iPhone X and the Apple “access economy”

culture


Yesterday, Apple introduced a new wrinkle to its annual iPhone release strategy. A select handful of YouTube vloggers were invited to an undisclosed New York location, where they received exclusive hands-on time with the iPhone X. The embargo for posting their impressions dropped yesterday morning—a full day before the wider press was permitted to post their prerelease reviews.

On the one hand, it’s tempting to celebrate this approach as an elevation of the “little guys” over the tech press juggernauts. It’s fun to see YouTube personalities, with their minimal budgets and one-person productions, outscoop media institutions with million-dollar studios and conglomerate-backed financial resources. And for the YouTubers themselves, getting this exclusive was undoubtedly a huge (and valuable) thrill.

“Why these outlets?”

But the “pre-embargo embargo” left many Apple watchers scratching their heads. What is Apple’s underlying strategy here? Do these vloggers have more influence over key demographics than the mainstream press? Do their voices better align with Apple’s target customer base of young creatives?

A more cynical take crossed my mind. Apple may have selected these YouTube channels in part because of their relative obscurity. For a little-known vlogger, an exclusive iPhone X hands-on represents a huge opportunity—a chance to grow their audience exponentially. In other words, there’s a serious power differential here, with the advantage lying entirely on Apple’s side. In the week before an iPhone’s release, Apple is the kingmaker.

Even if Apple didn’t specify editorial conditions in exchange for access, wouldn’t the YouTubers feel pressured to hew to the provided talking points? Wouldn’t airing iPhone X grievances feel like biting the hand that feeds you? Might you be hesitant to level pointed criticism at the X, for fear of not getting similar access next time?

Insidious incentives

These concerns don’t just apply to Youtubers. The “Apple access economy” incentivizes problematic journalism throughout the entire tech press. Let’s break it down:

On the one side, we have Apple, shrouded in secrecy, strategically distributing (or withholding) invitations to its product marketing events and its prerelease review units. These baubles go to an exclusive, hand-selected subset of journalists (or, in this case, enthusiastic YouTube influencers).[1]

For these reviewers—whether writers, podcasters, or vloggers—such access is insanely valuable. Apple content drives more traffic than any other tech topic, and exclusive Apple content generates exponentially more clicks for creators’ channels and sites.

It seems natural that a reviewer blessed with access would want to receive the same privilege the next time Apple announces a similar device. Here’s the key question, then: do some Apple reviewers soften their reviews in an attempt to retain their level of access? Do those “inside the circle” tamp down their criticism in order to stay in the circle? Does the mere existence of this perverse incentive threaten to undermine journalistic integrity in the tech sphere?

It’s hard to discuss this topic without sounding accusatory. To be fair, many tech press members espouse and hold to strict journalistic principles. And the vloggers who posted their “first looks” yesterday don’t deserve to have their integrity questioned; their impressions were largely positive–even exuberant–but that may result more from stylistic decisions than from any sort of nefarious bias.

Still, the “Apple access economy” deserves more scrutiny. The insidious incentive exists, even if reviewers manage to keep it from dampening their criticism. ■


  1. Apple’s not unique in this practice—except in that access to Apple is disproportionately valuable (compared to Samsung, Amazon, Google, or Microsoft).  ↩