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Jun 5

Jimmy Guterman

Jimmy Guterman

Don't Call Me a User!

I hate the word "user." As has often been noted, there are only two industries that refer to their customers as users: high tech and illegal drugs. Is this the company we want to keep? As a writer in business and technology publications, I try hard to avoid it, sometimes too hard as I use increasingly awkward constructions. If we are, as it appears, getting deeper into a period when “user-generated content” is turning into the conceptual glue that holds together so many net services, I must admit that I’m fighting a losing battle. So, as editor of Release 2.0, it's time for me to stop. My writers will be happy to learn that I’m no longer rewriting their articles on user-generated content so they no longer include the word “user.” I still distrust it, though, and I’d like to pose a question to our readers: Do you know of a better term? If so, please share it. Only you can come up with a user-generated superior alternative to “user.”

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This is a good question, but I am leaning towards the opinion that the term "user" is now so entrenched in our communities that there's really no way to go back. Still, I have always liked the term customer, because it carries a relationship between me and those who use my services. That doesn't mean customer is a good word to use everywhere, but it does sound good often. In the cases where it doesn't sound good or make sense, I'll have to stick around with the term user.

At Startup Search I try to distinguish between different actors on a given site, beyond just a site "user."

A site "member" might be able to add a comment or rate a piece of content. A site "publisher" could be the creator of said content. A "viewer" might be the casual observer, just passing by.

There are many types of user generated content. Perhaps altering the vernacular could help us better describe each interaction class.

I like Niall's thought about distinguishing based upon what people are actually doing. If nothing else it would probably help application creators keep what users are doing in mind. I'm thinking of things like:

Flickr -> photographers
Banking -> investors
Education -> students

Rob La Gesse said:

I don't mind "user", depending on the site. If I pay for the site, I prefer "member" or "customer". If I contribute to the site I prefer "member".

If I am just sucking up data without giving back, I am a "user" - why try and dodge that?

"Consumer" is the one I really hate. And I can't even explain why I don't like it. It just doesn't appeal to me.

But "user"? Sometimes I *am* just a user on a site - so it doesn't bother me.


Part of the problem is interactivity, but a larger part of the problem is that technology allows creators, interactors, and observers to choose from a wide range of roles, some of which are pretty well defined (even if only in folksonomy--e.g. lurkers, though it has probably crossed over, were a concrete "user group" probably from the beginnings of user-created content in any medium).
I hate to agree that user is probably too well entrenched to unseat, though I also prefer it to consumer (with it's anachronistic power relationship assumptions). Also, it's neutral enough to allow for passivity and action, which few of the contenders can claim.

When describing the "user-generated content" on my site I refer to it as "community-generated content". As to the "user" themselves, I usually refer to them as "community members", or simply "members".

Phil said:

Yeah, and let's dump this "web" thing while we're at it.

Other industries that use the word "user": Furniture, electronics, automobiles. That's just off the top of my head.

We've all got out pet peeves, but sheesh.

I also try to avoid the term as well. For many of these participatory media systems, I think "participant" is a nice general substitute, and has a more positive ring to it.

I also try to avoid the term as well. For many of these participatory media systems, I think "participant" is a nice general substitute, and has a more positive ring to it.

Troy McLuhan said:

How about "community-generated content"?

I don't mind being called a user of a service if all I'm doing is using it (i.e. taking it). But as soon as I add stuff, as soon as I give something, I stop being a user and become a co-creator or community member.

The thing that 'user' has going for it is it's generality. If you're willing to sacrifice that, then the appropriate word choice becomes highly context-specific.

In addition to the ones already suggested, consider 'author', 'artist', 'critic', 'creator', 'reviewer', 'organizer', 'editor', or 'contributor'.

How about "User 2.0"? ;)

maol said:

And, adding to Michael's lists: the 'reader' and the 'viewer' of content. With the participation inequality phenomenon happening, most users aren't contributing anyway, and as such might not want to be titled creator or reviewer.

Elke Sisco said:

I don't like "user" either. (And "end user" and "existing member" are even worse.)

Oddly, I don't object to "user name".

But you wanted better, not worse. For web sites, "visitors" seems polite and friendly to me. Or you could just speak of "people".

Mimoun said:

For user: person or member.
For users: people or community.

"user-generated content” makes no sense a user uses and doesn't generated anything.

Shawn Smith said:

I've never really liked the term "user" either, but I haven't found anything that works better as a general label. Many of the comments suggest more specific terms, like "photographers" for Flickr users, but then what do you call the non-photographers who visit Flickr? Getting too specific comes with its own problems.

Sometimes I use "visitors," although it feels somewhat passive, as if it doesn't cover people who interact with the site. "Consumer" has the same problem - perhaps more-so. "Customers" doesn't feel right if you're not selling anything. Even on e-commerce sites, it doesn't feel like an accurate label for visitors who aren't explicitly shopping.

I think specific language can work when it attempts to reflect the user's purpose, rather than the user's role or persona. Visitor, shopper, contributor instead of photographer or customer.

Still, as a catch-all, I think we're stuck with "user."

leo said:

In librarianship, we use the word 'patron'.

PierG said:

Tester? :)
We are in the 'permanent beta' era, aren't we?

Dave McClure said:


can't think of anything more pejorative, but gimme a sec...

Chris R said:

*Do* call me user!

If you write some software and people *use* it, then those people are *users*. You can use other more specific terms but none of them will be applicable in the general case. I don't see the big problem.

N.Cauldwell said:

Let's get over this recent disapproval of the term 'user'. And here's why;

  • People ask me which social network I use.
  • People ask me which office software I use.
  • People ask me which email service I use.
  • People ask me which washing powder I use to get my clothes smelling so fresh.

Until I stop 'using' things, I'm not going to stop being a 'user'.

mpt said:

If a term like "reader", "contributor", or "customer" is too specific, you (or the articles you edit) are probably over-generalizing.

Xavier said:

I vote for peon or pawn. When I contribute a comment to a blog, I feel like a netpawn.


It's a bit UMLish, but consider the role you refer to as 'User', the person is actually a node in the application's function. The Actors play the role of a node in the semantic framework of the use of the software. An Actor may use a script [sic] to perform a function [sic], but the affordance of good software is improvisation...

Regards to the term UGC, I've been 'using' the term Authentic Media ( Media that is produced for sharing with a few people should not be confused with productions designed with a broadcast mentality - here you get into co-creation (Public Private Partnerships!)

Authentic Media aspires to transparency, just as an actor never hides the fact that they are acting. A good performance from an actor makes it seem as if they are authentic 'in role'; which is perhaps why it's easy to call them 'users' - a generic mass without authentic characteristics.

Perhaps software (from concept to UX) needs to open it's affordance to being personified rather than offering superficial notions of 'personalisation' - but that's an Open Source debate.

Mike Pearson said:

How about "person" or "individual", if "user" isn't floating your boat? After all, that's what we are.

If it's a system using the service call it an agent.

I do think the whole "only the high-tech and drugs industry call people users," schtick is a bit trite, to be honest.

Not a criticism of you, Jimmy - you could just as well call drug users consumers or customers.

Vincent van Wylick said:

How about owner? I own a tv, a pc, a software, content. Owner-generated content? Works for me (probably not for Youtube).

Reinhold, Bernd said:

How about "useditor" instead of "user"?

James said:

I have a problem with all three words "user", "generated" and "content". "Generated" feels like it implies an algorithmic process, which does not describe, let alone do justice to, the creativity that goes into "generating" the "content".

I recently heard Brian Dear talk about "community contributed content", which I thought was nearer the mark, though harder to say.

The word "community" isn't as malleable, as it is by definition a collection of people, but it is so much more respectful than "users", or (shudder) "consumers".

rapture said:

Instead of "user", I suggest the following:

"one who uses"

i think consumer has too many commerical connotations now, as in B2C (business to consumer) - but as in a person who consumes media, its more relevant (but still sounds too businessy).
i think its about context - and user is an easy catchall term to use in early documents or discussions about members of your audience or community. on old school sites where they're just reading your content, they're a reader - on community sites, they're a member, whatever. But for a general term, whilst user has always had a 'piece of meat' ring to it, it works as a generic label - and is so ingrained in common usage now, anthing else can sound like the site owner is trying too hard to be hip.

chabuhi said:

Trained Monkeys?

Honestly, the only term we've ever used at my business (beside, of course, user) is "customer", which isn't going to be applicable in every case.

The fact that you are even suggesting we move away from the term "user" is a horrid blasphemy against the sacred words of Tron.

For shame!

Amanda said:

How about client? Makes more sense to me -- when people are using your product, they're your business partner, so client seems like the best thing to call them. It's more personal than consumer or customer, and implies an ongoing relationship.

chabuhi said:

The problem with "client" is that it gets confusing when talking about technical architecture.

You could be talking about the user, or you could be talking about a client service or application.

Maybe a trifling distinction, but ...

anon said:

What an intriguing post. Not to go all meta on you, but I think you're reaching the point where the authoritative-post-plus-anonymous-comments model shows some strain. A wiki, in which you'd seed the discussion with the "what options do we have other than 'user'" bit, would facilitate structured responses from your audience.

candace kuss said:

Jimmy I hear what you are saying, but there are some other industries, like advertising, where "consumer" is the traditional term. Passive and existing only to consume. "User" at least is active and in charge.

So I skew toward "user" a a term for my clients' customers, as it reminds us all that these are real people doing real things (online and off) that we want to have a conversation with.

Mark Woodman said:

In the immortal words of Tron:

"Oh My User!"

I think you're stuck with it; it's embedded in our culture now. And as a computing addict, I have to admit the term is often pretty appropriate.

Umyep said:


Oh, wait, we have mice now....

I don't see what the fuss is about with the word "User". To Jimmy's point if the two industries that use the word are high tech and illegal drugs, shouldn't the focus be on removing the users of illegal drugs rather than the users of high tech.

So, my alternative to user is user.

MdH said:

"ProAm content" via the proam revolution, because I think that it reflects the other tech threads (besides the posting it online story) that are contributing. Specifically really sophisticated tools (DSLRs, 3chip camcorders, inexpensive digital recorders) available at "prosumer" prices.

Victim! I often feel like one myself when using various pieces of software.

Brian LeRoux said:

At Nitobi we use the terms, and abstractions in our code, Person and for collections we say People. =)

Michael Chui said:

Damn it. Brian beat me to it. I vote for "person" and "people".

John said:

I had a manager once who had the exact same thought as you did, that when people heard the word 'user' they thought of druggies. It took ever fiber of my body to keep from laughing in his face.

Now, if he had said 'Because when people say user around here (here being Microsoft), user is pronounced with a silent L' I would have nodded. I still would have thought he was wrong and used the word 'user' at every moment I could have, but, I at least would have respected that opinion.

He wanted us to use 'customer' which, in the pure definition of the word, was wrong since most of our users were using a free product (messenger mostly).

so, sorry, I'm going to stick with 'user'. If you want to be so paranoid that you think I'm calling you a druggie, well.... maybe you should consider not smoking so much pot. =)

turph said:


Does not matter if you are editing, reading, making an initial post, posting a comment, etc. By the act of being at a given place you are contributing.

When you go through the process of making user cases and scenarios, it becomes readily apparent that there a dozens of nuances to a "user". But boil it all down and yes, that person is a contributor.

Patarigoga said:

I think you might be better off coming to grips with the term than using something that just makes other people roll their eyes. What are you trying to describe? The person who's using the application. The one who's *using* it. There's nothing as specific, or as clear, as that. ("Actor" is OK actually, but it sounds silly to people who haven't spent a lot of time on use cases.)

If you're being specific about a certain function, then it's OK to use more specific terms. Someone who visits your site is a visitor. Someone who shops is a customer. Someone who reads your posts is a reader. But for general interaction, "user" really works well.

dude said:

Dude, dude!

Rex said:

It's the "generating content" part of the phrase that bothers me. When I produce or write or photograph or express or comment, not once have I ever thought of it as "generating content." Only marketing geeks (and I am one) or "professional content generators" (and I am one) could dream up such a ridiculous phrase.

Michael Almond said:


I thought I was the only one who thought the term "User" was ridiculous. I use the term out of respect for those who founded the disciplines of User Experience and User-centered Design, but I try to avoid using it whenever else possible.

I like the term "visitors"...It's an accurate description, AND it's not OFFENSIVE. People visit Web sites or UIs and then they "use" them. It just shows you how little our industry has considered the human aspects of what we do. If you refer to a human being as a user, you've failed right out of the gate.

BTW, I should mention that I work as a Senior User Experience Designer. So I'm a hypocrite, what can I say. I'm only human.

Piers said:

Human. Old fashioned, but works for me.

shawnpetriw said:

Use "user" only to refer to the entire population using your site. When possible, use other terms such as these:

Use "guest" for anonymous users.

Use "member" for authenticated users.

Use "partner" for those giving you money.

(It's hard not to use the term "user" when that's what lots of CMS solutions have hard coded into them.)

Andrea said:

I came across another instance of troublesome terminology this weekend: evidently some social workers/therapists are now referring to {clients} as "consumers". What are they consuming? Services? It's interesting how the terms we use can frame our perception of things.

As for 'user'... I work in a "User Experience" department, we have a sister department for "User-Centered Design". I'm not sure how those could be otherwise translated. I know I prefer the UCD term to HCI..

Cesar Castro said:

This is a very interesting thread and a powerful question. I think this issue has past the point of no return, the "user" name is so rooted into the world wide web universe that calling it anything else just wouldn't make sense. After all the term derives from people using the Internet, for any particular reason. Believe or not you are a "user" of the Internet no matter what you want to call it.

Kevin Fleischer said:

I'm from germany, and I can not see a problem. An user is somebody who uses something. And definitly, I think, website-useres use the website. So why don't call them user?

