Q&A | Fake Steve Jobs — how alter ego took over a portion of journalist's life
Daniel Lyons is Fake Steve Jobs. In virtual and actual print, that is. The veteran journalist who works for Forbes magazine during the day...
Special to The Seattle Times
Daniel Lyons is Fake Steve Jobs. In virtual and actual print, that is.
The veteran journalist who works for Forbes magazine during the day fostered an alter ego, a transparently made-up version of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, posting hilarious accounts of his inner thoughts for well over a year before being unmasked by The New York Times.
Lyons' revelation didn't affect his popularity or his job. Forbes became a sponsor of the blog, which he's still updating daily (fakestevejobs.blogspot.com). The blog has turned into a related book, called "oPtion$," which relates Fake Steve Jobs' thoughts around the investigation of stock option grants at Apple.
Boston-based Lyons was in Seattle on Tuesday to speak at Microsoft, and he met for breakfast to talk about how FSJ took over part of his life.
Here's an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: You don't have a Fake Steve Jobs impression that you can do? You're not going to get up there [at Microsoft] and wear the turtleneck?
A: Everybody always asks me that. Are you going to get up there with a turtleneck on? I actually have a bunch of T-shirts that I bought from other people who made Fake Steve T-shirts. I don't know if this is right or wrong, but I'm going to wear a suit.
Q: Beastmaster and Monkey Boy [FSJ's names for Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer]: What happens if you meet them?
A: I don't think they'll be there.
Q: Are you going to refer to them by their sobriquets?
A: Not to their face. Maybe. I doubt they'll come. I hope they'll have more important things to do.
I interviewed Ballmer a couple of years ago; he's a great guy. He's totally down to earth. There's a Fake Ballmer Blog right now; it's not very funny. ... For one of these parody blogs to work you have to have someone who presents one face to the world and is another way. Hillary Clinton would be a great parody blog. Steve Jobs with his Zen thing, but he's really a monster behind it.
Q: Did you read [Chicago Sun-Times and Macworld contributor] Andy Ihnatko's column about Fake Steve Jobs before you finally got unmasked?
A: When he finally denied it? He and I were trading e-mail -- I was like, stretch it on a little more.
Q: He's a funny guy and he knows the inside stuff. The good money in the Mac community was on Andy Ihnatko. But his column was, the reason that Fake Steve Jobs works is that there are so many Fake Steve Jobs. It seems like you can create a malleable identity for him for that reason.
A: Right. He leaves a big vacuum to fill. Whereas Ballmer fills the space. And Ballmer is onstage the same guy offstage, I think. ... Anybody who runs onstage and does the Monkey Dance, you can't parody that guy; he's already done it. I love him.
He's really intense and he's a great interview, and he's really smart, too. I think a big misperception about Ballmer is that people have the image that he's a buffoon. No, no, no, no. Steve's really smart.
I don't really cover Microsoft for Forbes and never really have, but I have been covering the industry for 20 years, and I knew a lot of those guys when it was a fairly small company. And they always were [smart]. Most of the people there are hilariously funny. ... Look, they're having me up. They were one of the first people to call.
Q: The book seems like much more of a roman à clef, or you've created a partially alternative universe. Were there libel concerns? I miss the regulars [from the blog].
A: Someone else said that, too. No, it was that I felt with the book I had to focus in with someone, a narrative. I had to hook into something. I didn't really think of doing a book until I thought, OK, there's a narrative, a beginning, a middle, an end.
The focus is going to be this options scandal, and Steve's in trouble and how does he get out of it. For you to keep reading, it has to have some urgency -- something at stake upfront.
A guy at Newsweek.com who reviewed it said, "I don't know if options scandal is the most interesting thing you could think of, dude," but it's what I thought of. But then I kind of thought the whole book has to be harnessed to that, but I can have asides. I have a Bono aside, I have a ...
Q: Richard Branson calling from the balloon. You're sending up all these people. The Hillary Clinton interlude was sort of weird because I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of "Primary Colors," which I don't know if that was your attempt at an homage to Joe Klein?
