Fanbois, social media devotees, phone bling buffs, Android addicts and Apple aficionados … decoding the modern-day technology religion of Melbourne.
It was over new year when a friend, James Cameron, noticed the ancient Apple monitor in my dad’s home office. In its beige case, the 128K was the first of the company’s Macintosh personal computers. Cameron’s reaction was priceless.
“It was never a choice, always an Apple,” he says, struggling to explain his earlier enthusiasm at being confronted with an original model of the brand that long ago captured his imagination. The Melbourne designer, 34, now lays claim to a handy Apple arsenal of his own. “I have a MacBook, Apple TV, an iPhone and an iPad,” he says a little sheepishly, “an embarrassment of riches.”
Of course, for Apple fans his litany is less an embarrassment and more a standard.
Technology has modernised society. It has not, however, eliminated the very basic instinct to orient ourselves in a tribal way: to identify with others based on mutual understandings, a position strengthened by the ostracising of others who don’t – or won’t – fit the mould.
“We are very group oriented,” agrees Dr Jonathan Marshall, a research fellow specialising in the social basis for computer software at the University of Technology, Sydney. “We have this tendency to form groups to know who we are and know who we believe. And when you have a society where you have this data smog, people like to put themselves in groups so they know how to categorise all this information that comes around.”
Husband and wife Stan and Naomi Tsvirko certainly know which group they belong to. “He is a big Apple devotee to the point that he’s written his thesis about them,” Naomi, 25, laughs of her 27-year-old husband, admitting it was she who first directed him towards the brand when they began dating. “That was the one thing I changed about him.”
They are an immovable force in their devotion: neither being tarred with the “fanboi” brush (a sly term used by PC users to deride what they view as misguided emotional fanaticism towards Apple) nor arguments as to the brand’s limitations will sway them.
Naomi admits her connection is largely emotional. She talks of the sway of the brand’s cool cache, of its stylish design, its link to the creative industries and the pull of past memories. “It is a bit nostalgic,” she says, citing the writing of her first radio story on an Apple computer while studying at university; of later creating the first resource she then used in her job as a teacher.
Stan is far more technical. “What Apple does is it has designed their systems to work with its hardware . . . and it has created this universal approach with its devices – laptop, iPad, home computer, now the TVs – that are all linked to one system, that all talk together, which is why Apple is the No. 1 company in the world in regards to share value,” he opines. “I see other devices as being like Frankenstein. A little bit of something grabbed from everywhere and mashed together.”
It is those kinds of comments that infuriate Team Android, a tech tribe that pledges allegiance to phones and tablets produced by brands such as Samsung and Nokia that run Google’s Android operating system. For those who have committed to an operating system, there is no middle ground.
Walking into the office of Android user Tim Oliver, I am confronted by an iPhone left on the edge of a desk. It is, his colleague says — perhaps noticing my raised eyebrow — an anomaly. “That’s a work phone,” he says with just the slightest hint of derision shading his tone, “we had no choice with that one.”
“I don’t like using a proprietary system,” Oliver says in explanation as to why he identifies with other Android users. “My wife had an iPod and it was so awkward setting up – like you had less control over the system and how you wanted to use it. I just didn’t feel like I was being looked after as a user. Apple seems like a headache.”
For others, the argument is moot in its entirety. Consider the 21st-century Luddite; people such as Jim Utting, 41, who have to use it but are left cold by the gadgetry the technophiles rave about.
“I take shreds of it,” Utting says, when questioned as to how he – like all those other Luddites of this time – incorporates computer and smartphone technology in to his life. “I take what I need from technology but I never indulge in it.”
The latter is a defining phrase for this group, of which I admit to being a card-carrying member. Folk who enjoy the convenience of a smartphone, who keep in touch via email and – occasionally – Facebook, but who wouldn’t think to download game apps or lose themselves in Twitter or an e-book.
For some, the decision is a philosophical one: ex-Wallpaper magazine founder, current Monocle editor and international arbiter of cool, Tyler Brule, was recently quoted as insisting that he “absolutely” does not tweet. For me, reading is as much a tactile as a visual experience, and I’d rather my kids head out for a ride rather than become lost in an orgy of virtual BMX experience.
For those like Utting, it is about preserving the sanctity of human connection.
“I relate to people face-to-face and voice-to-voice,” he says simply, adding that the necessity of keeping messages short in the virtual ether means people are “dumbing down” their communication. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I like things to be a bit more tangible.”
