Who is the ‘digital user’?

Elders from Turkey

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The first part of this phrase is easy to understand: “Digital” here refers to data that are recorded and stored electronically, using binary code. We can now create or convert written language, spoken language, static and kinetic images, and all sounds that are capable of being heard by human beings, in digital formats.

But who or what is is the “user”? It seems that the original use of this term was very specific, referring to a localised community of regular users or visitors to a particular library files in a building. Generally speaking, this community was reasonably homogenous: the community could be described demographically by age, socio-economic position, types of work or industry, lifestyle, age and so forth. It was therefore relatively easy to draw conclusions quite quickly about such large groups of people, and additionally, extrapolating what they are reading habits might be. For example, if there were large numbers of school children using a particular library, it was likely that there would be a heavy demand for those resources which supported and helped with homework assignments; a preponderance of elderly people might suggest a number of visitors who lingered, reading newspapers and magazines, and so on.

“User studies”, as an area of study within the discipline, has perhaps not receive the amount of attention that the discipline/profession should demand. Much early work in the discipline/profession involved solving the technical problems that were involved in handling physical collections.  But once upon a time, the librarian/scholar knew each and every one of his/her users personally, and knew what they knew or alternatively, what they didn’t know. There was no need for user studies. When libraries became very large indeed after the invention of printing, the librarian scholar not only lost touch with the content of all the books under his/her management, but also with the masses of users, or visitors, to the establishment.

As information professionals, we have an expressed dedication to providing a service: specifically, an information service. But how would we ever know whether the services that we provided were in fact appropriate for our users without knowing more about the users themselves?  For some time, user studies appeared to constitute rather general surveys of users, sometimes even based on personal and subjective observations, and these resulted largely in stereotypes. For example, ” Ten-year-old boys will read Harry Potter books”. My son didn’t.  Such user studies had the additional defect that they only looked at those who physically visited the library; not those who have never visited at all nor those who had others borrowing items on their behalf.  An “information user” was somebody who not only visited the library, but did borrow books and was an enrolled member; “information users” who did not visit the library or were not members of the library, as were not considered as such. The very thought that people were using information that lay outside the walls of the library was not even considered, and such information is regarded as of poor quality, if not subversive.

There are many problems with this construction of an information user. The most glaringly obvious is that there has been no research that I can find that examines the ways in which people use the information that they find in a library – or indeed beyond its walls – in their lives, apart, perhaps from Elfrida Chatman. There is an assumption that the use of this information has “good” outcomes, otherwise why would people want it? Furthermore, the library user is constructed as somebody who reads: reading itself, as an activity, is seen as “good”. It is logical though to suggest that some reading may be good, but some reading may be downright bad, and some may have no interest at all: a little like tasting the porridge of the three bears in the story.  Librarians have tended to avoid approaching this issue, which has resulted in a paradox: on the one hand, librarians have sought to provide a selection of materials that are deemed to be appropriate and good; on the other hand, it can be said that such selection involves a subtle, or surreptitious, type of censorship. But this matter can be addressed at another time.

Not only does the librarian – or indeed any other information professional – ignore any use of information or documents outside of his/her domain, but the user is also constructed as being deficient in some way. The main stimulus for anybody to visit a library or information centre of any kind is that they have an “information need”. In other words, they lack something which the librarian or archivist or  records manager can supply, and this is something that is found in a document. But usually all attention is paid to the document itself as a physical artefact: most commonly, a document is provided, or indeed, perhaps even more commonly, directions to a particular document given. How is an information need satisfied when one is given a classification number or an indexing term? This question doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody.

I must acknowledge that during the 1990s, interest developed in what is known as “information seeking behaviour”, or “human information behaviour”. Much of this research was based upon the theory of phenomenology, which contextualises the user within a particular milieu or context.  Unfortunately, there are so many factors or elements or phenomena or entities within anybody’s context at a particular moment, this research has, for the most part, been rather superficial. For example, a person is embedded in his or her own social construction: gender, for example, is largely understood to be a socially constructed phenomenon. The physical context, with its temperature and light variations, may have an effect on whether a person looks for information or not, or accept information or not. The organisational culture or climate will have an effect; as will the larger social environment, the philosophical and epistemological assumptions of both individual and his or her colleagues; religious persuasion; interest in the topic; personality and so on – the list is practically endless. It is certainly as complex as any given human being on this planet. And to add to this complexity and difficulty, context or situations trial resumed and variable, so that anything that may be true on one particular space – time continuum, may arguably not be true in another.

