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Since the advent of ubiquitous technology, the meaning of "user" is best know as the person sitting in front of the computer or similar device.

I am studying the history of computing and want to question the meaning of this word choice.

I understand two connotations available with this word:

Negative

User is a person that interacts with a thing. They are not able to control that thing (an operator). They are not the owner of that thing (an owner). They are not able to change that thing (a tinkerer). Basically, the user is restricted in what they can accomplish with the thing and they are powerless over it. A common phrase drug user also illustrates this context, drug users never compound or negotiate with drugs, they are only taking drugs and the all-powerful drugs are doing what they are doing.

In every context I can think of a more flattering word than user. A public transit user is a rider. A facebook user is a viewer or a poster, maybe even a member. If you are an advertiser then maybe they are a pair of eyeballs. A user of government services is a recipient. A user of a machine is an operator. But if a mouse is inside a maze then that mouse is a user -- the maze is utterly unaffected by the mouse and the mouse will only act inside the maze in the ways that the maze was designed for.

Neutral / positive

A user is the receipt of services from a machine/thing. Insofar as the receipt has the power to stop at any time, we assume the recipient is being served by the machine and they are receiving value and worthwhile experience.

Or if we are more dispassionate, there is a machine and a user. We don't really care much more than that. Basically a user is the one that sits on the chair in front of the machine. We might as well just call them a machine sitter.


Back in the 1950's before ubiquitous technology, which was the prominent connotation of the word?

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    I think you need to route the path through end-user. End-user seems to have been a term coined with regards to utility customers. It referred to the entity associated with an electric meter or water meter. User is basically a shortening of end-user back to just user, but retaining the restricted idea of end user. End user wasn't disparaging. – Phil Sweet Jun 24 '18 at 16:21
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    The only really negative use of user is drug user as a euphemism, at times, for a drug addict. I know of no other negative user. Except in the colloquial idiom: he or she is a user. Meaning: to use other people for one's own ends. – Lambie Jun 24 '18 at 17:24
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    "User" simply has too many different meanings and connotations to assign it a single "positive" or "negative" implication. – Hot Licks Jun 24 '18 at 21:25
7

Neutral user during the 50s

As far as I can see, all current senses of user were present during the 1950s.

To demonstrate this, here from the OED entry(paywalled) for the word user is a selected excerpt of citations from that decade (plus a few from immediately before and after):

  • 1946  Canad. Jrnl. Res. A. 24 20   The photographic plane must be selected according to a criterion that satisfies the user requirement.
  • 1949  Surv. Current Business May 17 (caption)    The seasonally adjusted 1948 year-end annual rate of power production, including user-owned plants, was about 350 billion kilowatt-hours.
  • 1950  Charleston (W. Virginia) Daily Mail 9 Feb. 17/1   Railways support..a user fee for use of public facilities.
  • 1950  Greeley (Colorado) Daily Tribune 27 Sept. 7/5   We favor the distribution of the burden for the maintenance and construction of the various highway systems..on the basis of user benefit.
  • 1950  Science 112 732/1   Analog machines..are enthusiastically supported by their users.
  • 1951  Brit. Jrnl. Photogr. Almanac 357   Since Ektachrome film is intended for user processing, the sale price does not include this service.
  • 1951  N.Y. Times 16 July 29 (advt.)    Both usership and brand awareness fall off in a sharp, regular descent as age increases.
  • 1953  Humboldt (Eureka, Calif.) Standard 24 Mar. 5/5   Ford is rolling with a new model that has had more than a year of user testing and time for refinement.
  • 1953  W. S. Burroughs Junkie vi. 58   The owner knew Tony had been a user and had told him to stay off the stuff or get another job.
  • 1954  Summary Rep. (Amer. Library Assoc.) 38   University libraries should be student and user-centered rather than material-centered.
  • 1957  Managem. Sci. 3 208   The user-oriented point of view is emphasized.
  • 1959  E. M. McCormick Digital Computer Primer x. 139   The number of instructions which can be executed by a computer represents a compromise between the designer’s and user’s requirements.
  • 1960  A. Ellis Essence of Beauty xii. 142   The characteristic a discerning and discriminating user looks for in a perfume..is what the perfumer calls ‘the soft odour note’.
  • 1961  ISA Jrnl. Mar. 60 (heading)    Better measurements through user feedback.
  • 1963  Communications ACM 6 88/2   ‘Official’ documentation has a certain amount of difficulty to it, which is particularly apparent with user-generated languages such as IPL.
  • 1963  Science 5 July 9 (advt.)    Kodak Ektachrome-X Film..offers practical possibility for user-processing.

Computer users

However, I can see nothing that indicates a positive or negative connotation outside the Burroughs quotation. The computing sense related to friendliness or unfriendliness did not arise until the 1980s:

  • 1981  Economist 16 May 55/1  The winners will be those whose machines do not bristle with difficulty and are ‘user-friendly’. Prestel, with its numerical codes, is, in the view of many, ‘user-unfriendly’.
  • 1994  .net Dec. 33/1  The Net, in general, is user-unfriendly.
  • 2001  F. Popcorn & A. Hanft Dict. Future 163  Technology that is too complex and appallingly user-unfriendly appears on the market.

Negative user during the 70s

The disparaging connotation of user seems to have arisen in the decade previous to that. “This word was coined around 1975 at MIT” can be found in The Jargon File’s entry for luser, which reads:

luser

A user; esp. one who is also a loser. (luser and loser are pronounced identically.) This word was coined around 1975 at MIT. Under ITS, when you first walked up to a terminal at MIT and typed Control-Z to get the computer’s attention, it printed out some status information, including how many people were already using the computer; it might print “14 users”, for example. Someone thought it would be a great joke to patch the system to print “14 losers” instead. There ensued a great controversy, as some of the users didn't particularly want to be called losers to their faces every time they used the computer. For a while several hackers struggled covertly, each changing the message behind the back of the others; any time you logged into the computer it was even money whether it would say “users” or “losers”. Finally, someone tried the compromise “lusers”, and it stuck. Later one of the ITS machines supported luser as a request-for-help command. ITS died the death in mid-1990, except as a museum piece; the usage lives on, however, and the term luser is often seen in program comments and on Usenet. Compare mundane, muggle, newbie, chainik.

4

My c.1959 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary gives the following definition for user:

User (noun):

  1. a person or thing that uses (from the primary sense of the transitive verb, use).

  2. in law, (a) the exercise of a right to use; (b) a right of use, based on long use (substantively from Old French, user, "to use".

The verb use is given as:

  1. to put or bring into action or service; to employ for or apply to a given purpose.

So, beyond the very neutral and narrow basic definitions of the terminology, it is only within the context of usage where we may be introduced to themes of morality or ethics requiring the application of judgment, whether positive or negative. Certainly, for one person to use another, or to use any living thing perhaps, or to overuse common resources -- might provoke negative feelings and judgments.

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LOSER has been a pejorative term for many years, long before computer people came along.

In Australia at least, a ‘user’ is someone who takes advantage of the help or generosity of others but never offers any in return.

He or she ‘uses’ them and thus is a ‘user’.

Has been so for many years, going back at least to the 1940s.

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