Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Is Steve Jobs more popular than Jesus?

October 14, 2009: 7:11 AM ET

Apple's CEO tops two polls in one week. Will no one rid us of these meddlesome lists?

Jobs. Photo: Apple Inc.

Photo: Apple Inc.

Last Thursday, Oct. 8, an Agenda Setters panel named Steve Jobs the most influential individual in the global technology industry, ahead of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Barack Obama, President of the United States.

Four days later, a survey of 1,000 tweens and teens ages 12 to 17 picked Steve Jobs as the celebrity entrepreneur they admired most, ahead of Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg and the Olsen twins.

Is Apple's (AAPL) CEO really more influential than Obama and more popular than Oprah, as headline writers invariably put it?

Of course not.

These lists are confections, artifacts of organizations trying to drum up publicity for themselves -- in this case, a U.K.-based CBS Interactive subsidiary called Silicon.com and Junior Achievement, an American institution that's been preparing students for the business world for more than 90 years.

I know something about how such lists are created, having had a hand for many years in selecting TIME's Man of the Year and putting together the magazine's Most Influential lists. One criterion for making that list was whether a particular celebrity would agree to come to the TIME 100 party. Steve Jobs never showed up, but he's appeared on the "Builders and Titans" list many times. See, for example, here.

To keep list-making manageable, you have to limit both the group that makes the decision and the pool of nominees. Silicon.com used a panel of 12 who started with a list of 20 names each. Junior Achievement asked its survey group -- chosen by Opinion Research Corp. -- to vote on a pre-selected list of brand-building celebrity entrepreneurs that included Tony Hawk, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Kimora Lee Simmons and, once again, Mark Zuckerberg.

Source: Google Trends

Source: Google Insights

It would be impossible to run a comprehensive poll to determine who is truly the most popular or influential person in the world at any particular time. The closest thing we have today is probably Google Insights, which can tell you whose name among a list of up to five is being searched for most frequently over time.

If it's any comfort to Christians, Steve Jobs is barely a blip in a Google Insights bake-off with Jesus, although when you run the exercise using the search term "Jesus Christ," there have been a few moments over the years when Steve Jobs' name came up more frequently.

If Google had been around when John Lennon said what he said about the Beatles, maybe the Vatican wouldn't have had to accept his apology.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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