Josh Topolsky vs. the World

On October 23, 2012, Joshua Topolsky - Editor-in-Chief at The Verge and suspected Windows-hater - wrote a review of the soon-to-be-launched Microsoft Surface RT tablet. Over the course of a four-and-a-half thousand word review (4,698 according to my Word's built-in counter), Josh goes into a fair amount of depth about his thoughts and feelings on the product, including some inevitable comparisons to the incumbent king, the iPad, as well as the Nexus 7. He then drew his thoughts together in the "Wrap-up" section of the review, succinctly laying out the primary highlights and lowlights of the device. In other words, he did exactly what a good reviewed is supposed to do. And boy is he going to get torn apart for it.

Back in April, Josh (may I call you Josh? Thanks.) reviewed Nokia's much ballyhooed Lumia 900 running Windows Phone. His final score was a 7.0, and this unholy smite sparked a storm of criticism form commenters and Nokia/Windows fans, all accusing Josh of not giving the device a fair shake, and using this as proof positive that he was an ardent Nokia and/or Microsoft hater. This despite Josh's repeated pleas that he "wanted to love this phone." A similar wave of hate is now making his way to him for his review of the Surface, a product that he also gave a 7.0. This, of course, means to fanboys that Josh is beyond help when it comes to objectivity. An unfair and biased reviewer who loves to discourage people from buying Microsoft products. At last count, the review had garnered just shy of two-and-a-half thousand comments, a good number of which were critical of the validity of the review.

Of course, a 7 is not really a bad score. The "How We Score" page illustrates that this rating equates to "Very good. A solid product with some flaws." But it certainly isn't as good as an 8 or a 9, is it?

I suspect Josh will defend his review in an upcoming Vergecast. Not the very next one, since it appears he will be absent from that podcast (which has itself started a mini-conspiracy theory about Josh going into 'hiding' to escape the aftermath of his review), but likely the following one. What is going on?


JOSH: THE HATER


There have been calls for months now for Josh to not be the one who reviews the device. Since he has now been vilified in the eyes of certain consumers, his voice is no longer seen as objective enough to give a Windows product a balanced and honest review. Give it over to Tom Warren, they say, for he is a Microsoft aficionado and will be fairer in his assessment. Putting aside the obvious dichotomy between the stated desire of fairness and wanting a Microsoft ‘fan’ to review their products, this nonetheless raises an interesting premise. Should Mr. Topolsky have stepped away from this opportunity? Should he have asked Tom to review the Surface, and avoid any claims of bias?

On the one hand, the argument seems to have some merit. After all, merely removing himself from the position of such potential controversy would effectively serve as a preemptive measure against the inevitable backlash. It's not like his lack of a review would have raised been questioned. Josh doesn't actually review that many products, seemingly saving himself for certain high profile ones, like the iPhone 5 or the Surface (and, I'm guessing, the iPad Mini), or perhaps ones that he has a personal interest in, like the Kindle Paperwhite. Dating back to the Lumia 900, he has written 5 reviews in the last nearly 7 months. So he could have passed on the opportunity to someone else, and no one would have said boo.

On the other hand, caving in to such pressure hardly seems like the way to go. Regular readers and The Verge fans are much appreciated, no doubt, but allowing them to dictate who reviews what product (and possibly how) would set an uncomfortable precedent. And even then, there certainly is no guarantee that the strategy would work, anyway. If, say, Tom ended up writing a review along the line of Josh’s, and offered criticism, the same fanboys clamoring for his input would almost certainly have started a new conspiracy claiming that his boss influenced his writing.


MICROSOFT: THE TARGET


The criticisms of Josh's reviews take various forms. He is an Apple fanboy, perhaps even paid for by Apple to write positive reviews, while we conveniently ignore the fact that his daily driver is a Galaxy Nexus (or at least it was the last I recall his mentioning this on the podcast) and he generally seems to love what Android offers; he is unknowledgeable about Windows Phone/Windows 8, and perhaps technology in general, which prevents him from fully appreciating the brilliance of Microsoft's mobile products (strange then, how he managed to become the Editor-in-chief of Engadget and then The Verge, inspite of being an ignoramus); he simply hasn't spent enough time with Windows in the mobile world, hasn't made the effort to get to know it, so he doen't "get it" (which ignores the fact that he has managed to appreciate what the iPhone 5, Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD offer in a short enough time to give them strongly positive reviews). There is one constant, though: that Josh is, beyond question, anti-Microsoft.

He just doesn't like them. All 94,000 of them. He sits at home wishing for bad things to happen to them. When he walks into a Microsoft Store and sees an employee trip, he laughs. And then wishes the kid had fallen face-first on an exposed live wire and had his eye burned out. He shows people this video. Once, he even slept with Bill Gates' daughter and never called her back.

