What and who are we?

Out in the marketplace — that place where we do business as buyers and sellers — what and who are we, as individuals? Here’s a graphic that might help frame the what question:

Consumer vs. Customer ngram

It’s a Google Ngram that plots the prevalence of two terms — consumer and customer — in books between 1770 and 2004.

I suspect that the first little bump followed publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. The words consumer and consumers in sum appear forty-nine times in his text. The word customer appears four times. (Thanks to the Library of Economics and Liberty for making those searches possible.) Yet the two terms were used in about equal amounts through subsequent books, until the early 1930s, which was when mass marketing (with the help of broadcasting) began to prevail — and with it the sense that the masses, now generally called “consumers” were the populations that mattered. The term “customer” began to fall off for awhile there.

Things turned positive for customer in the mid-1990s, I suspect because the Internet and e-commerce showed up and got huge.

But both words are still with us, and are still usually used interchangeably.

Yet they do mean different things, and we should pull them apart.

Take Google, Facebook and Twitter, for example. Those companys’ consumers and customers are different populations. The consumers are the users. The customers are the advertisers. In fact, our consumption is what’s sold to advertisers. “If it’s free, then you’re the product,” the saying goes. It’s not exactly right, but it’s close enough to make some points, one of which is that your influence on those companies is far less than it would be if you were paying for services rather than merely using (or consuming) them.

On the who side, it helps to start with this fact: out in the brick-and-mortar marketplace, we are by default anonymous most of the time. That is, nameless. As it says in the Free Dictionary,

a·non·y·mous  (-nn-ms)


1. Having an unknown or unacknowledged name: an anonymous author.
2. Having an unknown or withheld authorship or agency: an anonymous letter; an anonymous phone call.
3. Having no distinctive character or recognition factor: “a very great, almost anonymous center of people who just want peace” (Alan Paton).

[From Late Latin annymus, from Greek annumosnameless : an-without; see a-1 + onumaname (influenced by earlier nnumnos,nameless); see n-men- in Indo-European roots.]

When we go into a store to buy a shirt or a screwdriver, or when we buy a meal at a restaurant, we usually don’t say “Hi, I’m Jill, I’ll be buying here today,” and the person serving us usually doesn’t call us by name, even after we’ve handed them a credit card.

In fact, the default protocol for merchants is to not to give special attention to the name on a credit card, because that card is for use in a payment protocol, not a social one.

Thus we tend to use names only when we need them, for example when the person behind the cash register at Starbucks needs to write a name on the paper coffee cup handed to the barista after you give your order. Or when we get into serious dealings, such as when we’re buying a car, and a personal relationship is required.

Note that when we do name ourselves, we’re the ones doing the naming. We don’t say, “Hi, the DMV calls me Paul,” or “The IRS calls me Cheryl.” We say, “I’m (whatever I choose to call myself).” The vector of identification goes outward from the self. The sovereign that matters, the one with sole volition, is the human self. Not an administrative entity. And not society, either. (Not unless we are a celebrity — meaning a person whose name and face are known to countless strangers, and who is therefore nonymous by default. Whether by intent or circumstance, the fact remains that celebrity is by nature a Faustian trade: anonymity is the price paid for fame. And it’s a high one. Even in polite places like Santa Barbara, where celebrities can wander about with a low risk of being bothered by strangers, people still notice. One is not anonymous.)

There is a distinction here too, and it is between what Moxy Tongue describes as one’s sovereign source and one’s administrative identities. One is ours, and the other isn’t. Put another way, one is human, and the other is calf-cow. In the latter we are the calves, and we are what the cows call us. I’ve written about this before; but the difference this time is that we’ll be gathering to talk about it, along with many other related subjects, at IIW, the Internet Identity Workshop, which runs Tuesday-Thursday of this week. Let’s pick up the discussion then. Moxy himself will be there to help lead the way.

Is there a connection between the customer/consumer distinction and the sovereign source/administrative one? That is, between what we are and who we are? Put them together and there’s a lot more to talk about. I believe there is much more autonomy and power to claim for ourselves — for the good of the whole marketplace — if we come to a broad understanding here.



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11 Responses to What and who are we?

  1. Doc, I have to say I think this particular line of enquiry doesn’t take us very far. Yes, the consumers of a product can be different to its customers. I buy dog food and my dog consumes it. But ultimately both terms are vendor-centric: they look at me from the point of view of the vendor – in the case of ‘customer’ one particular vendor.
    As you say, ‘the vector of identification goes outward from the self’. Very few of us really think of ourselves first and foremost as ‘a consumer’ or ‘a customer’.
    We think of ourselves as people. That’s where VRM should start.

