RE: Concept of "user"

From: Lavoie,Brian (
Date: Thu, Jul 29 1999

Message-ID: <>
From: "Lavoie,Brian" <>
To: "'VJ Cothey'" <>
Cc: "''" <>
Date: Thu, 29 Jul 1999 11:38:14 -0400
Subject: RE: Concept of "user"


Thank you for your comments. I see the point you're making, and the
potential for ambiguity in the "user" definition. However, rather than
adding more terminology, I think the remedy may be to rephrase the existing
definition to make some of these points more explicit.

The user definition was intended to represent "human" agents explicitly
operating clients (browsers, etc.) in order to interact with servers. In
this sense, the human agent can take multiple forms: a person, a household,
etc. The definition needs to be re-phrased to make this more explicit. The
bottom line, however, is that a user represents some form of direct human
control of client-side requests.

In my opinion, the user concept is not easily translated to the server-side
perspective. The server interacts with the client (see definition), not the
user, although obviously the client is an intermediary for the user. But the
two are not synonomous: consider that servers cannot always determine if
requests from a client originate from explicit human direction, or from the
client itself (e.g., an automated agent like a spider). Because of this
problem, I would suggest that the term "user" be reserved for analysis that
addresses client-side activity. I.e., in order to preserve the human element
of the user definition, client-side analysis should talk about users, while
server-side analysis should talk about clients.

These are just my opinions. Perhaps others in the group have an alternate


-----Original Message-----
From: VJ Cothey []
Sent: Thursday, July 29, 1999 10:45 AM
Subject: Concept of "user"

I am engaged in a large ( > 1000 ) longitudinal ( two years )
client side investigation of information seeking activity which is
essentially web user characterization.  Local network configuration
provides instrumentation to consistently track individual users over
collections of daily client side traces derived from browser history
files.  My goal is to discover how patterns of activity evolve as users
become more experienced.  My personal background is library &
information science so please excuse my ignorance of the finer points of
CS :-)  

So much for background.

I applaud the mission and work to date.  In particular the draft
terminology & definitions and metrics which is impressive.

However in this context, my worry is that, in practice, the definition
of "user" is likely to be corrupted and for example will refer to
different entities depending on its client or server side usage.

Whilst this may be overcome by in each instance clearly defining what
surrogate entity is being used to represent the user, my suggestion is
that additional terminology be employed especially in respect of server
characterizations in order to refer to the server side "user" concept,
eg an individually identifiable client.  I don't rule out, in a
particular study, there being an equivalence between two diffent types
of user entity, but it would be the responsibility of the researcher to
establish that equivalence.

As an example of my concern in practice, consider the Huberman et al.
(1998) paper ( Science, 280:95-97).  AOL members are uniquely identified
and referred to as "users", so possibly several individuals in a
household would all appear as a single entity.  A few paragraphs later the
term "user" is employed in relation to the Catledge & Pitkow client side
study.  Here user definitely has the intuitive meaning of individual person
( with attributes such as age or gender ).

Do you see the problem?

btw apologies if this is a mis-post.

Viv Cothey, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol