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In defence of the “user”

Matt Kelly doesn’t like the term ‘users’. In a speech to the World Newspaper Congress keynote in Hyderabad he bemoaned the sterility of the word:

“What a word! “Users.” Not readers, or viewers. Certainly not customers – not unless we are being deeply ironic. For the fact is the word “user” is, for the vast majority of people consuming our products online, entirely accurate.

“We’d never choose such a sterile word to describe the people who buy our newspapers. But online, “users” is about right. They find our content in a search engine, they devour it, then they move back to Google, or wherever, and go looking for more. Often, they have no idea which website it was they found the content on. This was the audience we’ve been chasing all that time. A swarm of locusts.”

He’s not alone. Many others have expressed – if not in such forthright terms, and often on very different bases – similar objections to the term.

But I like it.

I like it because it makes very plain how people use the medium. They were readers in print, an audience for broadcasters, and customers and consumers for businesses, but online… they ‘use’. Not in the exploitative sense that Matt Kelly insinuates, but in an instrumental fashion.

People use the web as a tool – to communicate, to find, to play, and to do a hundred other things. So many of the success stories online are tools: Google, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube. And one of the changes in mindset required when you publish for an online audience, it seems to me, is to recognise that people will want to ‘do’ something with your content online. Share it. Comment on it. Remix it. Correct it. Rate it. Search it. Annotate it. Tag it. Store it. Compare it. Contextualise it. Analyse it. Mash it.

In his book The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler suggested that the ‘user’ was emerging as “a new category of relationship to information production and exchange.

“Users are individuals who are sometimes consumers and sometimes producers. They are substantially more engaged participants, both in defining the terms of their productive activity and in defining what they consume and how they consume it. In these two great domains of life—production and consumption, work and play—the networked information economy promises to enrich individual autonomy substantively by creating an environment built less around control and more around facilitating action.”

That quote should be at the heart of any online journalism training. Different medium, different rules.

Don't be the product, buy the product!