Apple and Wanting to Belong

Apple and Wanting to Belong February 3, 2013

Fast Company has a rich examination of what might be contributing to the (perceived) degradation of good feelings about Apple by Bruce Nussbaum. This passage I feel boils down the argument for the most part (though I recommend the entire piece), and I want to break it apart a little.
The gist is that the more Apple seems to the general public to be “just another company” rather than a generator of culture or ethos, all the worse for Apple. As he puts it:

The shift in Apple’s narrative frame from awe to money is changing the meaning of belonging, a crucial ingredient of Aura.

No one feels like they’re “a part of something” by using a Microsoft or HP product, but I know I felt like I was adopting a culture of sorts when I graduated from iPod to Powerbook in 2004. But those were different days.

He goes on:

Instead of new and wonderful things that make our lives better, we hear constant talk of share prices, cost of iPhones, and price points in the “globalization” of products.

Yes, there is constant talk about these things, especially with Apple’s stock price decaying the way it has, but I don’t think this really filters down to the broad customer base. The tech enthusiasts, the business types, yeah, they care about this and blog about it until they can’t wiggle their fingers anymore, and that can influence the rest of the public’s opinion, but on the whole, I think opinions of Apple will be formed at the individual, person-to-gadget or person-to-service level.

And Nussbaum gets there:

Charging for the iCloud introduces a tax to belonging to the community. And cutting costs by threatening to fire the competent and friendly staff in Apple stores—the physical “face” of Apple to its followers—marks a distancing of the company with its followers.

As a former blue-shirted drone, this rings very true. Those stores really are little embassies for the Nation of Apple, and it was difficult enough providing the very high level of personable attention that Apple Stores mastered with the number of staff (and small physical space) we had. When the new-and-then-suddenly-former head of retail John Browett began nickel-and-diming the staff (after I was gone), it was a huge red flag to me that the tide had turned to an unfortunate post-Jobs era. By letting the stores wither, even a little, they would be sacrificing one of the things that made them a “culture.” I know those moves have purportedly been reversed, or at least slowed, but I also happen to know that things are not as they once were.

Apple once provided an optimistic, modern, creative existential meaning to its customers, who wanted to belong and were willing to pay extra to get into the community. But now it’s as if Apple has set out to break the bonds that connect it to its community.

This may be inevitable. Apple reached critical mass with iPhone and iPad, and now there are so many folks now wandering into the “Apple culture,” that it’s not really possible for it to be as “exclusive,” or elite as it once was (or felt). It’s just, well, normal.

But I don’t think it’s fair to say that Apple has “set out” to make this happen. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Apple is doing what it’s supposed to do: making the best toys it can and making as much money as possible in selling them. It’s probably not fair to say that Apple has opted to neglect this feeling of culture or community in order to focus on money. Jeebus knows they have enough of it. It is fair to say, however, that they’re just not succeeding in creating that culture, by releasing half-baked services, by producing applications that are bloating into near-unusability (iTunes and iPhoto are my nemeses).

Ironically, I would guess that if maintaining a self-important subculture is important to Apple (and I don’t know that it ever was), I could see a concentration on Macs versus Apple generally. They’re still easily the best PCs out there, and they still have a market share one could describe charitably as “plucky.” But that’s not where Apple sees its future, and I suppose nor does almost anyone else. But before there was an i-anything, remember, there was a Cult of Mac.

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