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It’s not personal

Billy MacInnes shares a few thoughts on the industry’s love of the word ‘consumer’

Am I the only one who hates the way the IT industry uses the word “consumer” to refer to ordinary people? It’s not just the IT industry, of course, but I’m going to single it out because that’s where I first noticed it and where it continues to be used with great frequency.

What’s wrong with “consumer”, you might ask. Doesn’t that word perfectly match the description of  “a person who acquires goods and services for his or her own personal needs”? Seems fair enough – but is it?

We’re all used to the label being bandied around by businesses, politicians, economists and the media, but how many times have you heard someone call themselves a consumer? I don’t mind being labelled as someone who buys goods or services or a person who uses IT products, but I would never describe myself as a consumer. And I try not to lump other people under that term either.

If an IT company announces what it describes as a consumer device, service or software, I try to use different words, such as personal or home. Why is that? First of all, because it’s a more accurate way of describing it. The dictionary definition says a consumer is someone who buys goods or services “for his or her own personal needs”. I’m a personal buyer, I’m a personal user.

Consumer is a lazy definition. Whatever the dictionary might say, it’s not just those who buy goods and services for their own personal needs who “consume” things. Look up the definition for “consume”. Here are the most common: “To eat or drink”, “to engross or obsess” and “to use up; expend”. Unless we’re talking about industries related to food and drink, we can discard the first definition. The second has nothing to do with what we’re talking about either, which leaves us with the third: “to use up; expend”.

In that context, the label “consumer” should be spread far more widely than just to ordinary people. Because when it comes to using up and expending, it’s pretty obvious that businesses consume, governments consume, charities consume, organisations consume, which makes them consumers too. To paraphrase the old song: “You consume, I consume, everybody consumes.”

And no one can deny that businesses, governments, organisations and charities also buy goods and services for their own use. Which means the only difference between them and you and I is that word “personal”, which is doing a lot of lifting to make “consumer” refer specifically to people rather than more widely to organisations, businesses, and so on.

Logically, if the only difference is the word “personal”, then it makes more sense to use that word to describe ordinary people – as in personal user or personal buyer – than to tar them with the word “consumer”, because if you take the “personal” out of the definition of consumer, you get something that you can use for everybody and every type of organisation.

But if anyone thinks I’m taking this consumer stuff too far, it’s not personal. Really it isn’t. And that’s the problem.

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