MacUser has a recent post exploring the question of what makes Apple product users so loyal. The writer, commenting on an article at Blackfriars Marketing, suggests, “In my opinion, they really nail it: weâ€™re just very satisfied customers.” That’s a nice sentiment, but I think it’s only part of what fan cultures are all about.
We’re not just talking about “very satisfied customers” here. We’re talking about a much more participatory and engaged type of fans:
Pundits often refer to them as “zealots” or “fanboys.” The more polite references include “Mac loyalists.” I am, of course, talking about Apple’s more vocal customers, those who will defend the company and its products in any debate going on around them. What is it that drives their passion for most things Apple? Is it a deluded mind, warped by the Reality Distortion Field that Steve Jobs so successfully wraps every new product in? In short, the answer is no.
Let’s applaud Blackfriars for dismissing the out-of-date notion of the pathologized fan. Assuming we really are talking about the people who are emotionally invested in Apple, though, let’s also recognize that such passionate involvement goes beyond “very satisfied customers.” I’m a “very satisfied customer” of Apple products, but I am not one of those vocal defenders. I’ll read whatever links of Apple-related “news” my friends send me, but I’m not interested in tuning in for Steve Jobs’s newest proclamations or Apple product announcements. I certainly wouldn’t be reading any Mac blogs if not for my research interests and the fact that my friend writes for one (no offense, Dan). I have an iPod and an iPod Shuffle, a PowerBook, and a G5 PowerMac, and no other MP3 players or Windows-based PCs, but I wouldn’t be opposed on principle alone to buying superior products from other parties. In other words, I’m a very satisfied user, but only the least invested or active kind of “fan” of Apple.
If being a very satisfied customer is not enough to account for Mac loyalism, where is the line between brand loyalty and full-fledged fandom? This calls to my mind a conversation between Nancy Baym and Kristina Busse over at Online Fandom. Nancy (are we on a first-name basis in the blogosphere, or is it the more academic-sounding “Dr. Baym”?) wrote a post asking why people read her blog, and I had commented that I was interested in her take on fandom “as a fairly common process, not just limited to the hardcore folks making filk music and writing fan-fic.” Nancy followed up with a new post:
Fandom IS an everyday very common practice. Itâ€™s happening whenever people are using some element of pop culture as a locus for their own social organizing, whenever theyâ€™re taking something from pop culture and making it a piece of their own social identity. So, yeah, itâ€™s much broader than sci fi, itâ€™s much broader than fanfic, itâ€™s much broader than the stuff that usually gets covered when people talk about â€œfandom.â€
Iâ€™d like to see the term claimed by all of us who practice it, because then weâ€™d realize that most of us are engaging in some form of fandom to some extent. Weâ€™d stop stigmatizing it as a symptom of having no life (never mind the rich lives of those who are â€˜the hardcore folksâ€™), and we might even recognize that what goes on in fandom is a mix of appreciation, consumption, and creativity that is interesting in its own right and that has tremendous power as a model for many practices outside of fandom.
This launched an interesting exchange on how brand loyalty is one thing, but fandom means integrating some product more centrally into your social identity. My take on this is that the social connections in some fan communitiesâ€”particularly those long known as “geeky”â€”are also encouraged by the aforementioned social stigmatization itself, among other factors. (If you’re interested in theorizing fandom, you should just read the entire conversation in comments following the post.)
Suggesting that fandom is more than being a “very satisfied customer” shouldn’t be understood as denigrating the inherent quality of the product in question: that is, I recognize that Apple fans are indeed pleased with the quality of their Apple products. Ending inquiry there, however, would be like saying that my family is full of Red Sox fans just because it’s a superior baseball team. Other factors feed into the recipe for fandom. In the case of sports, hometown pride is typically a major factor (if not the only factor) in encouraging team devotion.
This brings us back to the original question, then: what factors turn a satisfied Apple customer into an Apple fan? Certainly the enjoyment of formal properties plays a part (e.g., people like easy-to-use computers that don’t crash often). In general, social connections associated with the objects of fandom (e.g., being from the same town, gathering at conventions, even sharing the same stigmas) also play a large role in supporting a sense of community.
In the case of Apple, the community appears built around events (such as the MacWorld Expo) and perhaps even a sort of parasocial relationship with the personable face of Apple, Steve Jobs. Most evident to me, however, is die-hard Mac users’ shared sense of marginalization in the face Microsoft and PCs more broadly, particularly in terms of hardware and software compatibility. Some Apple devotees are also probably feeling a recent sense of elation that the underdogs are finally coming out on top (kind of like the Sox winning the 2004 Series) thanks to the such successes as the iPod, increasing market share in academic institutions, and access to more software through Boot Camp.
That’s not an exhaustive list of possible factors encouraging fan involvement, of courseâ€”and I’d love to hear from any of you computer users out there who have other ideas. Considering how much the issue of marginalization or perception of an outside threat comes up when analyzing community solidarity, I can’t help but wonder what Apple fandom would look like if OS X were to climb to the market position currently occupied by Windows. Does Windows even have the kind of hardcore devotees that you see jumping in to defend Macs? When I hear the typical Mac vs. PC debate nowadays, it sounds more frequently than not like an Apple-branded evangelist trying to convert someone who is quite content to practice what he or she grew up with. I don’t ever hear anybody really lobbying for Windows, aside from its role as a gaming platform (and that comes up even more often in the console vs. PC debate). I feel like the committed PC die-hards must have moved on to various iterations of Linux by now, but here’s your chance to correct me if I’m wrong.