The iMourning for Steve Jobs
The reaction to the death of the Apple boss shows how thoroughly mainstream Princess Di-style public weeping has become.
At Apple’s retail stores in the Big Apple, passers-by stopped in their stride to peer at the spontaneous shrines that had emerged the night before, after the announcement of Steve Jobs’ death. But these modest New York tributes of apples, flowers, post-it note messages and photographs far from reflected the global praise and expressions of grief happening online. About 30,000 tweets per hour were being sent about the Apple founder on Thursday. Many Facebook users changed their profile picture to the tech giant’s logo.
For the feat of co-founding Apple, Jobs unquestionably deserves the praise, much of which was typed up on a device launched by him. At the Apple stores, most passers-by were snapping pictures on iPhones. It was clearly a newsworthy moment that many wanted to witness. Italian-born New Yorker Margarita Bilenchi, for instance, went by the Apple store in SoHo because she ‘wanted to see what was happening’. She lives around the corner but is also a big Steve Jobs fan. ‘I’m overwhelmed by sadness… What he did was extraordinary.’
Tributes outside Apple’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue
Outside Apple’s flagship store – open 24/7, 365 days a year and believed to be highest-grossing retail outlet on Fifth Avenue – a group of Apple fans have been camping out for 10 days already, to ensure they are among the first to get their hands on the new iPhone 4S. They have another seven days to wait before the device goes on sale. One of them, 21-year-old native New Yorker Keenen Thompson, said about Jobs: ‘It’s tough to see him go. Such a great mind and so young… There will never be another Steve Jobs.’
Daiichiro Tashiro, a 25-year-old acting student, travelled all the way from Tokyo to be among the first to receive the new iPhone. ‘This is really sad news’, he said of Jobs’ death. ‘He made our lives better and more creative.’
But where die-hard Apple fans, tourists and reporters crowded around the Apple store shrines, it was online that the death of Steve Jobs became more than just a news event or a holiday-snap moment. Online, it became an occasion that thousands wanted to be part of, not just to express their appreciation of Jobs’ ingenuity but to find an outlet for their personal grief. So ‘#iSad’ became the most popular Steve Jobs-related hashtag on Twitter and replacing your own profile picture with that of Jobs or the Apple logo became a graphic way of identifying with a person – and showing it to the world.
It makes you wonder: what if there had been smartphones and social-media sites when Princess Diana died? Then you wouldn’t have had to travel to London to partake in the outpouring of grief, the emotionalism and the public mourning that took place. It would all have gone global, ‘#princessdi’ would have trended on Twitter and Facebook profile images would have been changed to pictures of the famous royal.
A tribute outside the SoHo Apple store
While the history of the Diana moment has been rewritten as a story of the hysterical British masses losing control over their emotions, the main reason there was no escape from talk of her death was because politicians and the media revelled in it. At the time, criticising the expectation that everyone should partake in the public sombreness or admitting that you were not personally touched by her death was a taboo that would rouse the ire of sophisticated columnists and populist politicians. In hindsight, though, the death of Diana has come to be seen as a morbid obsession of the tabloids and of unsophisticated suburbanites.
Today, the spontaneous rush to Twitter upon the announcement of a famous entrepreneur’s passing, the urge to personalise it and express your own feelings about the death of a stranger, shows that not only has public mourning gone digital but also that the idea that it’s only something tacky tabloids and their readers engage is nonsense.
A mother and daughter at the Steve Jobs tribute in SoHo
Twitter, after all, is the medium du jour, the hipster cyber-hangout credited with changing everything from how the news is made to how dictators are deposed. It’s the right-on activist’s favourite iPhone app – and it’s where public mourning now happens.
Apart from creating Apple, Steve Jobs also deserves praise for refusing to partake in the post-Diana expectation of turning himself into a public victim. There were no autobiographies about how he was dealing with cancer, no tearful appearances on Oprah. Although the devices he helped create have become effective platforms for the erosion of privacy, Jobs himself justifiably guarded his own.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.