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Death Of The User

Death Of The User

Perhaps the most odious buzzword to emerge from the second coming of the web is “user-generated content” — my objection to this term is not just aesthetic (although it’s quite an ugly term). My real problem with user-generated content is the notion of a “user.” Rishad Tobaccowala of Denuo highlighted the unfortunate double meaning in his keynote at OMMA last fall:

User Generated Content: Since when did I become a heroin addict?


Treat me as a person, not some user, consumer, addict, shallow person defined by your brand or some other form of low life.

Worse than the negative word association is that the use of the term “user” in a media 2.0 context has completely obfuscated what is actually happening in media. Take this comment from Fred Wilson in his post on the end of page views:

Web pages themselves are changing, moving from pages controlled by publishers to pages controlled by users. I have no idea what percentage of total Internet pages viewed in the month of December are “controlled by users” (I’d love a number on that if anyone has it), but I am sure that percentage is increasing. I’d put some, but not all, social networking pages in this category. All blogs for sure. And the growing category of personalized start pages (Google, MyYahoo, Netvibes, etc) is a big part of this trend.

In most cases “users” in Media 2.0 are defined as the “people formerly known as the audience” or the “users” of Web 2.0 applications, including social networking sites like MySpace. The problem is that “users” are defined in opposition to “publishers” — as if people who create “blogs” are still in some lesser, “other” category, below and apart from traditional publishers like, uh, Yahoo.

Well, no. There is a revolution in media because people who create blogs and MySpace pages ARE publishers, and more importantly, they are now on equal footing with the “big,” “traditional” publishers. There has been a leveling of the playing field that renders largely meaningless the distinction between “users” and “publishers” — we’re all publishers now, and we’re all competing for the finite pie of attention. The problem is that the discourse on trends in online media still clings to the language of “us” and “them,” when it is all about the breakdown of that distinction.

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Despite my objection to his use of “users,” Fred’s observation about trends in page views is an important one — smaller publishers, i.e. NOT USERS, do likely account for an increasing percentage of all page views. But I think it’s essential to recognize that the difference here is one of SCALE, not KIND. Traditional publishers who use cumbersome, out-dated multi-million dollar content management systems to publish on the web are also “users” of these over-priced systems, but they are publishers first.

It’s time we start adjusting our taxonomy to recognize that the tools do not define the activity or the output or the people doing it. There are large publishers and small publishers. There are people who publish for friends and family, and people who publish for professional colleagues, and people who publish for a (relatively) broad consumer audience. The revolution is that ANYONE can publish to the network and that anyone can leverage the power of the network.

That said, there is one respect in which some publishers are still “users” — when you publish to a platform like MySpace or YouTube, you cede control over the monetization of your publication. As I discussed in my last column, making money is certainly not the objective of everyone who publishes online. But regardless of financial motives, we are all seeking our share of attention — and anyone who publishes anything online is competing for their share.

So it’s time to throw off the mantle of “user” and be proud publishers — otherwise we’re going to get “used.”

Scott Karp is the publisher of the blog Publishing 2.0, which covers the convergence of media and technology.

View Comments (21)
  • Except that… they’re not publishers either. The difference *is* one of kind (and also, undeniably, scale). When a person ‘publishes’ a blog post, they are undertaking a very different process, for very different motivations, with very different expectations. The imprimatur that characterizes publishing is wholly lacking in the blog post – and it is just that difference that gives the blog post a difference in voice, a difference in perspective. It genuinely *is* the user, speaking.

    p.s. the vote of ‘2’ on the site load was because of something from Flickr that dragged on far too long…

  • Stephen,

    What exactly is the “imprimatur that characterizes publishing”? When I publish something on my blog, am I a “user”? A user of what? WordPress? What difference does that make? What WOULD qualify me as a publisher?


    “Readers” of what?

  • ‘Odious’ is exactly the right adjective. It suggests that one is at the end of a mass product line and certainly not ‘creating’ anything. With terms like these- it’s no wonder so many people feel alienated by the new media lingo and reject the whole deal, at least on an unconscious level, before even giving it a twirl.

    “User-generated content” soon to be condemned to hell (!!


  • Let’s posit that we have “professional” publishing and “personal” publishing. This suggests that there is some real or implicit set of standards that guide the former but not the latter. Scott, “Publishing 2.0” is among my favorites and I enjoy and learn from it all the time. But I assume you are not only publisher, but also the editor responsible for ensuring your own standards of accuracy, ethics and other values you choose to represent on your blog. This, I suggest, makes you a personal publisher.

    I think even the most flawed and biased “professional” publishers offer two values that personal publishers do not: (1) disciplined, organized group processes of gathering, filtering and weighing that precede editing and production of the content (perhaps what Stephen suggested as the “imprimatur”); and (2) the ability to distribute to a defined audience at scale.

    The “defined” audience is what advertisers willing to pay premium rates want to buy. If I want to sell my product to people who manage their own small web operations, I’m more likely to target a message on a small business or webmaster site than by advertising broadly across all sites. Unless, that is, my goal is a metric whose success is dependent on pure performance, regardless of the specific audience members doing the performing (e.g., submitting a lead, converting, etc.).

    The idea of defined audience plus the current methodology of media planning and buying are why we still need “professional” publishers and page views and unique audience numbers from Nielsen and Media Metrix. Until something better comes along, buyers of defined audiences need a way to score audiences. This is the best we’ve got today.

  • We all became publishers when Xerox invented the copier. ;)

    Giving anything a name these days has a way of making it real. Just as we all have been given names at the time of our birth all things that are new will be given names also. Then the sub-names, nick-names, add-ons and slanderous names…

    Ambiguity in the meaning of a given name is a GIVEN fact of human communication.

    Nice post Scott.

  • I’ve always thought of bloggers as being “personal publishers”. But what of those earning from blogging (such as myself)? Would that make me a professional publisher, then?

  • The article has some good ideas, but I personally found that they were confused by the terminology. For example, I use WordPress for a French property blog. Following the definitions in the article above, does that make me a “French property blog user” (see name above)???

    Let’s get down to basics, and if the terminology doesn’t fit, creat and define the terms that do. The term “user” is just so meaningless in this context I think it adds nothing to the discussion except confusion.

    What is really happening is (following is not an exhastive list, just some examples):
    – We are moving away from a small circle of large publishers
    – A large number of small publishers are taking a big and growing share of the internet audience. They are enabled (among other things) by cheap access/storage and easy-to-use publishing packages such as WordPress. However, this makes them “publishers” or “small/independent publishers”, not “users”.
    – Sites, both large and small, are becoming more interactive. As part of this, an increasing portion of the content is developed/contributed by the users (readers, audience, clients, etc.) of these sites. As such, one can say that an increasing portion of the internet content is user defined and contributed. However, the parameters of such contributions are still very much defined and controlled by the site owners/managers.
    – There are also a number of sites which are primarily user/member driven. As an example, the social bookmarking sites. Although the framework and associated software/utilities are developed by the site owners, virtually all the content is provided by the site users. They also, to a large entent, drive the evolving framework of the site through their demand for various features.

    I have used the term “user” in the above. However, in my post I’ve shown what I meant by the term each time I used it.

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