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The Apple Cult

March 16, 2012

When my alarm went off at 6:00 this morning, I groaned. The last thing I wanted to do was drag myself out of bed, walk over a mile in the rain to the train station, take a train toPalo Alto, and observe the iPad launch. Then I thought to myself: “If I don’t want to do this, it probably means that I should do it.” By 6:15, I was out the door, and by 7:00 I was inPalo Alto and on my way to the Apple store. What I witnessed this morning answered none of my questions, but I now have a better understanding of this cultural phenomenon, the Apple product launch.

What does it say about a society where hundreds of people brave the elements and camp out just to be the first people to own a product? I’ve seen similar phenomena in the developing world, but those were the hungry poor, waiting, hoping, praying for a free handout. Here, Apple devotees queue up to spend their hard-earned money on a device that will (probably) be outdated within a year. It’s a phenomenon that even now, having just observed it, I can’t quite wrap my brain around.

Before this morning, I wondered just what a product launch would look like. Last night, I stopped by the Apple store and asked an employee what a launch was typically like. “It’s like a rave without x [ecstasy],” he said. I wasn’t sure what this meant, and if what I observed this morning fits this description, I can honestly say that a rave without ecstasy must be astonishingly boring. I imagined that there would be demonstrators, corporate sponsors, a party atmosphere, group camaraderie, and real excitement in the air.

The reality is very different. Most people in line looked bored, as if this were just some kind of formalistic ritual, a thing to be endured. Few people interacted, and if they did, they talked about Apple products. Many people fiddled with their iPhones. Nowhere did I see corporate sponsors with handouts. The atmosphere was subdued, quiet. Two middle-aged women were there to demonstrate in defense of the Shenzhen factory workers. One was even dressed in a white factory outfit. Yet even among these demonstrators, there was little urgency, little sense that what they were protesting was actually important. They even cheered along with the Apple employees when the first few people walked out of the store with their new iPads.

I spoke with a few people in line. One young woman told me that she was being paid $20 to wait in line for someone she had never met. “I need the money,” she told me. One guy I spoke to had been to nearly every Apple product launch. When I asked him why he waited in line, he looked up from his iPhone and shrugged. His eyes conveyed amusement and annoyance. “I like their products,” he told me. He might as well have said: “Duh. Are you an idiot?”

Self-explanatory.

My question was genuine. To me, it’s not so simple a reason as the man made it out to be. There’s something strange about a consumer culture where people camp out to buy a product. So you like Apple products? Fine. But why show up at 5:00 in the morning to buy something you could just as easily buy on your lunch break or later that evening? It is behavior that transcends simply “liking” a product, and becomes an obsession. It is the Apple Cult.

Perhaps I am looking at this too critically. Maybe the Apple product launch is a kind of communal experience, where people like this Apple lover gather together to rally around and socialize about something they all share in common. From what I observed, there’s truth to this. A lot of strangers were chatting, often excitedly, about Apple products and their personal experiences. Yet, it wasn’t a festive atmosphere. There was never the sense that these people were happy to be together. The Apple store employees tried to instill some sense of excitement, but no matter how hard they tried, the event always felt formulaic. It was not a celebration, but a ritual of consumption.

This consumption culture is here to stay, but can we change the culture of the product launch? Can we transform this banal celebration of a thing into a celebration of togetherness? Can it become something that brings an entire community together? Where are the Girl Scouts selling cookies? The local kids selling coffee, breakfast treats, lemonade? The community activists distributing flyers and chatting with people about their causes? Where are the local businesses? The Apple product launch provides a rare opportunity for people to interact, socialize, come together, but the Cult has a single-minded purpose: purchase.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2012 10:56 AM

    It is an Apple cult. I mean, you don’t see huge lines outside of grocery stores when a new brand of potato chips are released.

  2. March 16, 2012 11:04 AM

    I’m reminded of this commercial for the Galaxy Nexus:

    The whole point is that you don’t have to wait in line to get it. It’s mocking the cult, but with a strong undercurrent of competitive envy.

  3. Luka permalink
    March 16, 2012 11:42 AM

    I can’t remember every seeing a queue of people in the developing world, just chaotic masses of people trying to get close to the object of desire.

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