Rhodri Marsden: Steve Jobs united the world - in death as life

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The Independent Online

Feed a breaking news story into the social media machine, pull the handle, and you'll be instantly swamped with a torrent of reaction and comment, approval or anger.

If that story concerns the death of someone well-known, you can add to that mix a hefty dose of sorrow or indifference, condolences and memories; this week's passing of two comparatively minor public figures – folk musician Bert Jansch and England cricketer Graham Dilley – had already consumed Twitter timelines and Facebook walls for the majority of Wednesday.

But when the death was announced of a man responsible for the devices that millions of people use to read and respond to all this news, the outpouring was always going to be intense. And so it proved. As the news started to break shortly after half past midnight on Thursday, British time, the internet buckled under the weight of the words "Steve" and "Jobs".

Links to websites confirming the story accumulated rapidly. Some tributes had evidently been ready to roll for some time, with Jobs having recently quit the post of CEO in a reportedly frail condition. Apple's website soon carried a single, black and white photo accompanied by the text "Steve Jobs 1955-2011", while technology blog Boing Boing immediately restyled the entire site to mimic the monochrome display of an early Macintosh computer.

Amazon took the unusual step of clearing a corner of its home page in tribute, while Africa's biggest food website, food24.com, led with a commemorative recipe for "Apple Crumble". Some reactions struck an immediate chord; Hong Kong-based designer Jonathan Mak Long adapted the Apple logo by replacing the apple bite with Jobs's silhouette, and a simple caption "Thanks, Steve." On Twitter, the now-traditional RIP posts (or, in this case, RiP) were appended with the Apple and heart symbols, as people felt compelled to post something. Anything. Even if it had already been done a dozen times. Because that's what modern gadgets encourage us to do.

All these expressions of grief – heartfelt or otherwise – within a short space of time quickly became overwhelming. "Started at the top haveof my Twitter timeline feeling sad about Steve," posted someone, "but by the time I got to the bottom I was thinking Princess Diana." He wasn't alone, and it didn't take long for people to criticise what they perceived as the "greasy mawkishness" of the reaction, despite it being just a function of the way social media works.

You can't compare it to several thousand people turning up to lay bouquets; it's more like several thousand people nodding sadly. Arguments flared, as those who had exercised their right to react to a stranger's death in whichever way they chose were confronted by those who believed that either their feelings were insincere, or that Jobs simply didn't deserve all this posthumous attention. "He brought nothing to humanity," wrote a commenter on the BBC website, "apart from some irrelevant gadgets."

This, and many other similar comments, failed to comprehend the affection with which many people now hold modern technology – an affection that can largely be attributed to changes driven by Jobs himself, and then copied throughout the industry.

The attractive contours of the original iMac replaced the unattractive grey computer chassis under the desk. The iPod put your beloved musical collection in your pocket. The tactile, user-friendly touch-screen interfaces of the iPhone and the iPad are replacing the revolutionary mouse-and-click graphical interface that Jobs also brought to the mass market many years ago.

And these bonds we've formed with our gadgets have, perhaps inevitably, led us to form some kind of bond with the guy most visibly responsible for their creation. Of course that's ripe for ridicule; there have been Apple product launches in the past few years where Jobs's appearance on stage has been greeted with squeals of delight and shouts of "We love you". Even die-hard Apple fans found themselves wincing.

Any fondness expressed for Apple has long been labelled as unwavering sycophancy, and that distaste was on display in the wake of Jobs's death; criticism of Apple's business practices (be it the reliance on far-Eastern labour or the locked-down, proprietary nature of many of their products) poured forth, along with gags ranging from the uncharitable (Capitalist of Hearts) to the offensive (iDead).

But the majority of Apple's detractors were forced to admit a begrudging solidarity with the "fanboys" and accept that Steve Jobs was essentially a good bloke. Former editor of the website Gizmodo, Brian Lam, who had a very public falling out with Jobs when a prototype iPhone 4 fell into his hands and he refused to return it when Jobs asked him to, yesterday posted a public apology for being an "asshole" and paid tribute to Jobs's kindness and humanity.

But the most circulated link was Jobs's 2005 address to students at Stanford University, an inspirational speech from a man already battling the cancer that would kill him. "Remembering you're going to die," he said, "is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

It was hard to feel anything other than wistful sadness after hearing that speech again – although Margie Phelps from the renowned Westboro Baptist Church immediately announced that she would picket Jobs's funeral for the crime of "giving God no glory" and "teaching sin". Her message concluded: "posted on Twitter for iPhone". Jobs, ironically and beautifully, got the last word.