We live in an era of user experience of user centered design. We have a range of usernames for everything from Facebook to our banking websites. We tacitly sign End-user License Agreements as we click our way around the web. We know what to do because we read User Guides to figure out how to get our software to do what we want.
In short, we are all users.
The user has become such a central way of being that scholars are now reading the idea of the user into the past. In How Users Matter you can read about the users of everything from the Model-T, to Vaccines, to electric razors, to Minimoogs, to contraceptives.
The idea of the user as a way of being is so omnipresent that it is easy to forget that the idea of us as users has a history.
There must, in fact, be a historical moment at which we became users.
So when did we become users?
I don’t have an answer here. I’ve screwed around (hermeneutically) with a few online historical datasets and I would like to invite you (the user) to help interpret, consider and suggest next steps.
Asking a question to a graph
For starters I figured I would see how our various names have fared in the books of the 20th century. Below you can see a chart of the terms user, producer, consumer, and customer as they appear in the corpus the culturomics folks have given us to play with in Google n-gram. I am not a statistician. I will be the first to admit that I do not completely grok the details of their FAQ and supplemental documents. With that said, the naive interpretation of this graph shows the term user beating out producer and consumer in our lexicon in the lat 60s and beating out consumer in the early 80s. Does this tell us anything interesting? Despite all the limitations that come from this sort of data, are there any claims that this at least suggests to you? Are there other terms you think should be included in this? Please link any interesting related n-grams you generate in the comments.
Here is, more or less, the same trending line for user in the Time magazine corpus.
Colocating the User
Oh numbers, how you mislead! I can’t forget the drug users.
Thankfully, the really neat thing about Mark Davies corpora is that he lets you dig in and see what words are collocated within a specified number of words of the term you are searching for.
For example, when I search for user in the Time Magazine corpus I can find that “Drug” appears within 4 words of user 32 times. Beyond that, we can see which decades those locates happen in. Below are the collocates for nouns within 4 words of the word user. Beyond this we also find a bunch of other cool stuff. Again, as I am far from confident in making assertions about the implications of this kind of data, so I thought I would share it here, offer my naive read of it, and invite you (the user) to tell me what you think the data suggests. Here is the sheet of data I’ve lightly coded as either drug or technology uses of the term user. If you want to recreate this, just do a search for collocates of nouns either four before or four after the word user. You can see what that looks like in a search in the image at the bottom of this post. To talk about these results I have coded them into my own categories, those that have to do with drugs and those that have to do with technology. There are a few at the bottom that I haven’t categorized but which I would most likely call technology uses of the term. I have sorted them first by my categories and second by their frequency. As a last step I have flagged the cells in the sheet with two hits as a dark green and with more than that with a light green to draw attention to the patterns in the data.
The rise of user is also rise of drug user
Throughout the chart users are associated with the general idea of drugs and the specific terms for a range of individual drugs. This would be the user in the “Users are losers” construction. In any event, at least in the case of Time Magazine, the the growth around the term user happened for both drugs and tech at the same time.
The first technology related term that shows up is telephone
The first tech term to show up in this data is telephony. The first thought this suggests the user may have may have less to do with the rise of computing and more to do with the rise of networks. It may well be that we need the concept of the user to describe technology based networks.
Some open questions
- How to periodize the history of the user? I have provided a few pieces of evidence. It would seem that this evidence suggests….. If you have other examples of what this evidence might look like I would be thrilled to hear it. Are there other places one would look? Are their other explanations for this evidence?
- Was our relationship to technology different before we became users? Or, is the word the only thing that is new here? This is really the crux of the issue. Is this change in language simply an arbitrary neologism? Does the idea of us as users of technology shape our way of thinking about tools and technology? Has it changed how we think about technology? Lastly, what would the evidence look like that would help us answer this question and where would we find it?
Asside: if you want to recreate the search I did for collocates of nouns within four words of the term user it would look like this.