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Final Obituary for the 'User'

The User is dead. And "the people formerly known as the audience", no disrespect to Professor Rosen, is rather a mouthful.

Matt Adams from Blast Theory has a solution for 'User' and indeed the phrase we all hate 'User Generated Content' : 'Publicly Created Contributions'.

You'll have to excuse the audio as it wasn't made for this purpose; it was recorded at iDocs2011 with my iPhone so I could take notes from it.

The User is dead. Long live the Public. from Ann Danylkiw on Vimeo.

Taken from audio unintended for purpose from iDocs2011, Matt Adams of Blast Theory has a solution for that phrase we all hate 'user generated content' ...


Adams' point is this: language has a very subtle but important role to play in how we deal with each other everyday. In a participatory culture, calling those who enjoy actively participating in co-creation 'users' and 'the audience' may constrain the potential of the co-creative process.

Updating my previous blog post on the need to come up with something better for audience and user,

Public (thefreedictionary.com):

1. Of, concerning, or affecting the community or the people: the public good.
4. Participated in or attended by the people or community
7. Open to the knowledge or judgment of all
Public works if we accept that we as people belong to several communities and that communities can be fluid.
Like it? Hate it? Do you feel like any part of the definition of public doesn't fly with this use?
Let's hear it!

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Reader Comments (13)

Hi Ann.

The problem I have with PUBLIC is that on its own it excludes the individual. Collectively I hope my work connects with a public and of course in other instances I am part of that public contribution - to news commentary or observation or a fictional collaboration.

After defending the use of the word Audience for quite a while though under the consideration that it is on creators to understand the evolution of the audience, not on people to change who they are, I think you may have finally won me round!

My own offerings are:

PICs - Public & Individual Contributors : Because an individual contribution to any 'work' should not 'just' be swallowed by the Average or Aggregate Collective Response (though the aggregate response should also be considered)

PICCs - Public & Individual Creative Contributors

IPCs - Individual & Public Contributions. This takes the label off the person/s and puts it on the value/item they provide. - So People provide IPC

I think I feel more comfortable working with and dealing with People rather than 'A Public'. Also, I think the internet and (for me) transmedia is about connecting with People - Public is perhaps disembodying.

I know I kind of contradicted myself at the end there - but I'm typing out loud....


April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPOBurke

Thanks, Ann: a graceful summary!

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Adams

Interesting. Since 2002 we've been using our own alternative to the 'user generated content' phrase – Public Authoring – originally for our Urban Tapestries project http://urbantapestries.net and then through other subsequent projects like Snout http://socialtapestries.net/snout/ to platforms we've created like bookleteer, http://bookleteer.com for people to create and share digital/physical hybrids that might be more traditionally considered as 'authored'. It has its own nuances and ambiguities that we've found to have suited us well for almost a decade now.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGiles Lane

Hi Paul,
That's a good point you make about public referring to everyone as opposed to just individuals. The act of adding your input is inherently personal but there is also the overarching sense of collectivity in the whole of the project itself, as well as in social media in general, the process is one of a feedback loop that constructs something not individually but collectively. But it is a good point.

The difference may come because we come at this from different backgrounds: you are more of an artist and a fictional author seeking to create a unique experience for the member of the public, where as I come at this from a journalists background (factual, non-fiction) seeking to draw lines between individuals everyday experiences and illuminate interconnectedness of complex issues.

Anyway, that's just my thought so far.


April 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterannlytical

Hi Giles,

Thanks for taking the time share! I will definitely have a look at your projects.


April 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterannlytical

I'm surprised that people are still concerned over this. Yes, language matters, but what's the issue with calling the person who uses a website or service a user? It seems like we're going through contortions to come up with a "better" term for something that already has a perfectly reasonable name. And one that's easily understood.

Is it concern that we're dehumanizing people by calling them users? If so, to me that's a personal thing. I don't think of users as less than people.

April 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGavin

Hi Gavin,

Sorry to disagree but it's a very subtle thing, the way that we speak to and with each other on a daily basis. I believe that and intensely feel that seemingly very surface and slight considerations do in fact make a very big difference in the way that we relate to each other.

We are all always so rushed today, small politeness, small considerations, especially those steeped in language in a society that is increasingly 'text' based is of utmost importance. This is a concern of everyone. It is very important.

Apologies. ann.

April 16, 2011 | Registered Commenterannlytical

Hi Ann,

Very nice animation! Unlike Gavin who commented above, I'm actually surprised that the term "User Generated Content" stuck, given that it is such a technologically-oriented description. I was reminded of a short passage in the book "Building Social Web Applications" by Gavin Bell:

"This discussion on content leads nicely to a term I dislike: user-generated content. It implies faceless entities making valueless stuff. Kevin Anderson, blogs editor at the Guardian, a popular UK newspaper, renamed it community-generated content, which is better, in my opinion. Flickr's Heather Champ, along with her husband, author Derek Powazek, uses the term authentic media, which also indicates the right sense of community you want to encourage. However, if you can use more concrete terms, such as photographers put photos and conversations on Flickr, it is better than saying users or user-generated content."

In some ways I like the emphasis on community in the name. It avoids the problems inherent with "public," which I also find quite impersonal. "Community" also has some problems of its own, but it is certainly better than "user."

