(Guest Post) The Future of Innovation at Apple

Russell J. Funk is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan. His paper “Making the Most of Where You Are: Local Environments, Intra-Organizational Networks, and Innovation in Nanotechnology” recently won the 2011 Best Student Paper Award from the Technology and Innovation Management Division of the Academy of Management.

With the recent resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple, many wonder if the company will be able to keep pumping out game-changing innovations like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Of course, only time will tell. But it’s still fun to make some conjectures, especially if you have a little data on which to base them. So how important is Jobs, the charismatic and visionary CEO, to innovation at Apple? Will someone else be able to take his place?

One way of approaching these questions is to look at Apple’s patent portfolio. The New York Times (1) has an excellent interactive page that lets users explore the hundreds of patents Jobs was awarded during his tenure with the company. Needless to say, based on this birds-eye view of the patent portfolio, the future of a post-Jobs Apple looks less than rosy. First, the patents listing Jobs’s name include most – if not all – of Apple’s most iconic innovations, ranging from the iPod’s distinctive click wheel (2), to the iPhone’s signature touch screen (3), to the famous glass staircases (4) found at many Apple stores. Second, Jobs’s continual involvement in the nitty-gritty of product design and innovation put him at odds with most executives at companies of similar size, age, and stature, and provides strong support for arguments that he epitomizes the charismatic CEO – brilliant, inspiring, but also irreplaceable. Creative scientists and engineers are great for getting companies off the ground, but they tend to be bad managers. Eventually, most either hand over the reins to a professional manager, or ditch the lab for the corner office – rarely can one individual maintain success in both worlds.

So, is Apple doomed? I don’t think so. To see this, we need to take a more nuanced look at the company’s patent portfolio – the conclusions we reach from the bird’s eye view can be quite misleading, in part because this view too individualistic. If we want to really understand innovation at Apple, we need to situate Jobs’s inventions in a broader social context. Who else at the company, besides Jobs, is coming up with new ideas? Does he do it alone, or does he get by with a little help from his friends?



(Guest Post) How Sociology Can Save Pop Discourse About the Internet

Sarah Gram is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her current research focuses on gender, race, and knowledge diffusion in online communities. She also keeps a blog at Textual Relations, where she writes about gender, technology, scifi, and more. This post is part of a series about why and how sociologists should study the internet.

The number of pop science/business/cultural studies books that have come out on the subject of the Internet in the past few years has been staggering. Off the top of my head, we’ve got Nick Carr’s The Shallows, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Evengy Morozov’s The Net Delusion, Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, Johnathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet; and How to Stop It, Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, and John Palfrey & Urs Gasser’s Born Digital. Now, some of these books are better than others, and the perspectives they offer tell valuable stories about the way the Internet is changing human life. But if you look at the authors listed, not a single one of them is a (working) sociologist. There are business consultants, psychologists, veterans of Silicon Valley utopianism, computer scientists, law professors, and journalists. But there’s not a single sociologist up there.

This is not to say that there isn’t some great internet research out there being done by sociologists. There is. We have excellent data on the digital divide, and a lot of fascinating qualitative and quantitative work on the impact of online social networks on offline relationships. But this hasn’t translated into sociologists being asked to give TED talks on the future of social interaction online, and it hasn’t led to the social/cultural studies section of your local bookstore being flooded with crossover books by academics who are invested in doing a more public sociology. The last time I saw a sociologist (actually two sociologists) cited in a tech-oriented article in the New Yorker, it was in a Malcolm Gladwell-penned piece on social media and revolutions, and they were social movements scholar Doug McAdams, and network theorist Mark Granovetter. Not to begrudge the usefulness of either scholar’s work in understanding social change sparked by social media, but I’ve never seen a sociologist cited when “the Internet is bad for your social life” comes up for the millionth time.

(Guest Post) Fieldwork in the Era of Facebook

Amy Cooter is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation research focuses on a Michigan organization that is very internet savvy. You can read more about it on her department profile. This post is part of a series about why and how sociologists should study the internet.

I study what might generally be termed “sensitive” populations—those who, for a variety of reasons, are wary of outsiders. The internet has been an invaluable source of information in my research, but it is not one without potential peril. I use online data sources to supplement more traditional sources (interviews and ethnographic field work, primarily), and I think it’s very important to note that I do mean “supplement” here, not “replace.”

In my experience in the field, Facebook in particular has been a treasure trove of information for contextualizing or challenging information I have received in person. I have been in the field for more than 3 years now with my primary population of interest, and have good reason to believe that most of the viewpoints they share with me are truthful reflections of how they believe they see the world. However, I only see my respondents in person about twice a month. Facebook, other social networking sites, and my population’s forum all serve to alert me to interesting developments that happen in the intervening time. Additionally, I’m unlikely to see my participants in person when they are experiencing stressful events at home or at work. Internet access to my participants lets me see how they respond during these scenarios.

(Guest Post) My Little Bronies: Why the Internet is Magic

John Bailey is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Michigan. His current research focuses on gender, online identity, and cyberbullying. This post is part of a series about why and how sociologists should study the internet.

Recent sociological work on the internet treats the online as a simple extension of the offline. The (justified) focus on social networking sites exemplifies this; danah boyd’s work on teens and “networked publics,” for example, defines the internet’s primary social role as allowing users new ways to communicate and interact with their friends from school, work, and church. Similarly, studies of “the digital divide” investigate the determinants of users’ differing abilities to access information in order to serve their material (read “offline”) needs. The internet enhances and complicates, but does not replace, the offline social world.

Bronies, I think, present a decent complement, or perhaps rebuttal, to this perspective.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (FiM), the newest cartoon iteration of Hasbro’s long-running toy franchise, debuted in October 2010. Over the next few months, the show accumulated a confusing fanbase: teenage and adult males, dubbed “bronies.” By way of popular imageboard 4chan, aided by YouTube remix culture, and coalescing around community news blog Equestria Daily, bronies quickly developed thousands of fan-fiction stories, pieces of original music, weekly news podcasts, pony-themed modifications to video games, and many guides to perming your toy pony’s hair.