Image by Camillo Miller

Photo credit: Camillo Miller

Walk into any one of Apple’s more than 400 retail stores across the globe and you will receive customer service that is typically unmatched in the consumer electronics industry. The experience that an Apple Store customer receives is consistently rated to be bar none, but it comes with sacrifice: hours of hard, tireless work by an army of over 40,000 men and women across several countries.

Last year, The New York Times profiled Apple’s retail employees as loyal, but “short on pay.” Our own extensive interviews with several current and former Apple retail employees demonstrated an onslaught of people who corroborated The New York Times report, but it also highlighted employees that demonstrated pride in addition to disagreement with the controversial claims. A common theme, however, is loyalty while at work, regardless of other factors.

At the store, Apple’s retail workers are loyal, helpful, and demonstrative of excitement (even if it is not genuine) for Apple’s products and customers. After work, though, some are, ironically as correctly described in Steve Jobs’ The Crazy Ones Think Different campaign, misfits, rebels, and troublemakers. While these unsatisfied workers have formerly expressed their feelings to the press and via informal (and now defunct) unions like “Apple Workers Union,” a growing group of Apple employees has now taken a more modern approach to expression: social media.

Even with strict, Apple Corporate-implemented policies on social media usage of its employees, a portion of Apple retail employees have formed an under-the-radar, “Apple Anonymous” community over social media sites like Twitter and Google+. The majority of these employees work on these social media networks under “anonymous” personalities. This is in order to keep Apple from discovering the true identities of the rebel employees. Discussing the work place (especially with negativity) and discussing internal policies online is strictly forbidden by Apple and a cause for termination. No questions asked.

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Select profile avatars used by “Anonymous” employees

In misfit form, some of these employees take on personalities that attempt to be humorous. For example, accounts exist which strike a chord with fans of a South Park episode that parodies Apple and its policies. Other accounts poke fun at former Apple Retail Senior Vice President John Browett, others quote customer complaints, and others share life from behind the Apple Store’s cornerstone help center: the Genius Bar. Commonly, all of these accounts seem to be used to vent frustration at working within Apple’s brick-and-mortar chain and to interact with fellow employees across the globe.

Hundreds of employees strong, many of these accounts have amassed hundreds of Twitter followers; these followers range from Apple fans, bloggers, and, of course, fellow “anonymous” retail employees. Some of these accounts even have several thousand followers. We have interviewed several of these “anonymous” retail employees for this profile to hear and share their unique perspectives on Apple and the secret society that they and hundreds of others contribute to.

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When asked how they heard about this online group and why they are apart of it, multiple responders pointed directly to a Twitter account by the name of “Genius Bar Tales.” This Twitter account claims to be the original Apple “anonymous” Twitter account. The personality quickly gained fame for its involvement with the widely-covered Genius Bar “Planking” meme. The account also became popular for quoting customers and for sharing details from behind the Genius Bar.

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The account also frequently holds question and answer sessions via Twitter with fellow “anonymous” personalities and those interested in the Apple retail world. A couple of weeks ago, we tracked down the owner behind the account and interviewed the person for this story.

Brown and Hulk Hogan

“So. You finally got me,” the person said when we first spoke. Genius Bar Tales was clearly eager to get his full story out for years.

Describing himself as being of atypical style for an Apple Store “Genius,” Paul Brown, 29 years old of Atlantic City, New Jersey, revealed himself to us as the creator and proprietor of Genius Bar Tales.

Started in April of 2011, the Twitter account has amassed a following of over 11,000 individuals. It has even caught the attention of celebrities who Brown mentioned on Twitter via the Genius Bar Tales account.

From his first day until has last day as on-the-floor salesperson, Brown loved working at Apple. However, he says, everything changed when he became a Genius. He frequently argued with his Genius colleagues and his Lead Genius, he says. The conflicts reached a point in which Brown and his Lead Genius had to be physically held apart from fighting.

From here, Genius Bar Tales was created. “I had gone from loving every minute to despising coming in, and [the account] was my outlet. “Sneaking to the bathroom to make Tweets, searching Google for broken product photos, and creating funny captions” became the new norm for Brown, he told us. Because he did not feel like there were ears within Apple to hear voiced complaints and concerns,  he had to create his own outlet of expression, he said.

Asked how he came up with the idea for the account, Brown stated that he was inspired by one of the first, famous Apple-related parody websites. This site, of course, was the FakeSteve blog.

From 2006 to 2011, Dan Lyons, an online columnist, managed an online persona known as “FakeSteve.” The blog, which was initially maintained anonymously, amassed fame and several interested readers. About a year after its creation, the New York Times revealed Lyons as the creator.

The FakeSteve personality poked fun at Apple, Steve Jobs, and technology journalists that cover Apple. Even though Apple typically does not comment on articles related to the company, the FakeSteve blog did catch Apple’s attention.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs called the parody “funny” while Apple’s VP of Corporate Communications (PR) Katie Cotton reportedly ordered FakeSteve branded clothing. However, Cotton declined to officially confirm or deny that claim.

