer not to” take part in a system that devalues our contributions by forcing us to overproduce them. Of course,
    Bartleby ended up starving to death in prison, which may predict the fate of our own intellectual identities should we choose silence over the clamor.

  • Charlie Porter said:

    Thank you for this fascinating article. I truly enjoyed reading it as I find your assessment of interactive and “social” media to be terrifyingly accurate. Of particular interest to me is the idea that “[c]ontemporary media beg for and sometimes demand active participation.” Like Robert in his response, I am concerned that commentators, in order to be or to become properly “interactive,” are “pushed to publish many commentaries on many subjects, which precludes the notion of deep, introspective thought.” I worry that the idea of the “answer” or “solution” has been increasingly valued over the idea of the “question” or the terms upon which the question is asked. We are assertive but have not taken the time to interrogate our own assertions, and yet we spew these beliefs with disturbing certainty, for we fear that if we do not address the issue quickly (as opposed to accurately) then our opportunity to do so will be forever lost as the topic at hand swiftly falls into the realm of the passé.

    I posit that one half of the problems that I have identified is the fault of the interactive technology itself. Because information is dispersed more speedily than ever before, that which may rightly be considered topical has a shorter shelf life than similar matters may have known in the less technologically-advanced past. Thus, participation in the discussion surrounding said matter must be accelerated accordingly. Consequent of the speed that is required by this sort of participation, topics are often not granted the sort of deliberation that they deserve and need. Instead, it is the sort of modest engagement that produces unexamined witticisms that marks the majority of the participation on Facebook. On other sites (message boards, most article comment sections on the majority of news websites, etc.), the majority of comments can be summed up as reactive and insufficiently thoughtful.

    None of this is news, of course; and yet, the fact that we may all recognize the characteristics of this new form of participation makes them no less disconcerting, for they speak to a decreasing appreciation of notions of self-doubt and reflection. This, as you may have assumed, is the other half of my aforementioned “problems,” and it is one that is not solely attributable to technology. In Apologia, Socrates says, “I do not think I know what I do not know.” He is arguing that no one really knows anything worthwhile, but that an individual can be marginally less unenlightened merely by not pretending to know that which he/ she does not know. In this way, Socrates is reinforcing one of his founding principles: question everything. What this makes me wonder is where this concept of constructive uncertainty is today. Again, I do not fault technology for this, though it does seem to have removed a barrier from the path to public assertion. Instead, I think that it is worthwhile for us to consider that technology—social media and the like—have provided us insight into this very real and age-old concern (it should be noted that Apologia is Socrates defending himself while on trial; ultimately, he was found guilty and later died of hemlock poisoning).

    In this way, I argue that the primary problem is the passivity/ activity binary as well as the prizing of activity. While activity (and interactivity) and passivity certainly have their merits, neither one requires deliberation. In fact, the sort of thoughtful reflection that appears to be in short supply seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the reception of information (passivity) and the dispersing of information (activity). Because technology has, as previously mentioned, produced a social arena that urges and even compels participants to spread new information almost immediately upon reception of the foundational information of their own thoughts/ arguments, little space is left for contemplative engagement with that material. Activity has become the goal, both the means and the end; interactivity has given that activity the semblance of value. While television may, to some extent, be “an icon of mass stupefaction, conformity, and passivity,” it is also a source of information (the validity of which may be uncertain, but it is information nonetheless). I would argue that new media provides little more than a false escape from the concerns of television; rather, as you suggest, commentators have become so blasé in their attempts at interactivity that interactivity itself has become a sort of veiled passivity.

    And yet, I cannot bring myself to propose that we unplug ourselves from the world of new media, for I agree that it holds promise. Instead, I suggest that we take it upon ourselves to change the nature of interactive participation, to alter the conversation in such a way that questioning is more highly valued than answering. We should not only be discussing, (inter)acting, participating, but also considering the implications of both our interaction as well as the platform(s) that permit this interaction. Quite simply, we need to know that we do not know.

  • Brian F said:

    Managing “information overload” is a pressing and inexact science as media evolves from its passive, single-channel set-top form to the interactive but ADD-inducing pull of tabbed browsing and rich media platforms. With online identities fragmented between so many platforms, engagement on a superficial level seems to be the norm. Shows look for viewers to vote on polls and submit responses to queries in knee-jerk form, rather than start a real dialogue around any given topic.

    Certainly valuable critical interactive forums do exist. The FlowTV site itself does a great job encouraging users to engage in real critical debate. But more primitive forms linked to interactive media seem closer to passive consumption. The article points out how “Online participation can make media more responsive fans, audiences, and users” – but does it make fans, audiences, and users more educated thinkers? It certainly has the potential, but many of the models for interactivity that benefit media creators do not provide anything more than a self-affirming portal of fandom. Most television shows I have seen use their online components as another forum for branded entertainment, or for relatively superfluous extra bits revolving around the show’s characters. Interactivity should expand the world of the show and allow the user a forum for deeper engagement with its narrative ideologies. Does hitting a like button, for example, count as interactivity? Not in any truer sense than tuning into a TV show through a Nielson box.

