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There's Nothing Wrong with "User"

There's Nothing Wrong with "User" Brad Berens

What should we call those things that ordinary folks create that look like ads? I have many answers to this question, but the first is, anything but "consumer-generated content."

This may seem like the kind of niggling issue that only an editor would care about. It's not.

Elephant hunting-- be vewy vewy quiet.
Calling ads created by ordinary folks "consumer-generated content" -- as so many of us do -- is a mistake. It reduces the role of media/content/ad-creating people to mere consumption. Sure, the vast majority of the ad-watching populace still are classic consumers; if they exert any energy at all it is to avoid ads by changing a channel, TiVoing past or simply zoning out.

But when somebody takes the time to create their own ad, they transcend the word consumer, and we need to honor the work that they've done (for free, mind you) as well as recognize the dangerous power that such a message can carry on the other people out there watching ads.

To pick this apart, let's start with the recent back in April.)

Can we really regard the people who made those anti-Chevy ads as potential Chevrolet consumers?


Calling media-making people "consumers" reinforces an old-school marketing mentality in which the person receiving the marketing message is a passive target, sitting there, deer-like, just waiting for the mighty hunter to take aim, fire and orphan poor little Bambi.

It's time to pick a new metaphorical animal. Folks, if you've been reading iMedia for more than a week then you already know this: marketers aren't hunting deer anymore.

We're hunting elephants.

Many years ago, I spent a month on a photographic safari in Kenya with my family. We had the great luck to find a pod of elephants, including the cutest little elephant baby we'd ever seen. It was just a few months old, the size of a Shetland pony, and it frolicked about like a happy puppy.

Then our van got too close. Mama Elephant jumped in between our van and her baby, lifted her trunk and told us in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of there.

We got.

Elephants are normally slow, affable, friendly, interesting to look at and unthreatening, but trust me on this one: you never want to piss off an elephant. You'll get stomped in a hurry. The people we call "consumers" deserve the same respect. If we don't give it to them, we risk getting stomped.

The democratization of media has empowered anybody with a computer, an internet connection and an ounce of eloquence to raise their voices and be heard. Just ask Chevy. Just ask Dan Rather after the 2004 presidential campaign.

Referring to… um… well, citizen media makers as "consumers" helps us to forget this. It helps us pretend that we're in a now-vanished marketing paradise where we spoke and they listened, where we owned mindshare and consumers took dictation rather than participating in a conversation.

It doesn't work that way anymore.

So what do we call them? Users. At least for now.
At our recent iMedia Agency Summit at Amelia Island, my friend Joseph Jaffe and I went a few rounds on consumer versus user when it comes to content generated by, ahem, civilians. Joe doesn't like "user." It reminds him of the people who use illegal drugs. (Check out minute 55 of Joe's Across the Sound podcast #36 for an extended riff on this.)

Joe, with respect, get over it.

Even if we do carry the drug-association around with "user," at least that's more accurate. Mere "consumers" are passive, but drug users can be dangerous. Granted they can also be sleepy and silly and laughing at that funny parking meter at the corner. (Metaphorically, I prefer elephants.)

I'm not crazy about "user," but it's better than "consumer" by orders of magnitude.

Users have power. They are the ones who actualize things, who take potential and make it reality. Only by use does a space become a space, a house become a home, a product become a success. Just think: two of the most powerful -- and most cost effective -- kinds of marketing we have are word of mouth and pass-along… both depend on use. As an obscure seventeenth play called "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" once observed, "use makes perfectness."

Users are agents of change.

So when it comes to user-generated content, user-generated media and user-generated ads, let's stop calling these people consumers.

And if you can think of a better word than "user," please let me know.

Brad Berens is the executive editor for iMedia Communications. Read full bio.

A trusted advisor to companies of all sizes and a respected voice within the interactive media industry, Dr. Brad Berens has enjoyed a wide-ranging career that features storytelling as an organizing theme. These days, he divides his time among...

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