What is ‘interaction’? It’s the word journalists have been chucking around for years while in pursuit of a) a digital strategy and b) a desire to show they are ‘listening’ to viewers/readers/listeners. But strip away the emperor’s new Instagram filter and you can often translate a) to ‘oh, just stick a hashtag on that’ and b) ‘just make it look like we’re listening, we’ve already written the script’.

Interactive is a stupidly vague term. But many of us (including me) are guilty of overusing it, often in place of more functional words like ‘clickable’. Apply it to the physical world instead of the internet and it becomes laughable.

‘I was interacting with my neighbour about the bins this morning.’

‘I’m going to interact with this traffic light before I cross the road.’

What we are unwittingly doing is treating audiences like those early Lego figures with no faces and immovable moulded arms at their sides. As journalists we need to develop this thinking because the truth is our audiences have been grabbing lightsabers, pressing buttons and pulling funny faces for years.

What we really mean by digital interaction is the act of getting the viewer/reader/listener to give something back as they consume our media - be it their opinion, their data or simply another click of the mouse. And in an increasingly time-poor and attention-fractured world the play for our eyeballs, clicks and time has become a complex sport.

The sites that are not treating us like early Lego figurines are getting quite good. We may not like to admit it but humans are intrinsically self-centred beasts who enjoy reading and watching things with a ‘me conclusion’. From BuzzFeed’s silly 23 signs you are a pro at being broke to the worldly How many slaves work for you?, this type of content makes us feel social (we click, we chuckle, we share) or responsible (we click, we stroke our chins, we share). But really this stuff is just making us gaze even more at ourselves, then pass it on for someone else to do exactly the same.

It is not just zeitgeisty websites that are mining this tendency towards the ‘me conclusion’. Take a look at trends in documentary titles. Channel 4’s award-winning Dispatches strand is this week exposing Secrets of Your Credit Rating. The same programme has asked Are You Addicted to Sugar? And last year the BBC analysed The Men Who Made Us Fat. This type of journalism fascinates us because it tells us something serious through the prism of our ego.

To get information of genuine value from interaction and effectively harvest the ‘me conclusion’, journalists need to first decide what they want.

Who remembers Choose Your Own Adventure books? They were interactive but purely for entertainment’s sake. The outcome of the story depended on the reader’s decision-making along the way. But the publisher didn’t make more money depending on our page turns - nor gather data as we travelled through the adventure. The 79p cover price was the pay-off.

So what do you want? If you are making a map, a poll, a graphic or a TV report, setting out with a vague notion of why you are interacting is the main error you can make. Do you want to tell the user something about themselves? Or do you want the user to tell something of themselves to you? So long as the topic is interesting and well delivered, the ‘me conclusion’ will take care of the first. See the BBC’s class calculator - a viral hit in 2013 - or Channel 4 News’s recent look at mobile data privacy:  Will your phone come back to haunt you? The trick here is that you are asking for a passive type of interaction with pre-written multiple choice. It’s Choose Your Own Adventure 21st Century style.

Try getting the user to offer up an opinion and the stakes are higher. How many people really fill out the ‘other comments’ box on questionnaires? And those of you that do, is it only when you are a little bit cross? Anger and frustration are the key to this second type of interaction. Hence the long comment threads which fan out beneath newspaper blog posts, often deviating wildly from the original topic. A provocative title or perceived inaccuracy can unlock the angry ‘interactor’ in us all.

This isn’t negative. As a journalist it’s your job to listen to frustrations and make sense of them - to join the dots, spot trends and put the views of the crowd to the individuals with the power to make a change. The success of Channel 4 News’s No Go Britain investigation into public transport for the disabled was, in the early days, driven by mass frustration. The stories of many (which primarily came to us through Twitter) galvanised into a clear narrative: people with disabilities were being told accessibility was a priority but experiencing the opposite. The campaign, driven through tweets and Facebook posts, led to practical improvements such as the permanent ramps at London Underground stations. This was interaction with a clear, and literal, journey.

But it can’t always be like that. And Robbie Williams sang Let Me Entertain You - not Let Me Interact With You. News media in all its forms has always been about entertainment. If your aim is to get people to click, chuckle and share, do it well and make it memorable. And FUNNY. Like this by Tom Phillips at BuzzFeed: The 29 stages of a Twitterstorm. And for the less comically endowed here are my five tips for meaningful interaction:

1. Use social media to ‘join the dots’ between people and groups with a story to tell - they might not know each other exist
2. If you're trying to get a discussion going on Twitter, piggyback an existing (and relevant) hashtag
3. As journalists we all want a juicy story, but remember to solicit information on positive experiences as well as negative
4. Don't treat social media as an afterthought. Make it integral to your newsgathering process at the beginning, middle and end
5. The definition of interactive is ‘allowing a two-way flow of information’. So don’t whack ‘interactive’ on anything that has a play button or involves an extra click.

Channel 4 News is currently piloting new online programme #WT4 which allows viewers to grill guests via social media.

Engaging social media audiences

Social media skills

Investigative journalism

Small communities can have a big impact on your journalism

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