This morning, as I headed into the city for an Advertising Week event, I briefly indulged in one of my favorite absent-minded games: I looked at the people around me in the train car, and in the neighboring car in the tunnel into Grand Central, and took a quick inventory of how many people were looking at their devices.
Over the last few years, this has been a signpost to me of how much the world -- my world, our world -- has changed. The last time I commuted with any regularity --2001 -- there was the occasional cell phone on the train, but it wasn't much of a device. And the laptops people carried with them were utilitarian, those using them immersed in spreadsheets and Microsoft Word. Blah. The iPod was launched within days of my last day as a commuter.
But this morning, as it always is these days, the train was filled with people immersed in their devices -- and, of course, those devices were predominantly the work of Steve Jobs. Many others, like the Android phone I was holding, probably wouldn't have existed without him, either. There needed to be a first company, a first person, to re-envision the phone -- and, of course, that person was Steve Jobs.
Now that Steve Jobs has died, it's odd to think that last afternoon, before I heard the news, I was going to write about how, here in America, we are finally using Twitter and Facebook the way that other countries have: to organize protests. That's important, and has its place.
But, still, I keep coming back to Steve Jobs, even though there's a central irony to a column called the Social Media Insider being about him. Apple has sold millions of communications devices, and, yet, it has never been an inherently social company. It has the iTunes social platform Ping, and integrates plenty of social media apps into its products, but it was also never a company that encouraged its employees to blog, or strike up conversations with consumers on Facebook. Though in his later years, Jobs occasionally got into email conversations with individual Apple customers -- which inevitably creeped into the blogosphere -- he never sent a tweet. His blog was a fake.
If anything, measured by those standards, Apple, and Jobs, were antisocial. The control that made him -- and the products he invented -- so successful, demanded a degree of control that made Apple a tight ship, often a mystery during a time of free-flowing information.
So, I thought a lot tonight about whether it was even responsible to write about Steve Jobs in a social media column. There's nothing worse than writing a cheesy column merely to capitalize on the news of the day. But then I decided he was such a huge figure to the technology world, and even the world itself, that you can't delineate his contributions very easily. When thinking about Steve Jobs and social media, it really doesn't matter whether or not Ping has any traction, or how Twitter's integration with Apple's iOS 5 will work out.
Because Jobs did something much bigger than even the most successful social media titans. He once described the Macintosh as "a computer for the rest of us." What he eventually did was make technology for the rest of us. And without that vision, computers might have been those utilitarian things I used to see on the train. The same with phones, and so much more. In a box somewhere, I have an old Palm Treo, a first generation smartphone. It was smart, but it wasn't fun to hang out with.
So what Steve Jobs did for social media was pave the way, by seeing digital technology as something that could be ubiquitous, enjoyable -- even beautiful. And that led to the social media we now take for granted. You could look at the numbers, or you could just look around you -- on a train, for instance -- and notice how many seemingly unlikely people are immersed in their devices, many of them on social media platforms, during the morning commute.
Certainly, the people who built user interfaces, from Twitter to Facebook to Blogger, owe Jobs a debt for teaching them that technology needs to be intuitive, fun. Apple was certainly the first company to make content creation easy, even if it doesn't own many of the key platforms we use to share it. And those are only the things that come to mind, right now, during what has been an emotional few hours for many of us.
But what I just said is too simplistic. When John Lennon was shot -- an event that rattled me for longer than I care to admit -- I realized something that all great historical figures have in common: It's easy to figure out where their influence begins, but it's impossible to know where it ends. There are direct descendants of the Beatles, but as for everything else that came after, all you can really say is that music would have been different without that one band.
And so it is with Steve Jobs. He may never have been directly involved in social media, and yet you know that it would have been different without him, in ways that we will never truly know.