Interactive Disaster Communication on the Internet: A Content Analysis of Sixty-Four Disaster Relief Home Pages

Article excerpt

Disaster relief home pages were content analyzed using a seven-dimensional conceptualization of interactivity. This study provides a theoretical exploration of the concept of interactivity and its potential contributions to the Internet as an increasingly interactive mass medium. It then applies interactivity to the development of disaster communication and tests that framework in the context of disaster relief home pages. Although most sites that were analyzed contained a large amount of news and explanatory content, as well as potential for user response, most did not show high scores in actual responsiveness to user or the other five dimensions of interactivity.

Introduction

In recent years, rapid development of new communication technology has prompted a shift in communication strategies.' When one examines the interactivity of new communication strategies in the context of disaster relief on the World Wide Web, the extent of interactive communication on the Internet developed to deal with natural disaster crises can be identified. The current study employs content analysis to explore the interactive nature of some of the disaster relief information at Internet users' disposal. It is intended that the identification and development of a typology for interactive dimensions on disaster relief web pages will provide a useful frame of reference for future research in interactivity on the World Wide Web. The emergence of the Internet as a prominent form of mass media and its potential for interactivity are discussed, and potential indicators of web site interactivity are identified and measured. This study concludes with a discussion about the extent to which disaster communication on Internet is interactive.

The Internet as a Mass Medium

As of November 2000, the number of Internet users worldwide was estimated to total more than 407 million,2 up 242 million from January of that same year.3 CommerceNet projections estimate 490 million users by the end of 2002 and 765 million users by year-end 2005, which may be conservative estimates, considering it projected only 349 million users by the end of year 2000. Because of this rapid growth, the Internet provides an increasing opportunity to not only reach large numbers of people, but also the potential to mobilize immediate responses from those people regarding their needs and wants.

Such Internet availability has become a concern for government and corporate agencies alike, primarily because the rift between those with access to the Internet and those without has been growing as rapidly as the Internet itself. A number of corporations' have been leading efforts to help narrow this gap through special funding and grants used to provide computer and Internet access to low-income neighborhoods and minority populations.6 In addition, for fiscal year 2000 the Clinton administration sought $65 million in funding for community Internet centers. That figure is a $55 million increase from the previous year's budget request.7

In light of these efforts, the Internet is evolving into a medium with the potential to engage a large segment of the general public in ways that were not possible in the past. Like mass media, the Internet has the capacity and the resources to send a tremendous amount of information to large numbers of receivers simultaneously; however, unlike traditional mass communication, it often gives the receiver the ability to respond immediately and directly to the information's source (or alleged source), as well as discuss the information with many other receivers, offering the opportunity to be both receiver and sender concurrently. In continuing efforts toward development and accessibility, the Internet has the potential to eventually become the first global interactive mass medium.

Interactivity and the Internet

The potential for interactivity has been among the more heavily discussed characteristics of the Internet. …