Then there is the meaningless electronic patter: the opportunity Facebook and Twitter presents to users, allowing them (as Utting puts it) “to download the shit that’s in their heads”.
Sam Mutimer laughs when I recount to her that last comment. As a social media director and avid user of the platform on a personal level, she certainly agrees but still can’t help but think those like Utting are missing out.
“I enjoy the speed, being able to get information out really quickly to large groups of family and friends, and to receive that same information in return,” says Mutimer, who, along with standards such as Facebook and Twitter, also has accounts on Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram and Google Plus. She is a social media devotee, one of a group owing allegiance to an impressive array of online communication platforms. Consider Mutimer and her ilk as the reincarnation of the traditional town criers, only replacing a booming “hear ye” with a visually emphatic “like”.
“I think it fulfils a need in human life and that need is to feel connected in some way, shape or form,” the 35-year-old mother muses of social media. “To feel good enough.”
Yet the key to its appeal is a little more nuanced than simply that of providing a broad avenue of communication. Each platform, Mutimer explains, lends itself to a particular kind of interaction. “There is a different type of person attracted to each medium, so now we can be a little bit more specific to each audience that hangs out on that platform,” she says of the various worlds of Facebook et al. “Instagram is about images that are quirky – pics of cool buildings taken with different filters – so I wouldn’t post that on Facebook. Twitter is quick and of the moment, what you did the last hour becomes irrelevant. Pinterest is a personal expression and Facebook is about communicating with friends.”
She isn’t big on what she sees as the current ego-driven culture of “selfies” (whereby social media users post self-taken portraits), but says that – on the whole – she does not see the displays of online ego as particularly off-putting.
If anything, Mutimer now sees platforms like Facebook as a new rite of passage.
“You must be [at least] 13 to use it and that is something that young people (upon reaching the legal age) get really excited about.”
Like the 13-year-old daughter of a friend of Mutimer’s who snaps shots of her own phone bling in order to upload the images to her Facebook page.
Personalisation of smartphones has become a group phenomenon in itself. Perhaps not surprising given that now almost half of Australia’s population owns a smartphone: according to research released by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, use of the devices rose by 104 per cent to 8.67 million units during the 12 months to May 2012.
With so many out there, those like 19-year-old Olivia Giordano have taken to buying and displaying kitsch decorations as a means of setting themselves apart.
“It’s really about aesthetics,” Giordano says of wanting that small piece of individuality. She has all sorts of bling, past and present, including a pink iPhone cover studded with diamantes and rhinestones.
The cost is not necessarily high (most of the glitzy additions are sold by cheapish phone tatt shops, with jazzed-up screen protectors costing as little as $5. It seems a little like the boy-racer phenomenon of days of yore: when young men bought cheap sedans and proceeded to make a point of difference by hotting them up with mag wheels and loud exhausts.
Giordano does not disagree. She says impetus to carry it forward definitely flows from the group, finding inspiration in the purchases made by like-minded friends.
Neither is it a practice belonging purely to Gen Y. At 35, Lineke Jenkins makes frequent trips to markets in Dandenong and Rowville in order to surprise her husband with smartphone covers to get people talking; like the cover imitating a giant ear, the lookalike mix-tape cover, or the newest addition – a phone cover with handy flick-out bottle top opener.
“It’s just more to get a reaction,” she grins. “The great, big ear phone cover – everybody in the office loved that one.”
Apple. Android. Luddite. Tweeter. Seeker of bling.
If technology is the new religion, then perhaps these are the new human orders. Dr Marshall is not unconvinced. “Basically, human beings can use anything to make themselves a group,” he says. “It is a classic example of sociology.”
Learn the lexicon
Fanboi: a derogatory label used to describe fanatical fans attached to a particular item or brand name. It is most often used in conversational threads relating to computer hardware and cars.
Social: shorthand for ”social media” – often used by those who work in the industry or are devoted to social-media platforms.
Cracked: the term used to break the controls Apple places on its products that enable it to vet the applications and programs that may be downloaded on to Apple hardware.
Trending: any person, saying or thing that is receiving popular attention on social-media platforms at any particular time.
Luddite: a person who opposes technological change, a coin derived from the Luddites of the 19th century, English textile workers who protested against the introduction of machinery during the Industrial Revolution.