Why we won’t call you a ‘User’

April 17, 2012

In this excerpt of a talk on Beautiful Evidence,
Edward Tufte strikes on a moment of Insight: (at 2:16)

While explaining how to better design visualizations,
he is elaborating,

“…but we would rather have people…
    the viewers,
…ah…the users…”

and is suddenly struck by a realization.
He reflects:

“…that’s a strange word… ‘Users‘.
There are only two industries…

that describe their customers as ‘Users‘…”

One of those is the computer industry.

Tufte’s point illustrates an environment of separation
and alienation that distance software developers from
the constituency that they serve.

The labeling is important, since it embodies and brings
to life attitudes and roles that are not healthy for the
developers or the customers. In particular, it creates
an environment in which developers are masters and
users are passive recipients. This labeling and
separation must be broken for the greater good.
The way to break it is by building communities.

We have referred before to this as Opening Open Source.

A great source of wisdom on how to build communities
are Peter Block‘s writings, particularly his book:

Community: The Structure of Belonging

where he makes a point about how today many
organizations tend to turn “Citizens” into “Consumers”.

He points out that

“…the only way to build a better future is to create
a greater sense of connectedness and belonging.”



Following Block’s advice, to reach their full potential,
Open Source communities must depart from the
dichotomy of “developers” and “users,” and
focus on the general empowerment of
community members“.

Mr. Block continues:

“…building a social fabric
is more important that
coming up with a short term fix”


He further elaborates on how communities are built.

“…Communities are built when people’s

  • Gifts
  • Assets
  • Passions
  • Strengths
  • Capacities

are brought into the world.
…Community is not built with

  • More services
  • Better leadership
  • Better programs
  • Best practices,

These are all fine.
They are just not decisive,

they are not powerful.

Community is built when we decide
that gift-mindedness is at its core.”

To build long-lasting and innovative Open Source software we should
avoid using the labels ‘Users‘ and ‘Developers,’and rather think
in terms of ‘Community Members‘, all of whom bring their Gifts
to the community. They bring their assets, passion, strengths,
and capacities. They bring their bug reports, feature requests,
bug fixes, documentation, use cases, reports, questions, answers,
reflections, and experiences. All this together forms the Culture
of the community and creates its common fabric.

Community members are empowered by knowing that each one of them
has something to contribute. No matter how small, every bit, by the fact
of being given generously, becomes a fundamental gift.

The process builds a place that we all own, and for which we all are
responsible. When it gets dirty, it is up to each and every one of us
to clean it up. When it breaks, it is up to every one of us to fix it.
This is how we create a space where we are at home and in which
we belong.

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