The truth about Fake Steve Jobs

Welp, I’m glad to say that the Things Have Officially Gotten Out Of Hand light I bought on clearance from Radio Shack last year is working flawlessly. It started blinking a few months ago, just before the phone rang and I found myself speaking to The Wall Street Journal and being asked point-blank if I am The Fake Steve Jobs.

The reporter got my phone number from a pal of mine at the paper. Under the circumstances, I felt that I had to answer his question truthfully and unambiguously, regardless of the consequences.

To my surprise, whatever he had planned to write didn’t get written. The controversy ploughed onward and upward and I’ve had to replace the bulb on the THOGOoH indicator about every nine days since.

As many of you know, some enterprising and enthusiastic individual started up a blog last year entitled “ The Secret Diary Of Steve Jobs,” authored by The Fake Steve Jobs.

Might I say that it’s a fine blog and both Bona-Fide Steve Jobs and Perhaps Not Interesting Enough To Bother Parodizing Bill Gates are counted among its readers.

And whoever this Fake Steve person is, you certainly can’t fault this person for a lack of creativity or mongoose-like shrewdness. If you knowingly ordered a dish that was listed on the Olive Garden’s menu as “Not Real Beef, Not Even By Federal School Lunch Standards” and then you tried to sue the restaurant because the stuff triggered your allergy to raccoon protein, Judge Judy would be correct to laugh you right out of her fake courtroom.

The “Andy Ihnatko Is Fake Steve” meme started gaining traction back in October, I suppose. Since then, I’ve been asked The Question by the Journal , Forbes, Business Week, Wired , and every other serious and quasi-serious tech news site you could mention. The publisher of my tech books — not just some random editor, but the one guy with the title of Publisher — asked me. Even my friends have gotten in on the act. At first, they’d ask The Question and it would be good for a laugh (as well as a free round of drinks, if I played it right). Nowadays, they might still ask in jest, but it’s accompanied by one of those curious stares that suggests that they’ve cranked their personal sonar to maximum to try to detect any sort of catch in my laugh that might serve as a tipoff.

(Which means that the reward for playing my response correctly is maybe ducking out on the whole dinner check.)

When the public started to link me to Fake Steve, I could afford to be a bit coy about this particular subject. Then, I imposed a code of strict radio silence on the matter. I offer no response to the requests for interviews about it, and if I’m cornered, then I say “no comment.”

So why did I agree to an interview with Valleywag recently?

It’s my fault: they caught me in a weak moment. I’d just returned home from my first appearance on a live national network morning show that didn’t involve my standing behind a barricade frantically waving a sign reading “LOVE U PAULA/AMERICAN IDOL #1.” So when I got an IM from a Valleywag writer who claimed to be a fan of my work and requested a chat, my ego said “Sure!” about a split-second before more rational sectors of the OS came online and said “Crap, this is probably going to be another Fake Steve fishing expedition, isn’t it?”

But no harm was done. I told him outright that I didn’t intend to give any substantive answers to any Fake Steve questions, which effectively nullified the entire interview…even when he asked me a question specifically designed to smoke out Fake Steve or rule me out as a suspect for good. He asked me something that only the Real Fake Steve would know, something that Fake Steve had once told him..

I knew the correct answer. But I was able to give him an alternative answer that was both completely truthful and wholly evasive.

“Why not just flat-out deny being Fake Steve?” you’re wondering. Well, there’s really no point to that. As I explained to Valleywag — and I’m not sure that they followed the logic — is there really any scenario in which that would make sense? There are only two possibilities here. Either I’m Fake Steve, in which case I would want to throw people off the scent, or I’m not him, in which case I surely wouldn’t lie about that if asked point-blank and on the record, would I?

See? Answering that question is a lose-lose. No matter what I say, I’m sort of confirming whatever conclusion people have already reached.

But now, it feels like even saying absolutely nothing about Fake Steve is no longer the right answer. Being coy is just good clean mischief, and being silent is every American’s option (except in those countries in South America where that’s the sort of thing that gets the Government so angry that they break out the motorcycle battery and the jumper cables). At this stage, though, it feels like a certain corner has been turned and that in another month or so keeping this thing up would require that I start being outright Deceptive about it.

The admission

So at long last, here you go:

I’m not Fake Steve.

I’ll even go so far as to spray-paint that statement gold, and cover it with glitter. I say this here and now, without a single wink or ironic note: I’m not him. I had nothing to do with the blog’s creation and have never had the slightest thing to do with any of its content. True, I intentionally Michael Moored my way through the Valleywag interview (choosing my answers carefully to create precisely the impression I wanted to create without being pinned down in an out-and-out lie), but I think you can tell by this paragraph that I’m leaving myself absolutely no wiggle-room for future justifications or apologies.

For good measure, I will point out that I have specifically chosen to have this statement published on Macworld.com instead of my personal blog. They’re paying me for this and I told them in advance what I’d be telling you folks. So if I am indeed lying to Macworld just to kick the spotlight away from me, then man alive, in addition to committing a rather upsetting ethical transgression that will impact whatever reputation I might have built up as a journalist, and in addition to burning a bridge that has remained intact for (good Lord) more than 15 years, they can sue me for the money they paid me plus all of the ad revenue that they’d be forced to refund when word finally got out.