Working out who precisely a ‘digital user’ or ‘digital information user’ is,has become a matter which deserves focused attention. Now that everything except smell and taste can be digitised, information (as binary data) can easily be transmitted far and wide. This means that anybody can access nearly any information at nearly any time, should they have the correct equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. In other words, the digital user is as diverse as the people who live on this planet. The digital user or digital information user cannot be construed as a composite or average of human characteristics even, because of the great diversity that we find in our species at many levels, as indicated.  Add to this some of the problems identified above: the construction of the user as needy, the lack of knowledge concerning what people do with information once they get it, or even whether they understand it or not, we can rapidly realise that the global access to information presents a number of challenges. Not least amongst these challenges, is that of language: this is a quite obvious marker of culture. But beyond language, for example if we were to speak symbiotically, there are many images, icons, sounds, colours and so forth which, when represented digitally, may have quite different possible interpretations for different people at different times.

How then are we going to provide information services for people who we have not only not even met, but possibly cannot even imagine that exist? For those of us framed within our own contexts of space, time and culture, it is hard to imagine somebody who exists for the entire lives in a context that is quite different from our own. I am fortunate enough, for example, to live in a soundly constructed house which has clean running water, electricity, space and privacy, and a garden. I have easy access on made roads to schools, hospitals, and shops – as will as any other facility that I might need, such as a gym.  I have also been lucky enough to have received an excellent education at school and at university, I have travelled extensively, I can speak several languages, and have always been a voracious reader.

I therefore find it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine myself to be a woman who lives in the mountains of Lesotho, who is illiterate, who speaks only Sesotho, and must walk for hours carrying her sick child to a clinic which is visited by a nurse once a week. The same woman has no easy access to clean water, no electricity, and has experienced little beyond her own experience and the experiences that others have had – others who have told her their version of the events that they have experienced. And this woman is not, and may never be, a digital information user. But assuming that one day, using open access information sources and wireless technologies, and hoping that she or her children will be literate, she will be – even if secondhand through her children. With all due respect, her information needs will be not only substantially different from mine, in terms of what we find interesting or useful, but there will undoubtedly be a number of other differences and distinctions, but I cannot really understand how different, nor what I need to do, as an information professional, in order to solve any information problems that she may have.

While much important work has been done thus far on the development of digital information resources, most of it is predicated upon the assumption that the digital user will be a Minority world inhabitant: a person who is literate, fluent in possibly more than one language, highly educated on a comparative basis at least, and wealthy enough to have the equipment and connections. This person will also have social demands placed upon him or herself: his/her information needs may or may not be related to how to make a living, how to improve one’s financial and social position, how to survive, or even how to enjoy leisure time.

Who do you think the digital user is?  Is it someone you know, or someone you’ve never met?  How should your professional relationship be shaped?

I look forward to your comments as ever. All the very best from Sue.


About Susan
Converging ICTs, multidisciplinarity, making knowledge and making meaning.

7 Responses to Who is the ‘digital user’?

  1. Claudia Koltzenburg says:

    there is a discussion going on (project planning) for a “Digital Public Library of America” where there is now a statement on users, too:

    “A DPLA has multiple uses, not distinct users

    Rather than defining public and academic users as separate entities, a DPLA should operate under a framework that allows for a range of different use cases.”


    • Federico Monaco says:

      This is interesting heading to a use/user debate:
      I still don’t know where it might bring exploring such debate, but i think it should be useful if we want to understand why and what people do with information, networks and techmology. Multiple uses may belong to a single same user, while many users could constitute a cluster by adopting and holding through the time a certain style in using a device, or accessing a DL. This is a good start up: the tension between use and user in digital practices not forgetting the social, of course!

  2. Claudia Koltzenburg says:

    ciao Federico

    in your example of airports you conclude:
    > there passengers are part of the network and the network is made to make passengers such). Then it is useless thinking of users without what they are using.

    hm, not sure if I agree with you on this last statement, let me play around with and see what emerges:

    it seems to me that
    > professionals engaged in performing better service

    might also benefit from indeed thinking about the services that users are not using

    and I think you are right in pointing out that those who create and offer a service may never know for sure why a certain service is used or not or – and this is the new point I wish to contribute – which user is actually on the brink of starting to use something but a certain final barrier is perceived by the user (and not overcome) that would otherwise turn this user into a “user” (someone who leaves traces of a fully-fledged use case, I mean).

