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Interactive Web Sites Boost Politicians, But 'Double-Edged Sword'

A more interactive Web site for a political candidate can influence a person’s impression of the candidate and increase a person’s level of agreement with the candidate’s views, according to Penn State researchers. More interactive Web sites enhance a person’s opinion of a political candidate and the candidate’s positions, say the researchers. At the same time, interactivity is a “double-edged sword” because the most highly interactive sites used in the research drove users’ views of the political candidate back down, showing that greater navigational demands of a Web site might induce tedium.From Penn State:Interactive Web Sites Boost Politicians, But Interactivity a ‘Double-Edged Sword’

February 26, 2003

University Park, Pa. — A more interactive Web site for a political candidate can influence a person’s impression of the candidate and increase a person’s level of agreement with the candidate’s views, according to Penn State researchers.

More interactive Web sites enhance a person’s opinion of a political candidate and the candidate’s positions, say the researchers. At the same time, interactivity is a “double-edged sword” because the most highly interactive sites used in the research drove users’ views of the political candidate back down, showing that greater navigational demands of a Web site might induce tedium.

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar, associate professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State; Dr. Justin Brown, assistant professor at University of Florida; and Dr. Sri Kalyanaraman, assistant professor at University of North Carolina, published their findings in the current (February) issue of the journal, Communication Research. Brown and Kalyanaraman both received their Ph.D.s from Penn State.

“When most people think of interactivitiy on political Web sites, they usually mean value-added features such as e-mailing the candidate or chatting with other visitors of the site, but these enhance the functionality of a site, not necessarily its interactivity,” Sundar said. “In our study, we conceptualized interactivity in terms of contingency–the idea that a Web site’s content is contingent upon the user’s previous action and those before it. That meant our highly interactive sites came with a greater number of hyperlinks for people to click on, thus increasing the amount of navigation through the site.”

Study participants were randomly distributed into three groups, and each group viewed a slightly different version of a fictitious political candidate’s Web site. Each of the three Web sites had identical content, but differed in the level of interactivity they provided for users. After browsing the sites, visitors rated the political candidate in areas such as character, competence and likeability.

Visitors to the sites drew accurate perceptions about the level of interactivity provided by the specific site they visited. In large part, those perceptions were driven by the navigational structure of the respective Web sites. The more interactive sites–those with more hyperlinks–were perceived by users as more interactive, even though those users did not work on other versions of the same site. The research implications may prove useful for Web site designers as well as politicians.

“For politicians, interactivity is like a modern-day handshake. Ever since political campaigns moved from railroad stops to primetime television, there’s been a psychological distance between politicians and voters,” Sundar said. “Web site interactivity can bridge that gap, provided the site doesn’t press the flesh too much.”

The research found no differences in interactivity effects between politically active and apathetic voters. “We find this amazing as well as heartening, because it implies that even the apathetic voters are drawn in by interactive Web sites, something that television has failed to accomplish,” said Sundar, whose main area of research is the psychological effects of technological elements unique to Web-based mass communication.




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