(My accepting a check for this also means, sadly, that I shall finally be able to afford that Nikon 18-200mm VR lens I’ve been eyeing ever since I bought myself a Nikon D80. But I shall bear it; my strength is as the strength of ten men, for my soul is pure.)

Cool.

Oh, how do I know the correct answer to Valleywag’s “smoking gun” question?

Fake Steve and I have been swapping e-mails.

Nice guy, that Fake Steve. I would co-sign a fake car loan for him in a heartbeat.

Going public about all of this is a bit of a letdown for me, of course, because every time someone came up with a new piece of damning evidence linking me to Fake Steve (or dismissing said link as rubbish) it’s been pretty damned fun:

“Fake Steve can’t possibly be Andy Ihnatko; Andy is actually funny. I enjoyed this one and forwarded it to my Mom.

“Andy Ihnatko can’t possibly be Fake Steve; FSJ is actually funny. My Mom forwarded this one to me, using it as ammunition in her ongoing crusade to convince me to quit this writing job, cut my hair, shave off my sideburns, and take a nice, stable gig loading trucks at the FedEx depot, like my cousin Hal.

“Fake Steve uses lots of Britishisms, just like Andy.” This was a pretty good one, though I think in truth you’ll find that both Fake Steve and I and about 20 percent of all working writers are either big fans of P.G. Wodehouse or were influenced by writers who were themselves influenced by Wodehouse. Which come to think of it is more like 99.3 percent of the population.

I do travel to London every time someone’s willing to foot my expenses (which has been fairly often, God bless ’em). But I had to look up “chav” to determine if it was either one of those words that was so ginchy that I must use it in every third sentence I ever write (cf. “Ginchy”), or something so filthy that I’d ignorantly try to use it in print and shortly face such an immediate collapse of my writing business that I’d have to be fitted for a pair of blue striped shorts and start carpooling with my cousin.

“Andy has never blogged about Fake Steve; Fake Steve has never mentioned Andy.” Well, I rarely blog about tech-related stuff. Yellowtext is for other purposes; in fact, on those rare occasions when I’ve found myself blogging about something in the tech industry I usually wind up turning it into a column instead.

“Fake Steve’s IP address traces back to a Verizon box in the Boston area; Andy lives in Boston.” Yeah, someone went and laid a little honeypot for our boy. They set up a webpage that could only be accessed by a special link that was only sent to Fake Steve, and then they checked the server logs to see where the HTTP request came from.

Which hardly seems sporting, you know.

Or terribly effective. Admittedly, they got some hard intel out of the op, but having an IP address without having a limited list of suspects to compare it against is only marginally more useful than knowing that Fake Steve owns a computer and seems to have some sort of access to the Internet. Particularly given that it probably wasn’t even a static IP address to begin with.

And this is actually another reason why I’m going public. The baiters laid a trap to uniquely ID Fake Steve, and then saw fit to publish the IP address that came up. It’s extremely likely that the moment this info hit the Web, Fake Steve retook the extremely sophisticated hacker-ey action of turning his router off and then on again to get a new, random IP — assuming that the IP was ever any good to begin with — so I’m probably right in thinking that the IP now directs to a new, random Verizon subscriber. Some grandmother in Leominster has probably been wondering why she’s getting so many weird connections from so many weird people.

This doesn’t quite qualify as a Dark Turn, but the whole Hunt For Fake Steve is now definitely a shade closer to #000000 than it was a few weeks ago. It’s the start of a long path that ends with Fake Steve Detector Vans slowly roaming the streets and that’s really no good for anybody.

For the sake of completeness, I should tell you that there were other reasons for this disclosure. My link to Fake Steve — though incorrect — was starting to become Common Knowledge and I had some real problems with people making that assumption. Allowing this misconception to snowball wasn’t as bad as claiming credit for Fake Steve’s success, but it sure wasn’t good.

Plus: Fake Steve can be a real meanie sometimes. I didn’t want to take credit for that, either.

Which isn’t a slam against the blog. Fake Steve is openly promoted as an entirely fictional character and it’s impossible for a fictional character to strike with the intention of truly wounding. Plus, hell, I’m sometimes just as meanspirited in my columns. I was the man who wrote that using the Microsoft Zune player is “about a pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face.” For this and other sins, when the ballgame’s all over I shall surely be handed a Zune and a Windows XP machine and told that these will be my sole sources of entertainment during my millenia in Purgatory.

(I also murdered a balloon vendor near the Central Park Reservoir back in ’92, so I suppose it all comes out even, just.) [Local authorities, you know where to contact us. —Ed.]

Anyway, it really, really bothered me to think that there might be people out there who believed that I was writing “safe” things under my real name and was publishing riskier and nastier stuff behind the safety of an alias. You gotta say what you gotta say, but the price of that freedom is attaching your name and your reputation to it and dealing with the repercussions…which is what I do.