    Social media communities such as Facebook and Twitter engender a type of interactivity that threatens true intellectual engagement: the passive share. Liking, retweeting, and other forms of sharing media without context, meta-analysis, or comment on their connection to you is the most rudimentary form of interactivity. Not only is it lazy and disengaged, it is dangerous by enabling a laissez-faire construction of identity through association. Rather than filter these points of influence through a critical lens and combine them into a structured analysis, the passive share passes the onus of meaning down the line of consumption to the audience, which can in turn choose to engage or simply reshare.

    One extremely valuable form of active participation is through hyperlinking – instant access to context for intellectual argument. This is the internet in its most basic technological foundation – Google was the first to capitalize on the value of hyperlinks through its search ranking algorithm – and yet it engages on an intellectual level by forcing the user to connect loosely related ideas while developing a fuller picture of the given topic. Though interactive technologies have advanced far beyond this model, I think there is truth to Emma’s assertion that at a certain point, the influx of interactive platforms runs the risk of users becoming “resentful of the infiltration.” Constant engagement and ceaseless pings from various networks, each continuing fragmented social narratives that for the most part carry no lasting meaning beyond their memetic quality, only hinders our ability to engage deeply with a topic through true interaction.

    Roger’s above comment about reverse engineering power protocols through interactive media opens up some interesting realms of possibility for interaction. This reengineering of a social system, however, requires the same critical distance to understand the power structures and intellectual capacity/creativity to recombine them. As Jonathan points out, “Judgement requires some assertion of distance.” Perhaps disentangling ourselves from the pull of these interactive platforms can reinstill that critical distance. Or perhaps a more pressing and rewarding challenge is in fusing these various fragmented platforms into a more unified protocol for self-expression and meaningful interaction with topics in the digital realm.

  • Jon P said:

    Jonathan, I found your article to be thoroughly fascinating. This calls to mind the Spiral of Silence theory, which states that an individual will participate and continue to share his/her opinion if they feel they are in the majority, but will regress into silence if they feel they are in the minority. As pointed out by yourself and several commenters above, there seems to be an over-saturation of knee-jerk reactions and sometimes inflammatory commentary that has passed as “interaction” in the eyes of the powers that seek it as a form of affirming the popularity or apparent relevancy of their media.

    Regardless of the platform, the problem seems to be that this over-abundance of “shlock”, if you will, has the tendency to drown out the more relevant contributions and attempts at meaningful and insightful commenting and interacting. But commenting and interacting not as a form of self-congratulations or self-promotions, but as a means of inciting and sustaining an intellectual dialogue between interested parties. Perhaps, as the Spiral of Silence theory suggests, there is a lack of relevant and meaningful discussion not because there isn’t some to be had, but because the current landscape of interactivity doesn’t allow encourage it. I propose, then, that were a comment insightful, provoking, and challenging enough, and seen by the right people, it could conceivably spark a meaningful discussion that pervades and permeates the mainstream.

    Then again, perhaps this is simply wishful thinking.

  • Mithona said:

    I am very impressed with the argument. I am glad put it in words.

  • Jess K said:

    The question of inter-activity and passivity within a culture saturated with ‘interactive’media seems like a catch-22. On the one hand, as this article suggests, declining to engage is an active choice. Contemporary media culture is dominated by an incessant call for new or more active participants as new and more active consumers. Refusing to engage in this required interactive consumption, the article suggests, is a choice away from being a passive, consistently manipulated consumer.

    On the other hand, where are the limits in this active refusal? If interactive media culture is so dominant, which I would suggest that it is and is becoming more so, is it possible to remain ‘connected’ while acting out this refusal to engage? If so, how? Are there spaces that allow for this media interaction that aren’t mediated by consumption? Another, larger question that emerges is: what does being ‘connected’ or ‘engaged’ then mean in a society that is, it seems, expanding not only the possibilities but the requirements of these seemingly fundamental human modes of relating or relationship?

    I could argue that, as in most aspects of a consumerist culture, opting out or refusing to engage isn’t perhaps the most active approach. Some form of appropriation or re-appropriation seems to be a more active way of rebelling against the numbing and consistent call to interact in the name of consumption.

    Another option that the article seems to suggest is finding media spaces that aren’t mediated by consumption. As Brian F suggests, this FlowTV site is a good example of a space that opens up that possibility. Another question then arises, is it possible to have a popular space that is free from the dynamic of consumption, and does that even matter?

    In a media environment created by interweaving and opaque webs of information and technology and dominated by a push by companies and organizations with the power of capital to ‘interact on the terms presented to us by our software and machines’ this move towards an active and thorough appropriation and an active and popular interactive space is a very challenging appeal.