Of course, the one thing that Microsoft fanboys have never managed to elucidate is why, exactly, would Josh have a vendetta against the corporation. Why would he hate on them so? Josh seems like an intelligent man, and most intelligent people don't spend their time wasting energy on piling hate on a non-living entity that cares not for them either way. Nor does Josh seem deluded enough to fool himself into believing that his hating would have a noticeable effect on the performance of this multi-billion dollar giant. So why would he do it?

Is a Microsoft competitor paying him off? If so, they don't seem to have done a good job buying his loyalty. He reviewed and loved the iPhone 5. So is he paid off by Apple, then? But he also reviewed and loved the Nexus 7. And the Kindle Paperwhite. And though he didn't quite love the Kindle Fire HD, he was bullish on its prospects. He has also said positive things in the past about smartphones like the One X and the Galaxy S3. To one extent or the other, they are all Apple competitors. Who is paying him off, then? Or is he some sort of master manipulator and quadruple-agent con artist who is playing all sides off each other, and hoping they don't catch on (even though his reviews and opinions are stated in a public forum)?


FANBOYS: THE WRONGED MASSES


Microsoft fanboys, of course, were predictably upset at Josh's reviews. How dare he give an opinion that happened to differ from theirs? After all, Nokia had all these promotions and ad campaigns telling them the Lumia 900 was going to knock their socks off. Microsoft has been telling us for months that the Surface will show us all what a tablet can truly do. What was Josh saying? That these promotions were wrong? What an utterly ludicrous notion! Strange how Microsoft continues to extend invitations to Josh and allow him access to their products and even their R&D labs. Apparently, they haven't realised his inherent bias.

Firstly, a large number of the complaints - the majority, in fact - come from people who have never in their life used, touched or likely even seen the Surface in person. I suspect this was true for the Lumia as well. But that didn't dampen their righteous indignation. Clearly, they know more than the man who runs the website they so regularly visit for their technology related news. Sure, Josh might have used the product extensively in his bid to right an in-depth review. But they read about it! On the Internet! And they have seen ads and stuff! Like the one with the people jumping around in tune with dub step, connecting colorful Touch Covers to their Surfaces with satisfying clickity-clicks? Come on, Josh! Clickity-click, man!

Secondly, why would these fanboys care what Josh says, anyway? It's quite evident that they have already made up their minds about how good the device supposedly is. So what does it matter what Josh says? If you think he is compromised or biased, don't read his reviews. If you are a fanboy and will end up buying the device anyway, then it doesn't matter what Josh thought. His opinion isn't affecting your purchase decision. So what you're looking for isn't a fair review, or an unbiased opinion, and certainly not honest feedback. All you want is affirmation of what you believe.

In a way, I envy fanboys. Such unshakeable, unalterable belief in the goodness of something that any and all dissenting opinions are immediately thrust aside as nothing more than the ignorant and uninformed rantings of a simpleton. What must it be like to have such absolute confidence in the truth of your claims? To feel that you are definitely correct, and the others are definitely wrong?

I have never had that level of certainty. I like to think that I am self-aware, and that because I am self-aware I am always open to the possibility that I might be wrong. But what I call self-awareness could just as easily be called lack of confidence by someone else. Perhaps I just lack convictions? Perhaps I would be better off throwing myself completely to one side than try to maintain a neutral point-of-view?

But I don't think so. I cannot bring myself to indulge in such a hopelessly one-sided debate. My favorite sports writer is Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy, over at ESPN. Simmons has a friend and frequent podcast collaborator, author Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman follows sports regularly, has been for years, enjoys them and is quite knowledgeable about them. He does not, however, support any particular team. This level of neutrality has led Simmons to name Klosterman a "sports atheist." I think I might be a technology atheist. I will want success for any product that I feel is good, and the company that makes them. And if said company makes a product that I don't like, I won't care if it goes down in flames.

And why should I? What am I getting out of it? I see commenters vehemently attack 'opponents' and vigorously defend their chosen multi-billion corporation as if it was a sibling, or perhaps even their child. What is the point? Do you think these faceless entities give a damn about your support? As if Tim Cook walks around with his chest puffed out thinking, "Man, I am so glad iJohn82 over at The Verge forums supports us so passionately. This is what helps me wake up every morning with a smile." I have news for you, Apple fans. Tim Cook doesn't give two shits about you. He doesn't even know that you exist. If you were to be crushed by a semi tomorrow, Tim Cook wouldn't notice. Even if someone went out of their way to inform him that 'iJohn' was crushed by a semi, he wouldn't blink. