In the lone footnote of his latest post, Ian Betteridge bemoans the use of the term ‘users’ for people making use of software:
I’ve always hated calling people users rather than customers. You owe “users” nothing. You owe your customers everything.
I remember seeing this complaint years ago. ‘Why do we refer to people with a term that comes from the illegal drugs trade?’ was a common refrain.
It’s true, people taking illegal drugs are sometimes referred to as ‘users’. But only really in 70s cop shows. I grew up on Starsky & Hutch and Kojak as much as the next guy my age, but I don’t look to them for appropriate linguistic terms today.
More to the point, the term ‘user’ doesn’t come from the drug trade, it went to it. The term just comes from the English language: from the verb ‘to use’.
Anyone who uses any item is a ‘user’ of that item. If I cut a slice of bread, I’m a user of the bread knife. If I go into the garden to gather the still-uncollected autumn leaves, I’m a user of the rake. And so on.
Ian prefers the term ‘customer’, and that’s fair enough if you bought the item in question. But he also writes about using Obsidian, which is a piece of software that is available at no cost. I use it every day, but I’m not a customer of the people who make it. Ian may pay them, as it’s possible to do for certain features, or just to support them. But there are plenty of examples of software for which that is not the case. It’s just free. You’re not a customer of Linus Torvalds when you use Linux, for example.
Anyway, my feelings are almost the opposite: being a user — or a reader or a listener or viewer, for that matter — is the truth, is the state that has power, has meaning. Not the tawdry commercial act, the mere fact of when or whether we bought a thing.