The cult of Steve Jobs
- 7 October 2011
- From the section Magazine
Steve Jobs's combination of success and secrecy endeared him to people across the world, who mourned his death in public.
Even before Steve Jobs passed away, his cult of personality loomed large over Apple.
When it was announced that he'd be stepping down, analysts worried that the company would flounder without him.
But his death crystallised both his status as a cult figure and his legacy to a company in transition.
Within minutes of his passing, Twitter was overcome with hashtags and posts in memoriam. On Facebook, people posted and reposted a series of photos, quotes, and videos about Jobs, creating a digital echo chamber.
People flocked to Apple stores across the globe to leave flowers. Groups used the candle apps on their iPads to create a vigil.
Secretive and private
The mass reaction to news of his death made it seem as though Jobs was a friend to the millions of people who owned his product.
In reality, they knew very little about him.
"He was incredibly secretive and private. You'd be hard-pressed to find a picture of him and his kids, hard-pressed to hear him talk about anything but Apple products," says Leander Kahney, author of Inside Steve's Brain, a biography of Jobs.
That Jobs never revealed much about his politics or his personal life also meant that he could never disappoint fans' preconceived notions.
"Because he was mysterious, people could project their own ideas on to him, and he could be a lot of things for a lot of people," says Mr Kahney, who runs the website Cult of Mac and wrote a book of the same name.
Man of mystique
Jobs's carefully constructed web of secrecy, peppered with some hints of vulnerability and accessibility - he was famous for answering customer emails - only added to the looming legend that grew with each Apple innovation.
"The more you saw him as having mystique, the more it went hand in hand as him being a visionary," says Maia Young, an associate professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
When mysterious people are successful, she says, we perceive them "as if they have a special something endowed to them that most of us don't have access to."
She conducted a study in which subjects were asked to assess Jobs's potential at predicting government spending, trends in the stock market, and the future of interest rates.
"The more people saw him as having mystique, the more they ascribed to him the ability to predict those things," she said. "It's a testament to how much people saw in him."
It's also a testament to how closely he guarded his personal image.
From the beginning, there has been a cult around Apple, says Mr Kahney. But that had less to do with personality and had more to do with the products, which engendered tremendous loyalty. That so few people used them created both an air of exclusivity and a fierce protectiveness from enthusiasts constantly worried that behemoths like Microsoft would run their beloved company out of business.
Jobs added something different to the mix.
"One of the things that Mr Jobs did, which was very unlike anyone else, was he did it his way," says Jonathan Gabay, a branding consultant and founder of JonathanGabay.com.
Before Jobs, computers were grey boxes used for maths and science; business machines for men in suits and ties. Jobs, clad in jeans and pioneering the casual-Friday dotcom lifestyle, changed all that.
"It liberated people to express a different way of doing things, hence his brilliant slogan 'think different'," says Mr Gabay.
By thinking differently, Jobs placed himself squarely in the mainstream. With the invention of the iPod and iPhone, Apple went from a quirky underdog to a global powerhouse. Its ubiquitous white earbuds were worn by both hipster artists and Wall Street suits.
When it came to business, Mr Jobs was anything but a revolutionary. "It seems like a cool, liberal, creative company, but the reality is it's a very locked-down place. It's not a happy place to work," says Mr Kahney.
"It's one of the tightest-controlled corporations in the world."
The mystery surrounding Jobs was always just a few notes away from menace. As the company became more successful and less outwardly innovative - after all, how many times can one company be expected to create the next big thing that revolutionises our lives? - the chance that Jobs might prove himself to be fallible increased.
Selling a solution
Now the company that Jobs pioneered must navigate a new path without its storied leader. But the legacy that Jobs left provides some direction.
As consumers around the world went online to memorialise Jobs, no-one was crowing about his innovations in processor speed or even Apple's innovative design.
The majority of posts cemented Jobs's status as a dreamer and visionary: quoting him when he said: "Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,"; linking to Apple adverts that begin 'Here's to the crazy ones'; posting articles that promise to explain 'What Steve Jobs understands that our politicians don't'.
Jobs died at a time when people trust authority less than ever. The technology he created and the image he projected sold consumers a possible solution.
"People are desperately craving the idea that they can do things in a different way because they don't trust the way it was done before," says Mr Gabay. "This sense of non-conforming was exactly what Steve Jobs is about. It's incredibly attractive, especially today."
Above all, Jobs promised a lifestyle - you can be cool, you can go against the grain, and you can succeed with those ideas.
"Everyone who buys a Mac says, 'I'm going to write my novel, I'm going to edit my movie, I'm going to cut that single'," says Mr Kahney. "It speaks to that creative streak. In reality all they do is sit around and watch Netflix on it."
When his legion of fans went online to mark his passing, they were saying, "I want to believe." They were letting the world know that they too, are capable of thinking differently.
Even if they themselves sometimes forgot, Steve Jobs never did.