Multimedia is the integration of multiple media formats in a presentation. For example, digital multimedia could include both a video and interactive graphic to depict a story. “New media” journalists utilize multimedia storytelling to appeal to the interests of a larger, and younger, audience by incorporating several media types to strengthen a story. Younger generations of consumers have grown up with multimedia and technology, and thus are more inclined to expect multimedia in all facets of their information seeking activities. Web developers, marketing specialists, advertisers, and business professionals also incorporate multiple forms of media when promoting a service or product, whether it be a digital media campaign, a user manual, a training pamphlet, or any other consumer-related good.

Multimedia can be divided into two large categories: passive and interactive. Passive (or non-participatory) multimedia is also known as a linear presentation in which the user has little to no control of the medium. A traditional video is arguably the best-known linear media, where the user takes the “sit-back-and-watch” mindset to consume the presentation. The opposite would be an interactive (or participatory) presentation, also known as non-linear media. Several examples of interactive media are online video games, interactive graphics, and map mashups. Unlike a video, interactive presentations do not have a defined beginning, middle and end. Rather, each user interacts with the media at varying speeds and determines his or her path and progress through the presentation dependent on the choice and sequence of his or her actions.

Another distinguishing factor is whether the media is synchronized or asynchronized. Synchronized presentations contain an organized set of media displayed over a fixed period of time. An audio slide show is an example of a synchronized format because there are multiple media (audio file and numerous photos) but they are sequential and presented within a defined timeframe. This presentation would be considered passive. On the other hand, an asynchronized presentation can be viewed freely in numerous ways without a time restraint. A photo gallery can be defined as asynchronized (and in this case interactive) since a user clicks through the gallery one by one at his or her own pace, or jumps to different photos from the gallery page. However, a photo slide show where the photos are timed (where the audio is stand-alone but the photos are set to rotate periodically, perhaps) would be considered synchronized and passive.

It is important to note that a passive presentation may not be synchronized though, such as a text story with photos. Therefore, while the terms “passive,” “linear,” and “synchronized” are traditionally grouped together they are not necessarily interchangeable. In other words, while a passive presentation is always linear, it can either be synchronized or asynchronized. On the other hand, an interactive presentation is always asynchronized although small parts of it could be synchronized, such as synchronized animations contained within frames in an asychnronized (albeit linear) step graphic.

After distinguishing between the “sit-back-and-watch” and “jump-in-and-play” categories, one must also analyze differences between mediums. A variety of multimedia formats can be analyzed to determine differences in retention rates and user satisfaction levels. When differentiating media, a continuum can be envisioned with an artificially divided distinction between what one believes to be passive versus interactive (Figure 1). For the purpose of this study, the mere presence of basic user playback controls such as play, pause, stop, restart buttons and timeline scrubbers did not automatically indicate that the site was interactive since most passive multimedia presentations currently contain playback control. However, multimedia that requires playback control signifies that the media is synchronized, which easily separates it from asychronized passive media. This distinction will be used when grouping stimuli to test.

Figure 1: Examples of passive and interactive media placed along a continuum based on level of user input.

Continuum of Interactivity

It is also important to assess the media used when analyzing each format. For instance, a passive video could be embedded within an interactive step graphic. The six broad categories of multimedia are: video, audio, photography, interactivity, text, and graphics. Any of these formats can be combined and/or used side-by-side to create an end product. For the purpose of this study, an interactive presentation may include passive components as long as the majority of the site utilizes interactive elements.

Problem Statement

I aim to study the effects of short-term retention and user satisfaction dependent upon the combination of media into either a passive or interactive multimedia presentation. While multimedia exists in numerous professional fields, my study will only analyze multimedia produced for journalistic purposes. Past research suggests that while interactive multimedia users are more likely to describe the experience as “enjoyable,” users of text formats recall more information (Outing and Ruel, 2004). However, although text (disregarding hyperlinks) is a passive media, it is not considered multimedia since it is does not combine two or more types of media. Thus, my research will build upon the formerly mentioned research by comparing an interactive multimedia site to a passive multimedia site, rather than an interactive multimedia site to a non-multimedia site.

RQ: How do short-term retention rates and user satisfaction levels differ between passive and interactive journalism multimedia packages?

H: Short-term retention rates and satisfaction levels will be higher in interactive formats.

About the Researcher

Tracy Boyer is an award-winning multimedia technology strategist, specializing in the intersection of digital media and interactive technology. Currently, Tracy is the first MBA/MSIS dual master’s candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is studying General Management at Kenan-Flagler Business School and Human-Computer Interaction in the School’s Information Science program. Boyer is currently the managing editor of Innovative Interactivity, a widely read multimedia blog that she founded in 2007.

Previously, she reported on malnutrition in Honduras with The Pulitzer Center, was a multimedia producer at, served as the UNC correspondent for and interned with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2007, she was selected to participate in the Poynter Summer Fellowship. Boyer graduated with a multimedia degree from UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Feel free to email Tracy directly with comments, suggestions, and any other feedback related to this research.

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