  • MPhan said:


    Thank you for the interesting article and take on interactivity and passivity. To devele a little further, I think it would be interesting to consider what these participatory means, such as “liking” or “retweeting”, means in the social context. With the young generation consumed in participatory media such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the likes, what does this say about the developing culture? Have we become more passive, more willing to agree to others, or have these mediums served as a place for individuals to express their uniqueness? How much of this participation is actually well thought out and considered, rather than a simple click of agreement? I would argue that these new types of media have created an obsession with the younger generation and led to more of a negative isolation than a sense of community. We have become more obsessed with numbers, ie. “likes” and Facebook friends, than discovering the value of things. We are numbers in a consumerist culture.

  • Philip Zimmerman said:

    This article reaches me personally, as I have often felt that the participatory aspects of society are also the most forced and false. If one participates in an activity in a way that is preordained, I don’t believe they are actually doing anything. I think it is absolutely correct to say that one who does not think critically about their everyday situations is choosing to not think at all. Criticism should be the cornerstone of life; some are afraid it will turn into straight cynicism, but criticism is different. After all, cynicism can be just as passive and automatic as anything else. One must simply try to judge each situation for what it actually is. In media, this problem can be particularly potent.

    In recent years, it seems like visual media has undergone too much cultural canonization. Everyone wants to be watching the right stuff, in a sense, as opposed to exploring things that pique their interest. This may be okay if viewers did not determine the quality of a product or piece of art before they have actually seen it. But mass consensus has become so intense that it is almost impossible for someone to judge a film or TV show simply for what it represents in itself. As Pauline Kael said 40 years ago, they do not think of the films as films but rather as part of the soap opera of their lives. The solution to passivity, I think, is to remain slightly detached from your surroundings and from everything that you do. This is especially true in art.

  • Marcus Moreno said:

    The cross over here being brought to my attention is that of television and art work. The fact that artwork, which can be argued to include a lot of thing, can be so easily crossed over into a technological medium such as television is remarkable. The question that is posed for me is that of the experience being created. The biggest part of something that is artistic is the fact that millions of different experienced can be drawn from it, with every viewer getting something different from it. Reforming something like a poem to fit the interest of television audiences means perhaps more so not recreating the art itself, but unintentionally expressing a single interpretive meaning of the art pertaining to its creator, that is then to be taking from and experience. It is a bit of a paradoxical argument, however, but just my first response to the idea of art transition through so many mediums.

  • Nicole T. said:

    Thank you for this article. It brought to light an issue that I have seen on a daily basis, but never explored. As a musician, the part of your article that really caught my eye was your brief reference of writings that discussed interaction with music. To my understanding, your article focuses on interaction over the internet or on a grand scale. While I am not familiar with Keil’s texts, his words reminded me more of personal interaction with the music as opposed to grand, public interaction (which I believe would have been more difficult then than now). So although I agree that the technology and consumer/business models of today necessitate a changed idea of participation (for all media), I still believe that they hold true to some degree.
    Other commentators have suggested or written that many comments or other forms of participation are performed half-heartedly or without thought. To me, this is where the idea of participation is being lost, regardless of what receives the consumer’s participation. I am aware of many people who “turn off” when watching television, listening to music, or, in some cases, reading the news online. There may be enjoyment, but the one enjoying the media receives it and fails to question or interact with it. Before one can actively resist the hegemonic demand to interact, there has to be interaction on a personal level. If this does not exist, then the answer of “yes, that’s me” at the end of your article cannot hold true.

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  • Jayson said:

    Very nicely put, J. It seems to me it follows other warnings by Thacker and Galloway in The Exploit, Rushkoff in the more popular Program or Be Programmed, and my own work on the structures that steer political agency in convergence culture (on rumor bombs). Thanks for this!

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  • Ningxin Kitty Kuang said:

    This article offers a brand new perspective on the interactivity that is prevailing these days. Merci beaucoup!

    As TV is being integrated as gaming platforms, and the computer (not to mention the internet) is offering increasingly large number of “television” programs, the concept of television audience is being reconfigured. Audience are expected to be more participatory as television programs becoming more interactive. Viewers are not so much couch potatoes anymore, they become active fans, and even in many cases, so active and participatory that they become free labors for television show-runners.

    As professor Sterne suggested here, interactivity causes a even more passive audience. Many television shows are incorporating multi-platform storytelling, in a way that asks their audience to go online and participate. That is to say, in order to get a thorough content of the show, or to further indulge him/herself in the show, one has to be an active participant. In this way, the audience once more falls into the hands of show-runners. They are asked, or even forced, to participate in order to get the full viewing experience. Actively participating in the online discussion also enables the audience to engage in offline social networking. That is, interactivity in television viewing becomes one of the prerequisite for interpersonal communication. To put it in a rather extreme scenario, as long as one does not wish to be cut off from his/her social network, one has to engage in the seemingly active participation.

    Moreover, fans who participate in online discussion cannot help to contribute to the production of the show. At the very least, their fanwork and comment save a lot of time of brainstorming for the show-runners. Their reaction also serve as free research database that helps with the marketing and development of the show. Before interactivity, show-runners have limited ways to learn about how people receive their products, while now with interactivity, with viewers “actively” participating, they still get the upper hand as the show benefits the most in the discussion.

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