Document Type


Date of Original Version



Communication Studies


Humans who encounter social media platforms have a role to play. They are expected to generate content, a demand starkly illustrated by a mid-2010s Facebook prompt: “Write something.” This essay recuperates the history of this role, the “instrumentalised user,” and traces its development from the mid-1960s to the present. Drawing on evidence from scholarly texts in ergonomics, media studies, computer science, psychology, Human-Computer Interaction, and political economy, the essay traces the instrumentalised user’s emergence from decades of efforts to characterise and problematise those actors who encounter computing. Using Actor-Network Theory to show how humans and computing machinery were imagined to work together, the essay reveals that social media’s efforts to extract labour from its users are the heirs to a recurring theme in computer and internet history.