In germany "user" is entrenched. But if we really dont whant to use(!) it, we translate it literally(!) into german.

But this is probably a problem for native english speekers only, because in german neither "user" nor the german "Nutzer" are associated with illegal drugs. ("Junky" or "Fixer" is the word we use for that. ;) )

Steven Harris said:

Comrade? :) I was going to say "patron" but that's so patronizing!

jeoran said:

I am Brazilian and I have a question:

"a user" or "an user"?

I am studying english and I saw the two ways here.

Josh Bernoff said:

I am so behind you that I am starting a movement. Ban the user!

Graeme said:

How about unimaginative, derivative or pedestrian to describe user generated and community generated content - and - egotistical or smug to refer to its originators.

Regardless of how groundbreaking you consider your web page to be - it is still little more than words and pictures on a screen - people use computers to interact with your web site, they are users of the computer - your site is just something they happen to be looking at.

I can't wait to read the wikipedia discussion page debating the entry describing how these comments tacked on to a post about the changing relevance of the term user in the modern world were cross-linked and re-analysed in blog posts and discussion forums and how they ultimately required a wikipedia entry to document the way they captured the popular imagination of bloggers and web 2.0 commentators at the time.

People who use a computer are known as users - people who fly planes are called pilots - chefs cook, directors make movies, artists paint, detectives investigate, doctors nurse - in the grand scheme of things does it really matter what you call the people who look at your web site ?

You guys really need to be a little bit less self-important - you're not changing the World, merely distracting it from more meaningful things.

BTW - a group of people looking at something isn't a community - a bunch of people uploading stuff isn't a community - it's a pool of users or a target demographic.

Briana said:

You could always go fancy and say "utilizer" or in Brit-speak, "utiliser."

Lael said:

In response to Jeoran, if you type in "an user" into Microsoft Word, the grammar check tries to correct it to "a user". Here's the explanation from Microsoft Word Grammar Check:

"A" or "An"
Use "a" before a word beginning with a consonant or the sound of a consonant. Use "an" before a word beginning with a vowel or the sound of a vowel. For abbreviations, use either "a" or "an" depending on the pronunciation of the first letter in the abbreviation, such as "an LMN" or "a UVW."

Instead of: This is an problem.
Consider: This is a problem.

Instead of: An tear slowly ran down her face.
Consider: A tear slowly ran down her face.

Byron C Mayes said:

"As has often been noted, there are only two industries that refer to their customers as users: high tech and illegal drugs."

Yeah, right. Can you imagine a bunch of organized crime bosses or street toughs in a conference room going, "But what about our users?" "We must increase our user base!" "Vinny, your users in the South Central district aren't buying as much as they used to."?

No, the term "[illegal] drug user" is one that we in the mainstream of society have coined to describe "one who uses [illegal] drugs." It's not a term that comes from the "industry." It's a term that outsiders use.

In fact, if you ask people in law enforcement or the "industry" itself, you'll find that those in the business of illegal drugs have a rich slang with numerous terms for the people who buy their product. Many of them are variations of "head" or "freak," -- acid freak, crackhead, garbage head, etc. -- which probably come the closest to general terms for drug users by drug dealers. We don't call our users "heads" (though I have been tempted toward "freak" with some individuals).

Numerous other terms -- chipper, geeker, burnout, pigeon, huffer, jolly pop, etc. -- are applied to specific types of users or users/buyers of specific drugs (just as we would call a user of blog software a "blogger"). The Office of National Drug Control Policy published a document entitled "Street Terms: Drugs and the Drug Trade" (Google it to find a copy) in 2004 that includes 2300 terms referring to drug activity. A number of them refer to buyers and users, but you won't find "user" as a primary term.

There's nothing unsavory about the term "user." People use software and hardware and web services. They often have no more specific a role in relation to the hardware/software/service than that -- a user -- because their real job or purpose is accounting or gaming or sales or reporting.

They -- we -- are users.

TCH said:

If someone who has knowledge of the world we use and live in, they would understand the difference in reference in the terms "User" PC and "User" abuser. If you are working on a PC then one would know when you say "User" your talking about the world of computers, networks, or a site. If someone thinks I am a drug user because they see me sign in as a "User" they don't need an explanation, they should just stick their head in a hole. But, I do agree that in some places it is better to show the respect to customers, end users, members, and the list goes on. If your in this world you know the difference. White is White OK? Let's keep this world sane and Stop the worries over the small stuff. We have bigger fish to fry.

TCH said:

You could also use "Guest" in place of "User" On my web site we use Guest or Member. We changed it from User after reading this article. Just to be nicer to those we care about,(our visitors)but really enough is enough.

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