Like his inspiration, Brown, too, came under Apple’s radar. Though Apple’s then-CEO did not call his account “funny” and the head of Apple PR did not order shirts from him. Instead, he was tracked down by Apple’s Global Employee Loyalty team. “Apple found out, they tracked me down,” Brown told us.

During a seemingly normal workday behind the Genius Bar, Paul was quietly pulled into his manager’s office, seated, and handed a thick stack of paper printed with everything he had ever done online to violate Apple’s social media policies. He was told that he is immediately suspended from working at Apple pending investigation. A week later, he was officially terminated from Apple for violating the social media guidelines.

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Interestingly, Brown’s termination, he says, happened over a year ago. He has still been running the account, though less actively, since being terminated. He says, that even though he is no longer working at an Apple retail store, he continues to run the account so that the other Tweeting retail employees that he has inspired “do not feel alone.” “The account has been running based off of old stories and residual frustration with the way things went at Apple”, Brown said.

Ironically, Brown now runs a social media firm.

Apple “anonymous” members also state that Cory Moll, the creator of the aforementioned “Apple Workers Union,” is another inspiration for online expression. When asked about the “anonymous” community, Moll declined to comment on it directly, but he discussed Apple employees speaking up in general. He said, “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything extraordinary; I just went completely above and beyond to get a message out.” “I don’t know how I feel about being ‘that guy that started the ruckus,’ but I still get sought out now and then by fellow workers, both current and former, who just want to say thanks,” he added. “All I wanted to do was encourage people to feel empowered to use their voices – they will be heard,” he also said.

Though many of the conversations between personalities discuss specific interactions with customers and their thoughts on Apple customers, Apple’s internal social media policy tells employees to “respect the privacy of [Apple] customers.” “It is a priority that we respect the privacy of our customers. Do not use or discuss any information regarding customers for any purpose,” the guidelines also say.

The policy goes on to state that “blogs, wikis, social networks and other tools should not be used for internal communications among fellow employees.” This seems to define Apple’s position on this online “anonymous” community.

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Most of the personalities include some variation of a disclaimer in their Twitter bio to separate their views from Apple’s. Apple requests this in its social media policy. However, Apple also requests its employees not to use social media to air disagreements with coworkers, which is something the online community does.

Even with these strict social media guidelines in place, these online personalities have existed and will seemingly continue to exist. After learning of Brown’s termination and about Apple’s policies, we followed-up with the personalities that we interviewed for this story to question them on this specific topic.

“I do not fear being caught, and I am 100% aware of Apple’s social media policy,” one very active member of the “anonymous” community told us. “If they did catch me, I would consider it a challenge,” this person added. Another personality also said that he or she is aware of Apple’s policies. “You will not see any confidential information from my account. I am here to talk to other employees, spread good will (mostly) about Apple and working for Apple,” this person explained.

However, this particular community member said that he or she was concerned about being caught in the early days of the account. Though, concerns have dwindled as the person believes that he or she would have been caught by now if he or she were to be discovered at all. “I feel the community aspect outweighs what little concern I have – just the networking and sharing of ideas and concerns is worth it alone,” this person also told us.

Despite the possibility of termination, the community believes the benefit offers outweighs the risk it presents. When asked about the goals of the community, one employee said he or she would like for “[someone] from corporate to see what we are complaining about and for them to do something about. I want this to be a source where Apple says ‘Hey, maybe we need to change a couple of things here and there!’”

“It’s nice to vent sometimes, but I also really enjoy sharing the enriching stories that truly define the why of what we do,” another person said.

Some examples of Tweets from personalities are included directly below. These Tweets represent the style that many Tweets from the community portray:

Tweets

While there are Apple retail employees who are clearly frustrated with their work, these employees take to the internet to express their feelings because they feel that Apple’s internal processes for handling these issues are not viable solutions.

Apple encourages employees to use a method called Fearless Feedback when sharing best practices or observations of behaviors with other employees. The idea is that each employee is everyone else’s mentor, which leads to collaboration by all employees regardless of your role in the store. While Fearless Feedback can mean an employee gives praise to a co-worker, it has potential to damage relationships when the feedback is negative.

“I would consider it Fearless Feedback [versus] freedom of speech,” a Specialist said when asked about the Apple’s solution and the anon’s approach. “I find many people don’t respond well to negative-specific fearless feedback on account of the fact that they can’t take criticism, but negative-specific feedback is the only way to correct behavior,” according to another Apple Retail employee.

“Fearless feedback at our store was “American Gladiators” with lanyards,” said Paul Brown. “[It] always turned into a vicious circle of complaining and explaining.”

Fearless Feedback is not the only method of internal communication Apple promotes. The company frequently distributes NPP (Net Promoter for our People), which is an opt-in internal survey that encourages employees to share their thoughts about the state of their store. The problem is that many employees fear the survey is not actually anonymous.

