Language lessons

For a while now I’ve been uncomfortable with the words user and content, and with the phrase user-generated content. But although produced or created are almost certainly better generic terms than generated, I’ll admit that I’ve failed to come up with a generic alternative to user or content (a bullshit word as Doc Searls rightly notes).

The commentary attached to Jimmy Guterman’s recent plea — Don’t call me a user! — has convinced me that there may not be superior generic alternatives. But several of the comments there reach the same conclusion that I have. Use the generic terms when necessary. But wherever possible, be more specific. The word user connotes a role, but so does member or contributor or participant and, even more specifically, writer or photographer or indexer or webjay.

The latter is a complete neologism, of course, but note the effect that it had at The reflex would have been to say things like “OddioKatya is my favorite Webjay user.” But because the term webjay was so active and so evocative — a DJ for the web — it became natural to simply say “OddioKatya is my favorite webjay.”

Likewise content. Because a more distinctive and evocative term was available — playlist — you’d never think of saying “I love OddioKatya’s content.” Instead you’d say “I love OddioKatya’s playlists.”

While we’re at it, webjays are not generators of playlists, they are curators of them. This isn’t just pedantry. Language governs thought, and when we enrich our language we enrich our individual and shared mental lives. With evocative and precise vocabulary, we can imagine more and accomplish better.

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14 thoughts on “Language lessons

  1. Your blog is generally a good read, and I feel a bit bad for only leaving a comment when I don’t like the post.

    But I can’t believe people actually give more than a moment’s thought to this issue.
    a) User is not a pejorative term
    b) It actually does a pretty good job of describing what people do when they visit and engage with websites in general. I actually found it very difficult to write that previous sentence without using the word ‘use’, and had to use the silly word ‘engage’ instead.
    c) Language is a nested and overlapping thing. If ‘user’ is used it doesn’t preclude other terms from being used as well in contexts that suit them (webjay being a good example).

    Damn – sucked in. Here’s me giving WAY more than a moment’s thought to it.

  2. Hi Jon,

    I prefer the phrase “community contributed content” as it recognizes that the community is sharing materials with other members of the community. It seems warmer than the more sterile “user generated content”.


  3. Hi, Jon.

    I used to fret about “user” too. Pejorative, insulting, unimaginative, with tales of “lusers” circulating in IT cube farms; I tried hard to avoid it.

    Now, I notice the users have adopted it as their own. They don’t mind being called users. They call themselves users.

    Maybe it was us that projected our disdain and then felt guilty about it that caused our discomfort with the word.

  4. I think we need to reclaim the word “user” and give it the respect it deserves (Bob Erb makes a really good point here). I struggled with this one as well (I’ve been calling my work “creating passionate users”), but the word “user” reflects two of the most *important* attributes our “users” want in the products and services we create–“usefulness” and “usability”

    Even my local ski resort — Copper Mountain — has signs posted referring to users of the mountain as…”users.” Now that they have both skiers AND snowboarders, “skiers” no longer works and they didn’t bother inventing a new word or making contrived signage… “people on skis or snowboards who are using the facilities on the terrain park…”.

    I don’t think *most* users are insulted by the term. They’re insulted by the way they’re treated by poorly-designed products and the companies who make them. But I do agree with you that language governs thought — and that’s precisely why I LIKE the word “user”… if companies/designers/developers/service providers focus on the word “user”, that means focusing on “usefulness” and “usability.”

    But… I also agree that “user” is really just a variable, and that when it’s possible to be more precise, companies should assign more specific words to it such as guest, member, participant, reader, learner, rider, etc.

    I’m not willing to relinquish a perfectly useful word just because of the cliche that “drug dealers refer to their customers as users.” If some folks in IT have abused the word (“lusers”) –it’s a symptom of a deeper problem, a problem that won’t be corrected by referring to users as “the people who use our product.” If developers/designers/companies don’t see their users as “people”, they need way more than a language fix.

    But again, I agree with you that the words we use do matter in how we think — and “user” puts the emphasis right where it should be — usability and usefulness.

  5. ‘Community’ is becoming overloaded. It can apply to systems like wikis, where much of the interaction is between participants, but in many other cases the focus is on the person’s relationship with some media object or the central system. In which case, ‘public’ may be more appropriate.

    In place of ‘content’, we can put ‘media’ in many cases. In others, it should be data (or metadata), or perhaps something more specific, like ‘reviews’, ‘commentary’, ‘ratings’, etc.

    When you think about it, the systems that facilitate ‘community produced media’ don’t really have that much in common with those facilitating ‘publicly gathered reviews’, and lumping them both into some relatively formless ‘user generated content’ category does both a disservice, because even if *some* of the HCI is similar, the devil is always in the details.

  6. Excellent site and I am really pleased to see you have this this post.
    I am crrently working in the south of france looking at property for sale, having fun in the sun and bookmarking everything that I find interesting on the net (including of course !)
    It has taken me literally 2 hours and 13 minutes of searching the web to find you (just kidding!) so I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor from now on :)


  7. South Park is a series that much about it because the topics are considered taboo and often turned to derision, but also why we love him so much ^ ^

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