Tuesday, March 27, 2007

No more User Generated Content on LibraryThing

Did that get your attention? I mean no more using the term "User Generated Content."

I hated "users" already, and have largely dropped it in favor of "members," "people" or "you." "Users" is too impersonal, and as some anonymous genius* said, the only other industry that calls its customers "users" is not one we want to emulate.

Anyway, there's an excellent IT Conversations podcast with Doc Searls (Cluetrain Manifesto co-author), run by Phil Windley, where Doc expands on his hated of the term "User Generated Content."
Doc Searls: One reason is I'm not just a user. I've never like the term "user" either. I realize there's no better term. It's like "content." You need an encompassing word that stands for everybody who's sitting at a computer or using a telephone or whatever the "usage" happens to be.

But on top of that, I don't like the term "generated." I don't generate what I create--I write it. "Generating" is something that an inanimate device does. It's not something that a person does.

And I don't produce "content." I never sit down at the keyboard or pick up a camera or draw something thinking "I'm going to generate some content here." Nobody is motivated to generate content. Content is a measure of volume. It's packing material. It's container cargo. It's not creative work.

And "user generated content" is the kind of thing only an exclusive, controlling producer can say. And to hear people in the Web 2.0 world or the online world saying "Oh, we need more user-generated content here!" It's that you're adopting the langauge of the old world when you do that. ...

It's not just about packing stuff into a vehicle that's a medium. I don't even like the term "medium" very much any more.

Phil Windley: Or "delivering information"—that's another one.

Doc Searls: Yeah again, it's the container cargo shipping version of the world--that assumes a distance. It assumes that you're way over there and I'm way over here, and I need to "scale" a whole pile of you and I got to scale it up in way that I can package it up and I'm going to pack a lot of advertising around it because I can sell that shit. Oh, come on.

I mean, there's nothing wrong with doing a business with that. But at least know what you're doing. What you're doing is to some degree diminishing the profoundly individual and deeply personal and socially transforming nature of the best of what that stuff is. ...

When you say "user generated content" you are now subtracting out all the value of everything everybody's doing.
The relevance to LibraryThing is obvious. We should never adopt the "containing shipping" model of what our members are doing, even in how we talk about it.

But I think there's some special relevance to libraries too. Uncertainty about "user generated content" among librarians centers around issues of authority, certainly. But I suspect the mixture of impersonal technology and impersonal personality is also toxic. After all, most librarians have jobs that put them in frequent, meaningful contact with their patrons**. Librarians value the patron's role in the library, and I suspect that, like teachers and students, many librarians learn from their patrons every day. I suspect there would be less resistance to "user generated content" in the library if it sounded less like communal sausage production.

We in the "Lib 2.0" world gain nothing by using the language of language of container ships to describe the writing, knowledge and opinions of patrons.

*Help? Paul Graham?
**A good term.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Dystopos said...

So what term do we like? Social infocapital? Altruinfo? Communal data? Shared knowledge? Connectopia?

3/27/2007 8:02 PM  
Blogger RJO said...

Yes, the classic (good) terms for people who avail themselves of libraries are "patron," "reader," and "borrower." Some libraries use the word "user," which is terrible.

(And don't get me started on people who talk about "the educational pipeline," within which I always imagine students as crude oil or sludge.)

3/27/2007 9:43 PM  
Blogger Jacob said...

My academic library (of which I sit on the advisory committee) is increasingly using the word "customer" or sometimes "user," both of which are infuriating, because they connote a shift to a very business-y model of running a library. (This is of course from the same people who think that the most important parts of the library are services, computers, and a snazzy new building--and thus systematically underfund acquisitions and preservation.)

3/27/2007 10:27 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

>So what term do we like?

Tags, ratings, reviews, opinions, comments.

I don't actually think UGC is a useless term. But it smooshes. Apart from depersonalizing it, I think we're only just stumbling toward an understanding of how and why users "generate" this stuff. I've tried previously to explore why tagging works in some circumstances and not in others, and similarly on some email lists why OCLC Worldcat can't get people to give them reviews, for love or money.

Early on after LibraryThing was founded, a company came to me wanting me to evaluate their business plan prior to pitching it to some VCs. (That whole process is endangered too, but...) Anyway, I can't remember and am surely not allowed to mention details, but it had something to do with a media cateogry, and the plan was to create a walled-garden which "users" would fill. The words "tags" and "wikis" were thrown about as if their invocation was all that was needed—the magic pixie dust of the Web 2.0 era as surely as Java and XML were of an earlier time. At no point did it seem to cross their mind that "users" were not going to create the site for them unless they had a really good reason to do so.

So maybe all this talk of user generated content is not only insulting, it's dangerous to the health of your company :)

3/27/2007 10:36 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I should add that "user generated data" might be a good, suitably bloodless term for data like book-to-book correspondences, book-additions by month and other data that can be mined from LibrarThing member actions, but that isn't "created" in the creative sense. That data is, we know, quite useful.

3/27/2007 10:53 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Hey now: don't dis cargo containers. In fact, if you live in the Bay Area, and need to rent cargo containers, send me an Email, next buisness day delivery of containers for all your job-site storage needs...

More on topic: While I agree that "user generated content" is an ugly term, it does serve as a useful descriptor for the concept. I fear anything else will sound even more like a clumsy euphemism...

3/27/2007 11:40 PM  
Anonymous SilentInAWay said...

How about "emergent" data/knowledge/etc.?

3/27/2007 11:55 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

>I fear anything else will sound even more like a clumsy euphemism...

No, I agree. I'm not actually trying to play language police, just to notice how we've suddenly got this phenomenon that changes everything, and we're implying that the only thing that's changed is the "generator."

Anyway, I favor calling writing writing, or reviews or tags or whatever. It's not really all the same crap anyway.

As for containers, pardon the dissing. I'm no enemy of free trade, I'll tell you that.

3/28/2007 8:29 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I was just teasing about the cargo container thing. Your metaphor was apt, even if not everyone finds containers as fascinating as I...

3/28/2007 12:57 PM  
Anonymous sunny said...

> anonymous genius*

David Pogue :-D

3/28/2007 4:32 PM  
Anonymous sunny said...

Although... ;-)

3/28/2007 4:36 PM  
Anonymous SimonW11 said...

Hmm "User generated content" Call it stuff.

And dont talk about the type of Stuff you need.

talk about the type of stuff people want.

3/29/2007 3:43 AM  
Blogger filmcoopblog said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/29/2007 1:21 PM  
Anonymous ExVivre said...

Hmm... I can only think of one other industry that calls its customers "users" and I think it's an apt description of LT fiends. The jittering, mumbling and pacing during LT downtimes is quite frightening... ;)

4/01/2007 3:32 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Your "anonymous genius" line is used by Edward Tufte in his talks, although I don't know if it originated with him. For example.

5/03/2007 2:32 PM  
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