I have chosen four specific criteria for assessing webcasting: level of interactivity, level of personalization, time dependency, and amount of feedback. I am using William Hilf's definition of interactivity as "[reciprocal effects] between a human and a non-organic element, such as television, a video game, or a computer." The level of interactivity is a qualitative measure based on Brenda Laurel's interactive variables as presented in Computers as Theatre: frequency, significance, and range. Frequency, in this sense, refers to how often the user interacts with the device. Significance is the degree of response and how it affects the outcome, and range has to do with the number of choices made available to the user. A measure of the interactivity is important because it serves as a descriptor of how people are expected to participate within the system, and has implications as to the type of activities for which the system is well designed. As Dewdney and Boyd point out, "the stress upon interactivity belies a certain set of current value judgments which owe much to a language of consumption and competition, rather than co-operation and contemplation."
The personalization criterion essentially takes into consideration the point of view of the user, specifically looking at how personalized the experience is to the individual. Essentially, is the medium encouraging a one-to-many paradigm in which the user's experience is not personalized, or does it follow a one-to-one paradigm in which the user's experience is relatively unique. This measure is being used because it provides some insight into the movement toward mobile privatization emphasized by earlier radio and television broadcast technologies. The question at hand is whether or not the practice of webcasting makes further steps in the notion of privatization, or instead, does it maintain the status quo established by preceding technologies?
Related to personalization is the measure of time dependence. Early forms of existing broadcast technologies were not as well suited for store-and-forward style distribution of their content due to the difficulties of storing and transmitting the high bandwidth content. The existing infrastructure that was built up around traditional broadcast media was therefore not designed to handle any kind of on-demand transmission. As a result, despite the advances in technology, the existing infrastructure continues to dictate to some extent the practice of broadcasting media. The Internet, however, is built upon a newer framework that is designed for store-and-forward, on-demand style transmission of information. With such technology, one is no longer necessarily tied to the same time dependency that existing broadcast media are currently built on. Nonetheless, having the technological infrastructure does not necessarily mean that it will be used. The time dependence measure specifically looks at this issue to see how webcasting practices avail themselves to the new structure of the technology.
The final measure, feedback, follows from the cybernetic definition of feedback as a signal that returns from the receiver to the sender, affecting a change in the signal sent to the receiver. In the case of webcasting, the signal can be considered as the transmission of information to and from the server. It does not necessarily directly involve the user at all. It could, for example, be the result of an intelligent software program sending configuration or user profile information back to the server in order that the server can adjust the content that it subsequently sends the user. The measure of feedback reveals the basic communication paradigm upon which the webcasting practice is based. This could be particularly interesting because, as mentioned above, the Internet is built upon a different technological infrastructure than traditional broadcasting sources. The question is whether or not webcasting makes use of this new structure.
It is important to note that the assessment criteria, interactivity, personalization, time dependence, and feedback will be applied to the generalized practices of webcasting. The attempt is not to pigeon-hole or stereotype the various practices, but simply to provide a standard of comparison among different media types that is useful, and that may reveal valuable insights about the practice. In doing so, one must keep in mind that there will always be exceptions.
Last modified 5/21/97.