I think "created" is also so much more appropriate than "generated," which to me evokes something more like algorithmically produced material than anything else. So even "Community Created Content" would be nice--the 3 C's! Personally, I also love the term "authentic media," but I suspect that it is somewhat too academic to appeal to a wide audience.

Great post, and I think the number of comments attests to the fact that language does matter!

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlaura


Yes, exactly! And thank you for taking time to find and type out that Gavin Bell quote!

3 C's would be easy but then that ends up in an acronym and acronyms I think defeat the purpose? It's funny, there was a running twitter discussion on acronyms of it between @poburke and @scott_walker. (I will go and find it and post it).

I am in total agreement with you on the 'generated' which as you say "evokes something more like algorithmically produced material" but content makes me feel the exact same way...

Specificity = value. Nothing makes someone feel more 'valued' than a mention of something specific they have contributed. I once walked into an interview with an exec at BT for Worksnug and he mentioned a particular blog post of mine that he had read. Whilst I do realize that he probably received training to do that, it actually made me feel kinda warm and fuzzy that he bothered.

But, Laura, that is an incredibly important point to have contributed: language has its place. Whenst pitching and speaking within a community don't use technical language or the abstract noun, but take the time to be specific; say video, photo, blog post, story, experience. This evokes another point: take the time. Value the contribution and the hopefully that will be reciprocated and add value to the process and the conversation. No?

Hmmm... now having a thought: Wonder if we risk marginalising the creative process and creative talent if 'create' is used like this? I suppose only time will tell :)

Thanks again for your persistence over the technical difficulties!

April 19, 2011 | Registered Commenterannlytical

I'm in violent agreement with all of this, but I'm going to push back a bit and play devil's advocate.

Here's the challenge with specificity: there are times when it's not appropriate. If I want to collectively refer to all media (regardless of format or platform) created by, say, consumers, any term/acronym I use must by definition be general in nature.

Totally agree that if the community you're addressing or type of media you're discussing is niche enough or mono in nature, then by all means, be specific.

But my personal interest is the intersection of fandom and commercial entertainment IP, and fandom can literally take any and all medium formats.

And fandom may or may not be shared publicly (as was mentioned above, creation is a very personal thing, and sometimes it remains privately so).

I'm still struggling with how to refer to any individual or group who creates content based on an entertainment property they do not hold the copyright for. Audience, user, consumer, fan...none of these fully capture the entire spectrum of roles/activities of the individuals I'm referring to, and no term I can come up with better captures the action of fandom in all of its possible expressions as I view them for my work.

My focus is probably a subset of what's generally called UGC, but the same semantic struggles still apply.

I'd love to ditch UGC, but I haven't seen a replacement term that is so much obviously better that it warrants making the switch. There *is* value in using terms that have a common ground of understanding, even if the term is not completely ideal.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Walker

Hi Scott,

I do agree with you that there is value in using terms that have a common ground of understanding, but in my more philosophic moments, I wonder if by perpetuating these terms, people come to understand the thing that's being talked about in different ways. I'm thinking here of an analogy with the term "viral media" that Henry Jenkins and others have so rightly pointed out is an inapt analogy that often leads to profound misconceptions. I'm choosing an extreme example here on purpose, but I think talking about user generated content could be just as damaging in some ways.

While I can understand that term in the context of, say, product reviews written by Amazon customers, tips left by people who check in to Foursquare or other similar "by-products" of the user experience that are actually useful and enrich the experience for others, I have never understood this term in the context of photo or video-sharing, and I certainly don't think of it when I think of fan created media whether it be fiction, videos, art or music.

I don't want to hash over old ground as I'm relatively new to the subject, but I don't understand why some well-understood terms that pre-date digital media aren't still appropriate. If the distinction is being made between commercial and non-commercial content, why not just say that? Talking about non-commercial media creators and producers doesn't seem so bad to me. If the distinction is traditional versus non-traditional or even grassroots why not talk about independent media creators? Indie music, film, publishing, art and design are all well-known, and I don't think those terms are always applied to professionals only. If the distinction is around copyright, then I admit it's not as easy, but actually, grassroots isn't a bad term either, now that I think about it, and that might be applicable. There's always individual, but as Ann says, that seems to exclude collective efforts.

Anyway, I agree it isn't an easy question. Maybe it's just not possible to have one term that can refer to everything.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlaura

That's exactly why I'm torn about UGC. I know it's not ideal, I know it's probably destructive in the long term.

But I need a term I can use *now* that doesn't suffer from the same issues and can be used without having to define the term in the same sentence I just introduced it.

And while I agree that using pre-digital terms sounds good, even they have issues. Just ask anyone what constitutes an "independent film" - it's not nearly as straight-forward as you would think. Grassroots has a ton of baggage that, I humbly propose, would actually muddy the waters even more.

I hate commenting without offering a solution, but I'm hoping that this discussion may yield that elusive new term we can all begin using and lets us all say fond farewell to UGC! : )

And yes, I love Jenkins' suggesting that spreadable is much more apt than viral. He and Xiaochang Li did some great work there.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Walker

I'm against perpetuating anything that's past it's point of use just because people are familiar with it. By all means, say "user" but follow it by a short explanation of why (fav alt term here) is better and more respectful. I think user should only be used where an effort at co-creation has failed or wasn't done well, or not really a reciprocal conversation.

On Jenkins, I wish his discussion of what "convergence" actually is got more public discussion.

Thanks Scott and Laura for keeping this conversation going!

April 21, 2011 | Registered Commenterannlytical

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