A: I thought, what would you do if you were in this trouble? Let's assume that the SEC is really after you, and the U.S. attorney, how would you get out of it? One thing you would try is, let's go try to pull some strings with politicians. It was almost not an oversight, but there was no way to work Sun Microsystems into the novel. I guess I could have invented something.
When you're looking at [the book] it's very lean -- 300 pages. I wanted to keep it very short, like 250 pages, actually. I wanted it to be like you could pick it up and sit down at one [time] and read it. To keep comic energy up for a long time is a hard thing. You're working very hard to keep it funny. And the publishers wanted it to be short.
Q: You got a lot in there: You got sex, which there's not a lot of in the blog, you got drugs, there's rock 'n' roll, the murder of a hobo -- always have to have the murder of a hobo --
A: I forgot about that. In L.A ...
Q: There's no identity theft -- identity changing ... .
A: Pretexting, reference to HP spying on reporters ...
Q: There's sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, and murder, and financial misdeeds: mis-, mal-, and nonfeasance. You got it all in there.
A: For the Bill Gates thing -- I could do a sequel. I wanted to keep it really short and learn, and keep it as stripped down as possible to that one little story. There's a scene where Bill Gates calls Steve Jobs; there's a scene where he has a dream about Bill Gates; there's a dream sequence where they're being crucified together.
Q: Doesn't one of the other characters say, "Oh, everyone has that dream about Microsoft"?
A: The shrink says, "You can't believe how many people I have who come in here and have this dream about Microsoft after all the harm they've done to the world."
Q: The novel is a bit picaresque in some ways. There is a journey, you talk about [Jobs] re-reading [Hermann Hesse's] "Siddhartha," and you think, "Gosh, this isn't exactly Siddhartha, but there are arcs like that." There are a bunch of laugh-out-loud moments for me, like the Yoko Ono thing just had me screaming because it seemed so perfectly like Yoko Ono. We don't know what she's like, either, but she might be like that.
A: If you had to guess, right?
Q: There was this verisimilitude about this mutual craziness of the two of them out-Zenning each other.
A: Can't you see that happening? I don't know if they've ever even met. I've got a running joke on the blog about how we'd have the Beatles today [for download] except for Yoko; Yoko keeps screwing it up.
Q: She wants to call it -- what's the joke?
A: She wants to call [the band] "John Lennon and the Beatles," and she wants all the albums to include her as a fifth member of the band, even on the ones before she met John. Like, Meet the Beatles would still have Yoko Ono listed as a member. Totally made up, right? For all I know, it's someone else's problem with the Beatles. But I thought it would be funny because Yoko broke up the Beatles and she was the big villain. And she's kind of wacky.
Q: You don't need a "Fake Yoko Ono."
A: No, she's already out there. I wonder if people who read the blog will think they're missing a lot? I wanted to make it, like, "new." There is some stuff I lifted from the blog. At one point, the publisher made me go through and take this exercise where I would go through and figure out how much of the book's text had actually been in the blog. It wasn't very much.
I picked certain things that I liked from the blog and reused them, or changed them around. Probably the people who are going to buy the book are people who read the blog -- I hope there will be another audience. They don't want to just pick up a book and read all the entries they read online.
Q: That was the Mimi Smartypants problem [an early blogger], and her book was 100 percent her blog; and there was Wonkette, who created a novel that had almost no relationship with what Ana Cox was writing online. It seems like you're somewhere in the middle -- you're referencing a character you created, but in a more completely realized world.
A: I hope so. I hope it works. It was fun, anyway. The reviews have been better than I thought -- a lot better. I'm taken aback. I've been doing this blog for a year and a half. This will be fun, maybe some people will enjoy it, that would be good.
Q: You seem unpretentious about the whole thing. Were you surprised by the scale of the response to this? What genie did I uncork suddenly?
A: Early on, I did about six weeks and sent links to a couple of people, not telling I wrote it, but just saying, "Hey, check this out." One of the people I sent it to also had a blog, and he put it on his blog -- "Hey, check out this new cool site."
