July 2, 2007
The Apple iPhone and Brand Fandom

I have mentioned here previously that I write about differences in my former life in Kentucky and life on the East Coast in a weekly column for The Ohio County TImes-News called "From Beaver Dam to Boston." I was in the process of writing my next column when I realized that it might be of interest to readers of the consortium as well, so I thought I would share it here:

My wife and I made a grave mistake. Seeing that I study media technologies, branding, popular culture, and the like, one would think I would be more in-tune with the craze that was taking the country over on Friday, June 29, but I suppose that I'm not as "in touch" as I would like to fancy myself.

Last Thursday, Amanda's laptop battery just quit working. The battery decided it didn't want to charge anymore, so when the computer ran out of energy, the only way that she could use it was to have it plugged into the wall. The battery had a little "X" in the middle in the spot where it usually tells us how much of her battery is charged.

Apparently, it was a problem with the MacBook model, one that they caught but which many users had not fixed in time to stop the computer from, as the genius at the help bar in the Apple store told us, "self-cannibalizing" itself. He claimed all one would have to do is switch out the batteries, but I can't help but wonder if there might be deeper issues that need to be resolved in cases of self-cannibalization.

But I am off on another tangent. My point is that, during all the confusion and concern about our little Hannibal, the Apple worker removed her keyboard pad that helps keep the screen from getting dirty or scratched, and we left it behind the Apple desk and returned home with the computer.

We realized its absence the next day, so we resolved that, after Amanda got off work on that Friday afternoon, we would go by the CambridgeSide Galleria to pick up our missing keyboard pad.

We didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. Amanda volunteered to go look around at some clothes while I went to the Apple store. As I got closer, though, I noticed something quite strange: people sitting in lawn chairs in the middle of the mall.

I'm used to seeing a lot of strange sites, and this really pales in comparison, but I soon realized that these loungers stretched from one end of the mall to the other, and that the line of people in lawn chairs, sitting on the floor, or in other states of relaxation in the middle of the mall was almost out the front doors by this point.

And Apple's doors were closed. Turns out, to celebrate the heralded unveiling of the iPhone, Apple closed its doors for several hours. Security guards only communicated to Apple employees through small peep holes in the cover blocking passersby--and those in line--from seeing inside the store, and the security guard made it quite clear that I couldn't possibly get in to find my keyboard pad. Turns out, I think I was suspicioned as an Apple enthusiast who was just trying to sneak a peek.

I made it quite clear that I was more than happy for the security guard to go retrieve my keyboard pad himself, but he said even he was not allowed inside the building and that the employees were coming in and out the back, while the front entrance had been completely sealed off.

It's several days later at the time I am writing this, and I still haven't gone back to get that keyboard cover. I'm afraid to even try to go back in any mall where the iPhone is being sold, considering the fervent display of fandom I saw there.

I had a flashback to a trip once to Barnes and Noble in Bowling Green, where I went in to buy a frappuccino, only to be met by a room full of witches and warlocks. Yes, I picked the night of an unveiling of a Harry Potter novel to get my caffeine fix, and I stubbornly decided that I was going to sit through an hour line for coffee (and I had other folks at home who were expecting me to return with coffee in hand).

This type of fan outpouring turns the on-sale date from the chance to purchase a product to an event in and of itself, an experience that makes the purchase more than just a simple capitalist exchange.

Geoffrey Long, a fellow MIT employee and a contemporary of mine in the Beaver Class of '07, bought his own iPhone. He badly needed a new cell phone, it's true, but I still can't help but tease him for his $600 choice, no matter how sleek the design and how cool the features. And, for those of you who know my wife's penchant for cell phones, I'm going to have to keep her blindfolded when we finally do go back to the mall to pick up our keyboard cover.

By the way, Rob Kozinets has a piece focusing on Apple fan support of the iPhone, falling in line with his continued writing about brand communities.