  2. Stephen Wilson says:

    Very interesting post, thanks. It seems like a fresh look at context. I feel context gets lip service a lot of the time in identity discussions. The empirical difficulties we see in federated identity programs tells us that identity is even more context dependent than we might think. I’ll give some more thought before responding in more detail.
    But a quick note about the word “customer”. It’s prevalence shot up long before the Internet. I think it coincided with newfangled service oriented thinking and the management school driven fashion for seeing everything through the supply chain lens. As in the idea that doctors have customers not patients. The craziest instance I’ve seen was a brochure for a police fingerprinting system that described the scanning of “customers”. Hang on! Apprehended villains are not “customers” of the police! If we have to use the term in this context then let’s agree the cops’ customers are the victims of crime!
    So I’m afraid there is a degree of artificiality in the use of the words.

  3. Customer Driven and Lovin IT!

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Alan, Stephen and James.

    What matters is less what we call things than that distinctions are made.

    I worked in commercial broadcasting, directly or indirectly, for many years, during which I watched station after station, network after network, suffer the same problem that now afflicts Google, Facebook and every other enterprise on the Web for which those who use the service, and those who pay for it, are different populations. The former tend, over and over again, to get subordinated, disrespected, out outright screwed (it differs from one case to the next) — for the simple reason that the company is not financially accountable to them.

    Maybe “users vs. customers” is a better distinction than “consumers vs. customers.” I lean toward the latter. But I also have to acknowledge that “consumer” is a far less degraded term in Europe than it is in the U.S.

  5. alan herrell says:

    “If it’s free, then you’re the product,”

    A better analogy for this would be the poker meme.

    ”If you look around the table and can’t spot the sucker, than you are the sucker.”

    In the case of the so called “Social Networks”, your definition of customer is a little short. Hunters would be a bit closer to the mark.

    Consumers are targets with internet connections.

    I would like to make the argument that there is a parity in the relationship between the users of the web and these networks, but it falls down as soon as the tracking of our activities becomes known. It is not necessary to use these sites in a lot of cases, as links and beacons are proliferated on other sites and tracking continues.

    The argument that this is not malware, but merely marketing data, is bullshit in my view. History tracking is no different than keystroke logging, or user name password theft. The idea that they should be happy just visiting their sites instead of thieving from us like an electronic TSA strip search, genital grab shows how far the web has been corrupted by marketeers.

    The standard disclaimer by websites that they are pure as the driven snow, and it is those third party sites who pay them money are to blame is also bullshit, because this is not passive information, but aggressive theft and privacy violation. Because at the end of the day, this information’s value is not to enrich your experience on the web, but is all about spending the least amount of money to sell you shit you can probably do without.

    The worst part of this is that folks are doing it to themselves.

  6. Kevin Cox says:

    The main issue is who has access to your data. Some vendors are going to continue to try to keep data about each of us from each of us. In complex systems, systems behavior is driven by the rules embedded in the exchange of information between components of the system. Change the rules of exchange and the system changes. To change the bias in the system from making us consumers not customers all that has to happen is for consumers to be given access to the data held about them by vendors. The system will adjust itself as this is achieved vendor by vendor. Start with vendors who already try to do this. Trader Joe perhaps?

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  9. I think that the society has two words used as one and only those that do the marketing bit in a store/organization use the real meaning of both of this words.
    But I think that there is a purpose behind the decline and rise of that graph and that can be found in how companies work:

    First, there weren’t so many companies and everyone wanted to keep people coming back (the customers – a term that, in my opinion gives more respect to the buyer) so they spoiled a lot of them, now companies work on bulk and they are starting to disregard their clients although they are the ones that keep them alive and so the customer became known as the consumer

  10. Doc Searls says:

    Good point, Jucurile. I suspect your sense of timing is correct about what happened when and why, at least in the broad sense.

    I should make clear at this point that what we need is not to get people to stop using one word and start using another, but to understand more clearly what the differences are, why we have them, and how they keep us from thinking more deeply about what both words mean and how they work.

    And also, as Alan says, how both have commercial meanings — and that we are not always operating in a commercial context. Nor do we wish only to be commercial beings. Our lives are larger than that.

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