When asked if running an “anonymous” Twitter account makes work life more complex, one personality said that the addiction to Tweeting from the account and responding to others means more frequent bathroom visits and breaks. Another person said that he or she somewhat lives as the account while on the store floor. “I sometimes try to create or involve myself in situations that would be fun to Tweet about,” this person said.

Besides venting frustration against customers, in 2012, many of the accounts were used (and some even created specifically) to discuss frustrations with former Apple retail chief John Browett and his policies. Browett created new Apple retail policies that resulted in job and pay cuts. He was seemingly not well liked by many of his retail workers. Recently, the former Apple executive even admitted that he did not fit into Apple’s unique culture:

While admitting he as acquired a degree of humility, Browett explained he “just didn’t fit within the way (Apple) ran the business.” Browett also said Apple is a fantastic business with great people, products, and culture, and he loved working there, but he has since become very clear of how he is and what he is like to work with.

Late last year, Browett departed Apple and many members within the “anonymous” community feel that they played a role in his dismissal. Shortly after Browett’s aforementioned schemes to cut worker hours and make other controversial changes were publicized, the community responded with a “#FireBrowett” Twitter hashtag.

browett tweets

The hashtag grew in popularity as the Browett turbulence became widely reported by the press.

Another helpful element via social media in the quest of some retail employees to right the apparent wrongs that Browett created was a video from Cory Moll. Moll posted the following video after Apple PR, not Browett, apologized and reversed some missteps:

“I have to give respect to John for being candid about his time at Apple,” Moll told us regarding the aforementioned post-Apple Browett interview. “I can appreciate the struggles of adapting to a new culture, and I hope that his experience will help him be a better leader,” he added.

Following the leave of John Browett, Apple CEO Tim Cook used multiple public and Apple internal appearances to describe his feelings toward the importance of Apple’s retail division. After ousting Browett, Cook’s first move was to put himself in charge of retail. Since last October, Cook has been who Apple’s top retail vice presidents have reported.

Cook at Palo Alto Apple Store (Getty Images)

Cook at the new Palo Alto Apple Store (Getty Images)

Following Browett’s departure, Cook also, in an internal email, expressed his pride of Apple’s retail employees. “They have our respect, our admiration and our undying support”, Cook said.

Earlier this year, Cook commented on Apple retail at the Goldman Sachs Financial Conference. “Our team members there are the most amazing, awesome, incredible people on earth. It’s the best retail experience,” he said. Cook added, “I don’t have very many bad days, but if I ever feel I’m dropping down from an excited level, I go in a store and it instantly changes. It’s like a prozac. It’s a feeling like no other.”

At an internal corporate Town Hall meeting earlier this year, Cook reportedly noted that he is working to improve the employee experience at Apple stores.  

In addition to Twitter, in recent months, many of the more active “anonymous” personalities have continued their discussions via the Google+ live video Hangout system. This social media service allows the personalities to communicate in real-time over video chat. From what we understand, there are typically several people in the hangouts. The people normally discuss what they would on Twitter, but it is obviously in a more personal, intimate form with video.

“Sometimes I feel closer to the “anonymous” personalities than people that work at my store,” offered one of the more active members.

Like on Twitter, the personalities are still completely anonymous during the Google+ Hangouts. The people typically, if they even have their cameras enabled, wear masks or other items to obscure their identities. “With the Google Hangouts, keeping identities private is becoming more of a challenge,” one person said. Since Google requires users to have profiles and names to use the Hangout service, these users have created fake Google accounts with fake names (sometimes that match their fake Twitter identities) to maintain anonymity.

Photo by Mark Sebastian

Photo credit: Mark Sebastian

Of course, not every (or even a majority) of Apple retail employees participate in the Apple “anonymous” community over social media. However, the community is known enough that we have heard multiple stories of “anonymous” accounts discovering colleagues and even close friends that they have (unknowingly) been interacting with online for months and years in this community.

“My roommate, who works with me, doesn’t know I have an account,” one anonymous personality said. “Only my closest co-workers know and they are like family,” this person added.

Though many Apple retail employees know about the community, some do not. We interviewed a couple of Apple retail employees, who were not previously aware of the online community, to hear their opinions on the “anonymous” accounts. One person said he was surprised and he would be wary of joining such a group (this person expressed how happy he is with the opportunities that Apple has given him).

Another current employee said that he is not surprised that this community exists. “Apple employees need a more open place to vent frustrations,” he said. “I would be apart of it, but I would tell people who I am. People need to know what happens behind the scenes,” this person added.

Indeed, as one active Apple “anonymous” personality told us, “last year, it appeared close that I was going to get fired. Frustrated, needing a place to vent, scream, release negative energy and talk to likeminded frustrated individuals who felt my pain, I joined the community.”

Perhaps if Apple is not pleased with its employees expressing their frustrations about work online, the company should develop and improve its internal resources for the ones that fight for and represent the company each and every day.

Zac Hall contributed to this report. 

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