Of consumers and content
Can certain terms colour the way we think about users of technology?
Blogs | 20 Mar 2012 :
There are a few words I hear bandied about with great frequency in today's IT industry that I believe we really should be more circumspect about using.
Consumer, for instance, is a word we use far too widely and in a very lazy manner. Why should we call someone who buys a notebook from a shop a consumer and someone who buys it for use in their company a user? They're both users aren't they? Are we saying people who buy a notebook from a retail shop aren't going to be doing anything with it but consume?
Are they not going to write something with it or send e-mails or make their own films or music? If not, why are they buying notebooks or PCs at all? They might as well buy a very basic tablet that they can stream music and films to, browse the Web with and read e-mails. That's what consuming means after all. And does a business user only ‘use' his or her device or do they also ‘consume' stuff with it?
My biggest concern with the word "consumer" is it's a label that implies a level of passivity about the person it describes. Users are active because they are using something but consumers are passive because they just sit there and consume stuff which is fed to them. Is this really the kind of terminology people in the IT industry want to use to describe people who buy their stuff? Wouldn't it be far better to call them users or customers?
Talking of consumers, the other word I find deployed far too widely nowadays and in a way that demeans the whole process of human creativity is ‘content'. Too often, you hear people talk about content creators, or of companies delivering content to consumers. What do they mean? Well, by their definition, Shakespeare was a content creator and Hamlet is content. So is War & Peace, the Bible, the poetry of WB Yeats, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, TS Eliot.
Films, TV shows, music, video are defined as content, but so is the information a company provides on its web site, such as a list of press releases and case studies or contact details. Can we really use the same word to describe company information on a web site as we would for King Lear or Citizen Kane?
From an IT perspective, I see how it can make sense to label the words or pictures or film that make up a work of literature, art or film as content because a software programme might view it with no more discrimination than it would a marketing flyer. But there is a remarkable difference in how those pieces of content have been created and the value we assign to them.
The issue here is that if the industry is trying to sell people the idea of uploading and downloading things from the Internet, be they film, music, photos or books, it might be better advised to talk to them in a language they understand and appreciate. If people in the IT industry label all these things as content with no discernible attempt to differentiate between them, they run the risk of de-personalising computing and the Web at the very time when they're trying their best to sell it as something that can provide a completely personal experience.
It's easy to forget just how important language and vocabulary can be as a weapon for selling products and customer experience. We use vocabulary to assign labels to things and those labels come with emotional markers that human beings can interpret in positive or negative ways. People in the IT industry may wish to use words like "consumer" or "content" when they are talking among themselves, but they should be careful that the thinking behind those labels doesn't colour the way they approach their customers once they are outside the bubble of their own industry.
Whatever anyone says, people don't really like to be called consumers. In fact, I'd venture to say very few people ever think that when a company spokesman (or a politician for that matter) talks about consumers, he or she is referring to them. If, however, the reference was to customers (or voters in the case of the politician), people would immediately assume it related to them.
So now you know, I am not a consumer and I am not content.