Users, Visitors, Community Members?

I’ve been steadily making progress on my current project for about 8 weeks now, and I find myself writing a lot about the people who use digital public history websites and applications. The problem is, I can’t figure out what to call those people.

The traditional options include user, visitor, and audience. To me, user and visitor seem unnecessarily vague, but audience is even worse because it bakes in a sense of passive reception that just doesn’t reflect reality when so much of the web is interactive and participatory.

Given this dissatisfaction, I turned to the OED thesaurus for a little inspiration. Sadly, I found none.

  • user: handler; utilizer
  • visitor: comer; repairer; resorter; visitant; guest; caller
  • audience: spectators; listeners; viewers; onlookers

There are several other options that arise when we consider the idea that we might want to create dialogic experiences with our digital public history work:

  • partner
  • participant
  • contributor
  • volunteer
  • community member

Of these, I like community member best, but that doesn’t leave much room for the notion of reaching new people who might not already be invested in the work.

In the course of a twitter conversation, Tom Scheinfeldt suggested that he is trying to use “people-first” constructions: people who engage with the site; people who contribute content; etc. That definitely has some appeal — to talk about what people do, rather than who they are — but I worry that it’s too easy to lose the essential role that social context plays in shaping the ways that those people interact with work.

So, I offer this question to the wisdom of the crowd (another term I don’t like).

How should we refer to the people who engage with our digital public history work?

Comments 13

  • OMG! I struggle with this almost as much as I struggle with what to call our industry/industries! (GLAMs? Memory institutions? Cultural Heritage Institutions? Heritage Institutions? Knowledge Institutions? Civic institutions? Research organizations? Crap!)

    I don’t have a magic bullet, and I’m guessing you do what I do, which is to kinda vary things, using a different strategy and emphasis in each particular piece of writing depending on who it’s for. And to deal with the inherent limitations and contradictions of each term.

    An essay for conservative, notSoDitiallySavvy audiences – – I’ll use familiar terms (audience, visitor) but I’ll also talk specifically about how much bigger those concepts are today, to get readers to think in a new way about what a “visitor” is, and can be, now.

    Sometimes I’ll use something verbose like “members of the community” at the top of a paragraph, then revert to “members” or “the community” down below. (I try to get the language out of the way up top, and then decay the use of terms while amping up conceptual complexity towards the bottom.)

    For the digerati, I’ll usually lead with the most technically accurate term (often users, participants, or community) because I can trust that audience to read between the lines a bit more.

    I also use the term “constituents” a lot, when addressing institutions. I like the concept that we, in the Institutions, owe a debt to – – have a social contract with and responsibility to – – Those People Out There. And the constituent institution relationship a sort of read-write feel to it, and that’s a good thing.

    Don’t forget “The people formerly known as the audience.” (Usually attributed to Jay Rosen.)

    I love Scheinfeldt’s “people first” construction. That’s super! But very gummy – – a lot of words. (That’s why I use the term “GLAM” a lot – – even though I hate the sound of it. Brevity.)

    Denizens of cyberspace?

    …But you know all this!

    – – Mike

  • Oh… I like “constituents.” I haven’t tried that one.

    Also, the explicit first, short-hand later method might really be the only way to go.

    I’ve just got an entire module focused on “publics” and I’m running out of respectful, specific ways to talk about those folks.

  • …Maybe use “publics” for a while, then use a convenient ASCII character or emoticon as an abbreviation. I think the symbol Prince used is available too.

  • Of the alternatives that you listed, I like “participant” the best.

  • I would love if all of those members of those publics were actually participants.

  • I’d argue that user is necessarily vague, and useful for that reason. As you say, they’re not all contributors, or members of the community, and nor do they need to be. Users allows the leeway to account for all types of interactions with a site, from passive visitor to energetic contributor, but it imparts a level of agency at the same time.

    This can obviously be drilled down into increasingly narrower groups, as you outline here and on twitter, but as far as a catch-all word I’m not sure you’ll beat user, in part because it’s pliability is a strength in this instance.

  • That’s the most reasonable argument I’ve seen for user.

    In other spaces, some UX and content strategists have argued that “user” is de-humanizing (See for example, Joe Leech’s post in response to the twitter convo). I find this convincing, too. I’d like to err on the side of agency.

  • Sharon: Thanks for the shout out.

    Mike: I agree the people-centered language makes for gummy prose, and I’m all but certain I’ll fall back on “users” after a few months or years of grappling with that gumminess.

    BUT, I think what’s important–and what sets our work in the cultural heritage and education fields apart from work in some other parts of the tech sector–is that we grapple. We grapple with this stuff, not necessarily to find a solution, but because grappling is the right thing to do. As in so much of our work, here the process is product.

  • Hmm, there’s maybe something to that, but I have two main issues with that post.

    First, he says, “Before computers the term ‘user’ was used by one type of industry.” That’s an interesting historical note, but we are living in the time of ubiquitous computing. The meanings and connotations of the word have been changed at this point; eg Wikipedia

    Second, I’m not sure there’s any meat to “The term ‘user’ suggests a one way interaction. A person who uses something. There’s no two way dialogue.” Any tool I use has some sort of effect on me, whether it’s physical or mental, as well as an effect on something else. Is a carpenter dehumanized by using a saw, hammer, etc to build a table? Yes, there is the word carpenter, which denotes a user of certain tools towards certain ends, but I’d argue that’s what user has morphed into. User used to be preceded by “computer” in the past, but because of the aforementioned ubiquity, is no longer necessary. I’d say the humanity is implicit, you are the person using the computer, site, etc. Though I can see where the concern stems from, I don’t think traditional usages outweigh the current ones at this point.

  • How about ‘patron’? One definition I found “a person who supports with money, gifts, efforts, or endorsement an artist, writer, museum, cause, charity, institution, special event, or the like”

    Only downside I see with it is the implication that they are supporting via money – but I think it still works.

  • @Ken, my concern about audience is about the one-way flow of information. I don’t feel that way about user. I’d really just like something more specific. But, as I noted on twitter at some point, the real problem here is that all of the specificity only makes sense in the context of particular projects and particular content. So, perhaps, I’m going to have to make due with vague.

    @Jeanne, “patron” has a long and venerable history with libraries. There might be some promise there.

  • Great question, hard problem.

    I agree with Ken that user can still do a lot of work for you. And then drilling down based on context and purpose. And, you lay it all out in the intro.

    Although…I think I use “user” more when I’m talking about the technical side of the project’s interface, design, and testing. Not necessarily the final groups of people using and interacting with the site once it’s out in the world.

    For non-digital public history projects, the people involved are referred to by different terms depending on the activities. There are audiences for things like re-enactments or museum theater, lectures. There are subjects, interviewers for oral history projects. There are community members, activists, and artists contributing to projects like the UTEP’s Museo Urbano.

    Since you’ll be talking about DPH projects in general, but then also drilling down to different categories of projects that are designed for different purposes it seems reasonable that you can talk about those different kinds of users who experiences represent different activities.

  • As a digital native (I first connected to the internet in 1989 when I was 4, it was a big deal) I’ve grown pretty comfortable with the term user. I’ve been a “user” my whole life. Even in the gaming space I rarely refer to myself as the “player.” That applies especially to the MMORPG genre where one takes on another life as their own temporarily.
    I understand your desire to be more inclusive and include a two-way (or multi-way) relationship with the end user. In my experience, the community dictates its role as a creator/provider/user/applicant/person in a fairly organic fashion.