    here, some examples might be generated from registration or payment processes where a break-off rate can be determined easily because of an underlying use case that is structured by a step-by-step chain.

    more interesting, I think, are cases where no such steps can be determined by online traces, i.e. cases in which it remains indeterminable how a decision process on the part of the user came about

    can anyone point me to any studies that are looking into the in-between area of yes and no in user behaviour? I’d be interested in learning more about the methods used for such in inquiry

    • I agree with Federico that the meaning of the word ‘users’ implies that they are using ‘something’ – some entity or phenomena. In your following sentence, you mention ‘services’ as the object of use. To my mind, the information professional needs to consider this very carefully: if it is ‘services’, is it the services offered by the staff, facilities, objects held in a building, or perhaps the catalogue and other guides to collections? If a service is that offered by a staff member, is it reference, circulation, filing, shelving, control?
      I am more of the view that ‘users’ are NOT those that enter an information centre, nor even those that use the catalogue or files or any mediating technology, or ask for assistance, or even those that locate a document and take it with them. For me, a ‘user’ is a person who is able to make meaning of the information that s/he identifies, locates and ‘reads’ (or listens to, or views, as the case may be).
      This position does, however, leave your primary question unanswered: how do we – as ‘service providers’ in a broad sense, really know which services (or entities or phenomena) are not used, and why they are not used.
      I am afraid I am not aware of an research on the ‘in-between’ area that you describe, although some has been done on the aspect of serendipity: people finding useful things completely by chance.
      Looks like WHAT the user uses is a complex notion which must be unpacked further, and this is attached to the notion of what we consider USE to be. Furthermore, as Federico suggests, can we gain a complete understanding of them only in their role as ‘users’, rather as three-dimensional real people who may have a myriad of different roles at different times.

  3. Federico Monaco says:

    Thanks. Understanding how networks of use and people (users) is a real headache for me! Digital contexts of work and users both come at once; the simple social construction paradigm does not fulfill explaining why we become users and why what we reify comes to affect our daily lives. I’ll work on it.

  4. This is a wonderful response, Federico – providing a great deal of food for thought. I would like to answer more fully at a later date, but for the meantime, I like the idea that both ‘digital’ and ‘user’ are socially constructed concepts.

  5. Federico Monaco says:

    I hope my comment may come useful for the debate, even though probably I”ll rise more problems than solutions as i think is important to move from naive representations to careful descriptions of practices. I see many layers and areas to work on when we speak about “digital users”. A first problem may consiste in the concept of use: when do someone use something? For instance borrowing a book from a library, or downloading an e-book from a digital library may be considered using such object (the book, or e-book)? Even including case studies of ab-use, mis-use and re-use might be helpful in exploring the unstudied senses of use…Then another problem is in classifying one-time users and regulars, or innovators, early adopters and laggards (digital libraries’ users) as it depends on the grid we use to measure scales of behaviour. Other subject consists in seeing digital user as simply someone retrieving information from computers in network, but the critical mass of users may influence how technology is constructed, what trajectories it may have in the future, where anyway different uses from different users may create further problems in getting to a simple conceptual frame. “Digital” and “user” can be also seen as terms, meanings and categories constructed by different social worlds at work (designers, users, stakeholders, funders, politicians, gatekeepers, amateurs, etc..), or both may be the result of a co-construction, or even of a co-production. The constructionist paradigm can be helpful in understanding the existence of users, but still cannot explain how much such users influence and determine use and technologies. Is it a weak construction we are talking about (an influence from the users), or a strong one (everything exist because of users using it)? Another key issue comes fron understanding users as real persons, or just as representations we get from a peculiar social behaviour on line? Even though we can measure behaviour by number of accesses, or of clicks, we shouldn’t forget we do same things for different reasons and this heterogeneity is not easily measurable. Such heterogeneity and wide usability offered by the networks make people users (an example and a metaphor of networks are airports; there everything must work: reservation systems, travel agencies, jets, pilots, hostesses, check-in labels, hand luggage sizes, airplane doors, control towers, weather forecasting, luggages locks, food catering, luggage claim areas, passport controls, etc..there passengers are part of the network and the network is made to make passengers such). Then it is useless thinking of users without what they are using. Focusing on users is important, but as users are real and produce effects in the real world (even if we call it virtual) we should consider each different situation and context of use as particular experiences producing structures meaningful to them and for professionals engaged in performing better service. I must confess i get good hints for my studies about users when i play the user myself, when i become the user..:learning by use!

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