I remember making the conscious decision to “become a fanboy.” It was the summer of 2009, and the mobile technology landscape was very different. Apple had found traction with the iPhone 3G, Android was beginning to show signs of life, and Palm had just burst back onto the scene with webOS. Microsoft was doing its best to do some hand-waving with Windows Mobile 6.5 while it finished WP7. The space was electric and exciting. Dominant players weren’t yet totally established: CNN had just run a story that spring suggesting that the growth of the 30,000-strong Apple App Store was slowing. The Android Market had just passed 5,000 apps. webOS was sitting at about 29, but with many more promised “in the coming weeks.” Some platforms were definitely doing better than others, but was still anybody’s game.
The competition between different OSes and ecosystems was nothing new, but the frantic storm of frenzied innovation and development was. Even back then, I already had hands-on experience with every major smartphone operating system due to a penchant for overspending and upgrading early. I’d moved from Windows Mobile 6 to iOS, then to an iDEN Blackberry of all things. They all had features I enjoyed, but none of them gripped me or excited me; none of them spoke to me on a level that a device as personal as a mobile phone should. I was jealous of my friends’ love affairs with their iPhones and Sidekicks. I yearned for that kind of confident, easy contentment.
It wasn’t until I brought home my first Palm Pre that I understood. The reasons why I loved -and continue to value- webOS could fill many columns this size, but they’re not important. All that matters is that the Pre made me happier than any other device. But the wonderful user experience wasn’t even the best part; what made me even happier was that I’d found a platform I could be effusive and enthusiastic about. For the first time, I felt as if I’d come home. And I said to my then-girlfriend, whose enthusiasm for all things Apple I’d been envious of, “maybe I’ll become a Palm fanboy.” And that’s what happened.
A Powerful Word
Over the years, the term “fanboy” has developed a meaning and weight unrivaled by many internet appellations. It has become sheer invective. Today, in terms of its incendiary nature, it rivals “troll” as the signpost marking the end of intelligent debate and the beginning of flame wars. So great is its power that the moderation team at webOSnation, a popular webOS-focused news site, banned use of the term in its forums. The word “fanboy” was -and still is- censored with asterisks, just like profanity.
Urban Dictionary’s take.
The definition of the term is hotly debated in all variety of meta-fanboy circles, but most will agree that it’s an uncomplimentary label describing someone so devoted to one particular team, platform, company, or service that intelligent debate is rendered impossible. The fanboy mentality results in thoughtful discourse devolving into name-calling and absolutism. It’s the sports superfan mindset. It’s polarizing political thinking. It’s stupid.
That’s not what I wanted to be when I decided I’d found my new home with webOS -and PreCentral- in 2009. I was using the term loosely, happy to have found a platform I was passionate about and an online community that brought us all together. The reason we talked, debated, and shared information was to improve the product. My friends who spent their time at XDA Developers, Android Central, and other fan communities tell similar tales from the “old days,” stories of people working together toward the common end of betterment.
Is some of that a little rose-tinted? Sure; It wasn’t utopian. There were disagreements and flame wars and ban-hammers at webOSnation. But it didn’t quash the enthusiasm within the community, which gave us amazing things- not least among them the homebrew movement that helped shape the future of the platform. And as time moved forward and webOS’s marketshare didn’t, our sense of unity only grew stronger. We were the underserved minority, the people who knew something you didn’t. Our mobile experience was so much better than yours. You didn’t even know what you were missing. We were the people everyone thinks of when they rail against “hipsters.” We saw this band years before you even knew about them, and they were so much cooler then.
I had the Treo 180 before it was popular.
That sense of snobbery might be a little annoying, but it doesn’t really hurt anyone. And the passion that drives it also fuels innovation: without small, dedicated communities of “tech hipsters” evangelizing little-known products, the landscape of today would be much less vibrant. In that way, the positive aspects of fanboyism are critical to a healthy mobile world.
The Dark Side
The problems start when these people start posting in circles outside their insular communities, where criticism -both deserved and not- is more prevalent. The culture shock of that transition into the real world does a funny thing to the brain. The biggest casualties: reason and common sense.
The fanboy mentality is a lot like being in love with a person: the object of your adulation is nearly above fault. You worship them. You overlook their faults. You defend them against all criticism, legitimate or no. The difference: that mentality is (usually) sweet and harmless when directed toward another human being. When applied to phone platforms, though, that attitude engenders terms like “Lagdroid” for Android, “Windoze” for Windows, and “fruit-phone” for the iPhone. Unimaginative nicknames aren’t the worst of it: It spawns vicious diatribes and ruthless ad hominem attacks.
I experienced a taste of this a couple weeks ago, when I had the temerity to suggest that maybe the Lumia 900 wasn’t a perfect device. Certainly, it wasn’t a perfect article either, but I think its biggest failing was its lack of a strong argument; I couldn’t get past my innate appreciation for Windows Phone enough to criticize it too sharply. Despite that, I received more than a hundred comments on the piece -about ten times more than my editorials usually generate- most of them from Microsoft fans calling for my head. Some people called me a loser. Others suggested I was brainless. Still others wondered how Pocketnow, which started life with a heavy Windows Mobile focus, could have so disgracefully fallen to “the enemy.”
But that’s not even close to the beating The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky received when he gave the Lumia 900 a 7-out-of-10 score on his review. More than 2400 comments later, the dust still hasn’t settled from his most damning assertion, that “it’s time to stop giving Windows Phone a pass.” Even our own Lumia 900 review generated a horde of comments- not attacking Adam Z Lein, but due to the fanboy-fueled flame war that immediately broke out among the readers. Apparently, this is a rough neighborhood.
Fanboys Impede Progress
Here’s the thing: that kind of passion is laudable. The behavior it results in, though, isn’t. It’s actually destructive.
When I’m not writing for Pocketnow, I do other creative work. And if there’s one group I can’t stand, it’s people in the creative community who refuse to honestly criticize their friends’ work. The fastest way to improve as an artist is via honest feedback; if someone roundly praises your mediocre work because he’s afraid of offending you, you’ll never improve. The same is true for mobile platforms. A fanbase which only acknowledges the positives of its platform will soon end up with no platform to support, because it will have dissolved in a pool of its own mediocrity.
So the scary part isn’t the death of courtesy or politeness; it’s not the utter absurdity of calling someone names because you disagree with his opinions about a phone. People are mean, and they’re even meaner on the internet. It’s something we’ve all learned to deal with.
Rather, the frightening part is the destructive power of the fanboy mentality: the black-or-white, us-vs-them mindset. The insistent belief that life should be looked at in the same way as a football game, with teams competing to “win.” The rejection of any sense of subtlety or gray area. The refusal to admit that, while your preferred mobile OS or ecosystem or carrier is great, it has some areas that could use improvement.
So I’m writing today to say this: if you espouse that kind of thinking, you are a blight on the landscape. You’re an enemy of all that’s wonderful, positive, and forward-looking about the world of technology. Attitudes like yours make the internet, and indeed all intelligent discourse, worse. The only black-and-white position I’ll ever take is that black-and-white thinking is destructive.
To paraphrase Jon Stewart in his famous Crossfire appearance some years ago: I made a special effort to write this piece today because I have privately, amongst my friends, mentioned fanboy thinking as being bad. And I wanted to … I felt that that wasn’t fair, and I should come here and tell you that I don’t it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting the internet. Stop, stop, stop stop hurting the internet.
2009 App Store story source: CNN