March 05, 2004

"consumer" and "user" both suck

My colleague Rakhi Rajani asked (on a firewalled blog), "What's the difference between a consumer vs a user?" It's not an unreasonable question in the context of interaction design, but her post inspired me to spill out the following rant. One thing leads to another and all ;-)

Rakhi doesn't like the term "user", and I agree: for me it conjures up pictures of a pale, trembling arm with a needle full of smack (YMMV, of course ;-). Of course many of the folks who sell to the "consumer" have almost exactly that metaphor in mind as their success model, but let's not go there.

Frankly, I'm done with "consumer" as well. While it is true that I do consume some things in my life, I think it's a terrible term for what we do with social, digital media. I'm done with the language and mindset of the "consumer market" too. Consumer electronics? Over. Consumer confidence? Wrong. Consumer systems? Huh? What's that mean? Here's a relevant snip of the hypertext webster definition of consume:

To destroy, as by decomposition, dissipation, waste, or fire; to use up; to expend; to waste; to burn up; to eat up; to devour.

This definition works okay for burgers and beer, but not at all for emailing, web browsing, music downloading, blogging, texting, movie-making, photo sharing, geocaching, friendster dating, flashmobbing, cameraphoning, in short, for all of the emerging uses and behaviors of a mobile, digital, connected society. These are not about consumption, they are acts of creation, communication, connection, community, and experience. They occur in a world of multiplicity and abundance rather than scarcity. "Consumer" and "user" are completely inadequate words to describe the roles of people in the modern world (you could argue that they never were adequate, but that's another discussion).

I'll agree that it is useful, even a requirement, to have a set of descriptive words for the human objects of our interest, so if not "consumer" and "user", then what? Some moderately clever wordsmiths are already on the case: consider producer + consumer = "prosumer" (don't you love WordSpy?), an unfortunate-sounding neologism that tried to head in the right direction but was co-opted early on by marketeers seeking to corral their highest-margin customers. Okay, next. "Humans" seems just a bit too broad and passive. "Digital nomads"? "Social mediators"? "Experience communities"? Hrm. Guess we just don't have the right language yet.

So consider this a challenge, ye blogospherians. Let's come up with some terms that don't suck.

Posted by Gene at March 5, 2004 12:09 PM