Coleman, R., Lieber, P., Mendelson, A. L., & Kurpius, D. D. (2008). Public life and the internet: if you build a better website, will citizens become engaged?. New Media & Society, 10(2), 179-201.
In this article, Coleman, Lieber, Mendelson, and Kurpius use uses and gratifications theory to supplement Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion in order to “create an electronic public sphere designed to encourage citizens to participate in public life” (p. 179). They argue that mass communication via the internet (as understood by uses and gratification theory) can help foster civic engagement (as understood by Yankelovich’s public opinion theory). In other words, the better a website is designed, the more likely its users are to participate in civic engagement. “Civic engagement” is defined as “the coming together of interested groups and citizens to discuss and address issues of concern” (p. 181). The article examines civic engagement through the lense of Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion, which contains three levels of public engagement: consciousness-raising, working through, and resolution. The media, it is argued, currently play a role only in the first stage of consciousness-raising, but have the potential, especially by means of the internet, to help people through all three stages. Uses and gratification theory is used to “understand how people use mass communication, what needs or wants they hope to satisfy, and what their motives are for the use” (p. 185). Usability, “the ease with which a system can be learned and used” (p. 186), is an important component of uses and gratification theory as site creators need to assess site users’ needs and goals for the site.
Their hypotheses, in sum, are as follows: satisfaction with structural features (navigation, content, and appearance) will be significantly correlated with positive attitudes towards civic engagement. Satisfaction with the structural features will be significantly correlated with the likelihood of users revisiting the site, and the likelihood of revisiting the site will significantly correlate with positive attitudes toward civic engagement. In order to test these hypotheses, the researchers designed a study in which they designed a website on the topic of state budgets with “usability testing throughout the design phase” (p. 188). The control was an official state government budget site that was not designed with usability testing. Therefore, the subject matter was the same, but the structural features were different and able to be tested. There were 60 users total, half between the ages of 18 and 25, and half over the age of 25. Half were affiliated with the university, and half were not. The researchers also emphasized that the research was not meant to generalize a larger population, but rather “to discover whether the effects were present at all” (p. 189).
The results of the study mostly were in line with what the researchers had hypothesized. They found no significant difference in the structural feature of navigation between the test site and the control site, so it was dropped from the analysis. Overall, the test site designed with usability in mind encouraged civic engagement—the authors note that the users initially reported an “abysmal” interest in state budget topics, but the test site helped to encourage more interest. The results also showed that “story content mattered the most” to civic engagement” (p. 193). It is also worthy to note that this study showed that “greater use of online media in general” did not foster civic engagement, only online media when it was “specifically tailored to satisfy people’s uses and gratify their needs” (p. 193-194).
Overall, the authors conclude that “uses and gratifications offers the theoretical perspective that is lacking in Yankelovich’s theory” and that in order to link the two theories, uses and gratifications should be added between steps 1 and 2 of Yankelovich’s theory, to look like: consciousness-raising, usability, working through, and resolution. With civic engagement arguably at an all-time low, it is important to consider ways in which new technologies can help foster it.
The ideas presented by Coleman, Lieber, Mendelson, and Kurpius are relevant to visual rhetoric in general because their findings underscore the importance of considering the rhetorical context, and how that contributes to design decisions. Poor design choice has real-world implications; as media is increasingly moving to online presence, it is important that readers are able to comfortably make the transition as well, so that they can continue to participate in democracy. This article is also more specifically related to my own research topic of of the use of GIFs in online commenting systems because internet comments are a modern form of civic engagement. Commenting systems are a part of the usability of a web page, and it is important to consider how the systems are designed to encourage or discourage discourse. The authors note that “this study did not test Yankelovich’s ‘working through’ conception of opinion formation” (p. 193), and I think examining comments on media sites can supplement that missing piece in the research. Comments are where people engage with each other to debate the issue and “work through” what needs to be done. Comments can even extend to Yankelovich’s third step of “resolution”, such as when a user posts a fundraising page for fellow commenters to donate money to a person in need profiled in an article.