The other Fake Steves

So if it’s not me, then who is Fake Steve? I dunno. To tell the truth, I really haven’t given it much thought. There’s no prize for figuring it out, you know. It’s not like Fake Steve buried a golden hare encrusted with gems in an earthen pot somewhere, to become the property of either Eternity or the first person to correctly gig out his or her Mastercard number.

Nope, the fun of Fake Steve’s blog is in celebrating the cultural phenomenon of Bona-Fide Steve Jobs as a cartoon character. Because the BFSJ that’s emerged in the popular consciousness has about as much intersection with the real, private one as the cartoon version of Optimus Prime has with one of the actual Transformers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the CEO of Apple is actually a weedy-looking guy from Manitoba and that the guy we’ve seen in all of the keynotes is just a remarkable animatronic operated internally by five expertly-trained ducks. I’m saying that like FSJ and BFSJ are much alike. They both carefully protect their true identities from public scrutiny, and any attempt to guess at who “the real Steve” is is inevitably going to go down in abject failure. It’s well-known that Steve’s personal life is the third rail of journalism: you touch it and you die. And it wouldn’t be one of those “Tsk-tsk…so tragic, and so young!” ones, either. Digging into that sort of thing is true Darwin Award material, right up there with believing that the sign “HIGH-SPEED TURBINE IMPELLER; KEEP AT LEAST THIRTY FEET AWAY” contains the implied postscript “…UNLESS YOU HAVE A WATERMELON AND AN IDEA FOR AN AWESOME YOUTUBE VIDEO.”

And honestly, I don’t care about BFSJ’s personal life, either. The 1990’s were chockablock with tech CEOs who desperately wanted to explain to interviewers that they’re avid students of the same ancient school of kickboxing practiced by the Turkish secret police; or that they collect vintage toasters; or that they haven’t worn anything orange since they were 11 years old because they’re such wacky New Economy free-spirits. They were so open about their personal lives because they desperately did not want the interviewers to ask itchy questions like “So, explain to me why the time is right for an online store that only sells trampolines.”

If BFSJ has any talking to do, he does it through his functions as the head of his companies. What I want as a journalist and a consumer is an iPhone. I have no use for a press release about a CEO’s plans to become the first man to ascend Everest in a Santa Claus costume.

But folks aren’t quite satisfied with BFSJ’s bizarre “My personal life is nobody’s business” attitude. So the nerd community put at least three or four Fake Steve Jobses into play before anybody thought to trademark the term and start up a blog. There’s:

Edison Steve, a man of untrammeled engineering brilliance who toils in his lonely basement lab night and day before emerging, triumphant and disheveled, with a handbuilt iPod Exo prototype; it is functional and complete, save for a paddleboat-shaped case to be designed by Jonathan Ive (based on sketches Steve threw together during the drive back to the office);

Lofty Steve, who, like the Coca-Cola Company, would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Except his mechanism for compelling the planet to commit to the precepts of compassion and empathy involves the Intel Core Duo processor and the H.264 codec instead of phosphoric acid and caramel coloring;

Palpatine Steve, who makes compelling public speeches about maintaining a benevolent and steady hand on the great ship of industry and leading the Republic to a new Enlightened Age, while all the time he’s trying to decide whether the two Jedi he’s got chained up in the Imperial barge have merited the lightning-bolts-from-the-hands treatment or if he can get away with just ejecting them into space before making the jump to lightspeed;

Howard Hughes Steve, whom you suspect has a few mayonnaise jars full of urine stored discreetly here and there around the Apple campus;

And let’s not overlook the silliest — and possibly the most popular — one:

I’m-Sure-If-I-Ever-Met-Him-We’d-Be-Like- Total -Best-Friends-Because-We’re-So-Alike Steve . The Steve who thinks that cool tech is awesome, and who was excited to be one of the first people to ride a Segway, and who is totally into U2 and cartoons, and…

In this complete vacuum of personal information, with a public so eager to believe that the image that they’ve conjured up is in fact the real thing, it was inevitable that somebody would lay claim to the Fake Steve name as well as the tee-shirt revenue. I’m just a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of it first.

I do insist that there’s really no benefit to squirreling out Fake Steve’s true identity. But sure, part of the fun of the Fake Steve game is indeed the guessing, so I’ll end this piece by suggesting one name as a possible suspect:

Meghan Yan.

I’m not sure that any of you might have heard of her. Actually, I’ve no idea if she’s even a writer. I haven’t seen her in, like, twenty years or something. But back in high school, I asked her out to the Spring Formal and she shot me down so violently and creatively that a fundraising campaign was quickly assembled and a bronze plaque was mounted on the spot where it happened. Every year on the anniversary, a small delegation of local dignitaries lays a wreath.

So Meghan, if you’re reading this: if you’d been just a little bit nicer about it way back then, maybe now you wouldn’t be dodging IMs from Business Week today.

Revenge is a dish best served (et cetera et cetera).

[Andy Ihnatko is a technology columnist and author whose work appears regularly Macworld, MacUser.com, and elsewhere. He is also technology columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.]

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