I shut it down for six weeks because I thought, well, I figure out how Blogger [a blog-hosting service] works, and I know all that. And I did notice that people were starting to post comments. And I'm thinking how did they find it? I was trying to learn about blogging. I guess I realized that your blog is out there, but I didn't think anyone would see it unless I pointed them to it.
People just started finding it and posting comments like, "Hey, that was funny."
There was one guy, his name was "macgeekguy," he had a little photo, and he started posting comments on everything. I'm sure he was telling his friends. But still it was small. So after about six weeks, I took it down. Somebody else put it back up, saying, "What happened? This was great." And I thought, this is weird. I got about 50 comments posted to the new placeholder blog saying, come back, who were you?
And I posted something saying I was just stunned, I didn't know anybody was reading this.
And they were like, "Dude, you should put it back and put SiteMeter on it. So I put it back up and I put SiteMeter on it, and I told my wife, I had a thousand people this week, and I told my wife -- who are these people? They were from all over the world.
Even though I write about the Internet, and for years I've been writing about the Internet, until you feel it, like you put your hand on the rail, and you're like, whoa!
Q: You've never been the victim of viral marketing?
A: I've had stories on Forbes.com that got picked up by Slashdot and I saw how big that is. But it was weird to be on your own, and one person could just start writing something and people would find it. And next thing you know, by December, I had 90,000 uniques [unique visitors]. A lot of it was Apple fan boys.
Q: And every Mac journalist was reading it because we thought it was hilarious. It seemed like you had a lot of little details that made it work.
A: If you go back to the very beginning, like the first six weeks, I had a lot of very embarrassing mistakes, where people would post comments, well meaning, like they liked the blog, but they were, uh, dude, the guy's name is Jon Ive, not Ives with an 's.' I was making a lot of mistakes.
I remember telling my wife, this is such a weird form. I was thinking blogs were like a diary. I had been sort of dismissive of blogs: Who cares what you had for breakfast. But I realized that same form, you could do news with it, first of all; OK, we all knew that. But then I thought, you can do kind of fiction with it. You could make a sitcom.
You could do serial kind of episodes. You could have recurring characters. It's almost like writing fiction online.
Q: Once you get a blog that's well read, it becomes a ravening maw. You have a full-time job. How do you feed the maw?
A: It's like the monkey on your back. Weeks like this, when I'm traveling, how do you do that? The reason I was able to start doing this is that my job at Forbes was fairly slow. We're biweekly, but really I do one a month. So you have a lot of time when you're working on a story.
When I'm on the road, how do I try to keep up with this stuff? So I bank up things in advance, but when I try to spool them out over a few days, but then, by Wednesday, when you post it, it's out of date. It's hard.
Q: How many readers do you have now?
A: About a million. At one point in August, it was a million and a half, and I did about 2 million page views. I don't get a lot of page views per unique [visitor], but August was sick. One day, the day of The New York Times story, I had 500,000 page views. I was in Maine, and I didn't know. I came back down, and I was on the phone with this reporter from the Chronicle, and I'm driving home talking to her and doing the interview, and we're still on the phone as I walked inside, and I checked the number and I was like, holy crap. It's settled back down now.
It's a lot of people. God. It's cool.
Q: Steve Jobs doesn't talk openly. Even though you're a parody, are you the next thing to Steve Jobs?
A: I hope not. I hope he's more entertaining than that.
Q: When you started doing Fake Steve Jobs, there was this trend for CEOs to start blogging. Did that lead to this blog?
A: When [Robert] Scoble's book came out ["Naked Conversations"], and there was a whole thing about naked conversations and radical transparency, and you had guys like [Sun CEO] Schwartz and Bob Lutz at GM doing CEO blogs. And I thought it was the most preposterous idea ever. It was so silly. And it was so fake. They weren't honest at all. They weren't transparent.
If people really did take Scoble seriously, and some CEO said I'm going to be nakedly transparent, radically transparent, what would that be like if some CEO went off the rails, and PR couldn't control him, and he was going to say whatever he wanted to say. And I thought that would be a funny blog and that was part of the impetus.
Glenn Fleishman, a freelance technology writer in Seattle, writes the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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