Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Apple Really A Religion? And dealing with the aftermath of being miquoted by Fox News

In the past 24 hours I have received a steady stream of email from angry Mac Fans and virulent online critics regarding the research conducted by myself and a colleague on religious language and imagery associated with the iPhone. (see How the iPhone Became Divine: New Media, Religion and the Intertextual Circulation of Meaning) Most of these seem to be linked to an article on Fox News that was originally titled "Christian, Jew ... iPhone? Apple Is the New Religion, Academics Say" but was later changed to "For Apple Followers, It's a Matter of Faith, Academics Say".

An interesting part of the back story is that I was never actually interviewed by Fox for the article, which seems to have caused so much of a stir. I did receive an email from a freelance journalist who writes for Fox and who asked me the following (leading) question via email.

"This is obviously intended as more than an analogy, but is the religion aspect a way of explaining the Apple phenom or a way of explaining/warning about how it has actually become a religion?"

Since I was traveling that day and had 15 minutes to check out of my hotel I simply emailed him a copy of the article and the following brief response.

"The religious like behavior and language surrounding Apple devotion/fandom could be interpreted as an example of 'implicit religion', where secular activities/rituals & artifacts take on sacred like attributes due to how they are used and viewed by some fans. Implicit religion demonstrates technology use can take on a religious role or quality in postmodern culture when it substitutes for belief and behaviours once attached to religion and religious practice."

I also emailed him my cell number to call me for further clarifications, which he did not. From this brief interaction via email he deduced that I was making the claim that “Apple is a religion” which in my opinion I was not and is a gross generalization taken way out of context. It also resulted in bothersome email backlash, and several scathing online critiques of our research. So I though I would set record straight to what the article claims.

The article is essentially about how tech bloggers and journalists used the term "Jesus phone" in relation to the iPhone in different venues in 2007 to communicate different, and often conflicting, meanings about the iPhone before and after its launch. My co-author and I argue that there is a close and interestingconnection within popular culture discourse between technology and religion. Invoking religious language and images provides flexible tools for meaning making, i.e the calling the iPhone the Jesus phone was used by some bloggers to praise its infallibility or and by others to critique it as an example of flawed fanatic fervor.

In one section of the article we do state fan culture can exhibit attributes of what “implicit religion”, where secular practices can perform a religious function for some people or exhibit characteristics of the sacred (i.e. notions of transcendence, adherence to recognized core beliefs and rituals, etc.). In the case of apple this tendency amongst some of its fans has helped build brand loyalty over time in certain respects and weather controversies like tech/pricing issues in 2007 when the iPhone was launched and attenagate.

I do hope future journalist covering this story will actually read the article (and actually interview me) before critiquing this study rather than rely on 3rd party reports. While not a pleasant experience it is going to be a great example for my Media Ethics & Cultures of Journalism lectures this fall on how media message get circulated online and the consequences of bad journalistic practices in the blogosphere. It is also a lesson to me in that journalist have a hard time comprehending and translating complex, nuanced ideas, even when one tries hard to make them clear and clarify their context. And even when you don't speak, you may still be misquoted.


mdfischer said...

Sorry for your problems, but you'll benefit from them in the end, which is a better result than most. While I agree with your article that Apple fans do have a lot of characteristics of a cult, I don't think the cult or it 'beliefs' come up to conforming by any cross-cultural definition of sacred or religious in nature. As per my comment yesterday, I do think your article reflects well the attributions of Apple's critics. Faced with circumstances they don't understand they assume the cult must be religious in nature to account for what they see as irrational behaviour, and to explain away inconvenient reports that come out regularly showing Apple with high levels of customer satisfaction, and their customers with higher levels of productivity and better ROI.

Anyway, good luck, and maybe I'll look you up next time I'm through College Station.

Thibault said...

Sorry to hear about this misinterpretation. I'm a scholar (soon to be getting my doctorate in anthropology) and I have seen quite a number of times when academic articles and academic talks "translated" by journalists or other lay people into news speak give a totally different claim than what the original talk/article was making! It's incredible how often this happens!

I first came upon a link to your article from a Macintosh users news aggregate website called Macsurfer. As a scholar, when I read that headline my first inkling was the journalist had likely misunderstood/misinterpreted the article. I clicked on the link, read the Fox article and then turned to your article (accessible online via Sage publications to subscribing libraries), began reading the article and even before finishing knew immediately without a doubt that the journalist had the wrong message and they need to retract that news article!

And unfortunately, most website commentators for that article (linked multiple times) probably never read the article and immediately took the news article to be the truth and started frothing at the mouth or smiling (depending on which camp one is in, I guess). It's really unfortunate.

Thibault said...

Oh one more thing: I wanted to add too that I think a lot of journalists and layfolks often do not see the subtleties that are being made in an argument. In my own classes, I have seen that happen over and over again and it takes a lot of work to help them see where the subtleties lie and how when they miss the nuances they will have missed the point of the argument.

By the way, have you considered notifying other aggregate websites such as Macsurfer that you have made a public correction to what that journalist misinterpreted. I'm afraid that the chatter over that journalist's misinterpretation is going to drown out your blog post. And then, we might actually see years down the line some technology critique make the claim that years ago scholars have determined that Apple is a cult religion.