RE: Concept of "user"

From: VJ Cothey (
Date: Fri, Jul 30 1999

Date: Fri, 30 Jul 1999 14:54:09 +0100 (BST)
From: VJ Cothey <>
To: Jim Pitkow <>
cc: "Lavoie,Brian" <>, "''" <>
Message-ID: <>
Subject: RE: Concept of "user"

Thanks for your comments.
It seems that I might be pushing at an open door here.

There seems to be agreement that in a client side context we would want
"user" to have its intuitive = individual person meaning.

In other contexts, particularly server, then "user" is inappropriate.
Surrogate entities, UTEs must be used instead.

Therefore all that may be needed is that terms like "files transferred
per user" are not employed as server metrics.  Maybe "per UTE", with the
UTE being specifically defined in each instance?

Anyhow the debate seems now to be about the practice of making the
distinction rather than the desirability/need of doing so.

> I agree that while convenient to a non-expert, using "user" at the server
> side is dangerous.  For the server side, "client", while better, still
> leaves many holes, as one of our recent studies (WWW Journal) highlights
> the problems of treating each IP as a separate user.  So user != cookie !=
> client != IP. For the server side, basically what we try to get is a
> "uniquely trackable entity (UTE)"  When possible, we use cookies.  If not
> present, we use heuristics that use IP address, time, user agent, referrer
> information, and the site's topology to determine a UTE and their
> corresponding path.  IN certain circumstances, we can get persistent UTEs
> (like persistent cookies), but the problem is detecting and handling
> cookie-non-compliance in such studies.  Most of these are modified
> definitions off the WWW6 "In search of reliable usage data" paper I wrote a
> while back.
> At 08:38 AM 7/29/99 , Lavoie,Brian wrote:
> >Viv,
> >
> >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
> >view?
> >
> >Brian  
> >
> >-----Original Message-----
> >From: VJ Cothey []
> >Sent: Thursday, July 29, 1999 10:45 AM
> >To:
> >Cc:
> >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
> > 

Viv Cothey, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol