SOC 212: Community and Society
Community Research Paper
November 13, 2002
I researched the global community of Apple Macintosh computer users, who have become established as a highly cohesive group and a distinct worldwide community thanks to incredibly strong brand identification among users of this type of computer.
The worldwide group of Macintosh users comprises a global, virtual type of community, with characteristics that are clearly post-gesellschaft. A new type of group different from traditional neighborhoods or physical associations, a post-gesellschaft community like the Macintosh user community is characterized by new behavior beyond standardization and centralization, is in no way class-based, and benefits from a free flow of ideas, products, and developments (Lyon.)
The Macintosh (“Mac”) community as we know it today originated with the computer’s introduction in January 1984, although members of that early community would hardly recognize what it has become. The Mac community is based around people who choose to buy computer systems sold by Apple Computer, Inc., and running variants of Apple’s Macintosh operating system software. Many longtime members of the Mac community are rooted in the community of Apple II computer users. From the late 1970’s all the way up to the Apple II’s final cancellation in 1993, users of this earlier Apple computer were very fanatical about their choice of system, and felt that it gave them the power to do amazing things that would be impossible without it (Aker.) This fanatical attitude increased as many of these users switched over to the newer Macintosh computer, which used a radically different user graphical user interface to allow people to use their computers by pointing to images on the screen with a mouse, instead of having to memorize and type in commands. It was innovative and very easy to use, and from early on the Mac had better graphics, sound, and media-design capabilities than most other computers. Over time, Microsoft’s Windows would copy much of the Macintosh’s look and feel, and eclipse the Mac in terms of mass popularity (Linzmayer.) However, the early users have remained faithful, as the Mac has been steadily updated with new features and capabilities. From the beginning, Mac users considered themselves owners of the coolest, most original, and most excellent computer system in the world, and proudly identified themselves as a group. They formed a lasting Mac community.
As defined on our first day of Sociology class, a community is a group of people who may share a common virtual geography, common attitudes or values, and who interact with one another on a regular basis. Mac users as a group clearly qualify as a valid community based on this definition. They generally share certain common attitudes and values; the solidarity of their beliefs and the strength of their attitudes often surprises and confuses individuals outside of the community. For example, Mac users have long had a tendency to view themselves as significantly different, or “of superior intellect” (Chaffin) compared to people who use any other type of computer system, especially those running Microsoft Windows. Many people unfamiliar with computers, or even those simply unfamiliar with the Macintosh, may not see what the big difference is between the Mac and Windows, which looks relatively similar at a distance. However, Mac users are incredibly faithful to their choice of computer system, remaining true to it as if it were a sacred religious tradition or a part of their cultural heritage that could never be lost. This brings up many parallels to ethnic communities like the ones we studied in class, including some interesting similarities between Mac users’ enthusiasm for their choice of computer and the way that ethnic groups often identify strongly with culturally significant religious traditions.
An incredible amount of group identification exists amongst Mac users. They affectionately refer to themselves as “Mac-heads,” “the Mac Faithful,” “Mac Addicts,” or even members of “the Cult of Mac.” Mac enthusiasts identify with each other the way alumni of an Ivy League university might relate to others in their exclusive group. “Mac users are always willing to band together to help out the Mac cause, or sometimes even just to show the world we are Mac users. There are few other groups that have the kind of internal support that Mac users enjoy” (Chaffin.) It is not uncommon to visit the Apple department (affectionately called a “store within a store” to differentiate it from the rest of the Windows-oriented store) at some CompUSA or MicroCenter stores on a Saturday and find Mac enthusiasts voluntarily hanging out in the section, answering questions of would-be Mac purchasers, teaching people about the advantages of the Macintosh, or just chatting about Apple and the Mac with other fans. Mac heads are very concerned about the impression that ‘outsiders’ have of the Macintosh: “That’s why we make covert trips to our local Mac retailers just to make sure all the machines work and the demos are running” (Chaffin.) As a self-proclaimed Mac fanatic, I always fix whatever problems or vandalism are on the Mac floor models in stores, have helped customers choose the right Mac for their needs, and given technical support to new owners [or should I say new “group members?”] J
Mac fans have an almost religious commitment to their choice of computer. In addition to calling themselves “the Mac Faithful,” another notable parallel was a highly popular and long-running Mac-oriented online mailing list entitled “the EvangeList.” Started voluntarily by Guy Kawasaki, a former “Apple Fellow,” it helped Mac fans spread the word and “evangelize” potential users (called “converts”) about the good word of the Mac. It included statistical and anecdotal “ammo” that fans could use to convince friends and associates that a Mac is cheaper than a Windows PC in the long run, less problem-prone, easier to fix, longer-lasting, can run all the necessary software, is easy to learn, etc., etc.
As additional evidence of the solidarity and validity of the Mac community, we may analyze it on the basis of the six Subjective Quality of Life Components that we learned in class. Due to its virtual nature as a brand-community, the community inherently affords freedom, individual liberty, and equality (Pettis.) However, it could be argued that Mac owners may have more freedom than users of Microsoft Windows, since the Mac has traditionally been more customizable and personalizable than Windows, and application software for the Macintosh operating system is less dominated by Microsoft. This allows for a greater variety of often-inexpensive programs from many smaller companies. Also, Mac users have the freedom to run Windows and any Windows programs they choose on their Mac thanks to optional Virtual PC software utilities. And finally, the Mac community enjoys superior individual liberty, since Apple does not require new Mac owners to register with the company and divulge personal information, unlike users of Microsoft’s competing Windows XP.
Continuing on with more about the subjective quality of life components of the community, Mac fans enjoy neighborhood compassion, since “We put massive effort behind providing resources to point each other to the cool things we have found” (Chaffin) and users often try to help others solve problems for the good of the community as a whole. And pride (a.k.a. local identification) is also present, as evidenced by the existence of “pro-Mac” apparel companies like MacSurfShop.com, which sell shirts bearing proud slogans like “Once you go Mac, you never go back!” Furthermore, the Apple corporate logo itself is a symbol of pride and identification sometimes displayed in car windows. In October 2002, a car was broken into in an upscale neighborhood in Massachusetts, and the only item never recovered was an Apple-logo window sticker (Kahney, 10/22/02.) According to Fred Davis, former editor in chief of MacUser Magazine, a logo sticker was “a badge of hipness honor, signifying that you were smart and cool… It wasn’t just a big deal, it was a social-political-cultural statement.” This community pride is at least comparable to nationalistic ethnic groups that place white oval “D” stickers on their cars to show German-heritage pride, to cite one comparison.
Diverse community is also present, since Mac fans live all around the world, and many prominent Mac community writers and software developers are of African American or Asian descent, among others. And finally, it’s a bit tougher to say whether the Mac community has representative government. Apple Computer, Inc.’s current CEO is Steve Jobs, who was one of the company’s original founders in 1976. Although Mac users speak of him as a visionary, many also disagree with his self-assured and almost dictator-like leadership of the company’s business strategy; many Mac fans feel that Jobs tells them what products and features they want instead of listening to their requests.
As a final means of Sociological analysis, I will relate the Mac community to one of the Six Neighborhood Types as defined in our class on October 18, 2002. The global community of Mac users is undoubtedly a Diffuse Neighborhood. It epitomizes our working definition of a neighborhood that is “strong in identification, but low in interaction.” Mac fans do interact with each other in a virtual setting, such as on any of the hundreds of Mac-centered web sites like CrazyAppleRumors.com, AppleInsider.com, AsTheAppleTurns.com, MacCentral.com, or MacOSRumors.com. Also, some Mac fans do interact in physical “real life” settings at events like the meetings of independent local Macintosh User Groups (MUGs,) at the semi-quarterly MacWorld Expo trade shows, and at Apple’s official retail stores that have opened in malls and shopping areas around the country (Gold Coast.) However, the level of interaction is very low in comparison to that of physical neighborhoods. Many Mac users are simply passive users, and not ‘fanatics,’ and have never really interacted with other Mac users in a group-identification context. The fact of the matter is that the Mac community generally has a level of identification and group pride unlike that of most any other community, regardless of type, anywhere in the world.
I chose to research and Sociologically analyze the community of Macintosh users because I am a faithful and die-hard member of this group. I have been a member of this group since I got my first Mac at age 10. Since then, I’ve owned five other Macs, three of which are currently in “active duty” in my home. Needless to say, purchasing a Windows PC has never crossed my mind.
The virtual community of Mac users is clearly a very unique community unlike any other. The levels of identification and brand loyalty are unlike any other community of this type, not even amongst the fans of Saturn, Mercedes, or Saab automobiles, or supporters of Coca-Cola. The Mac user community is a unique group that warrants further sociological study in light of its voluntary levels of identification and faithfulness that are practically religious or nationalistic.
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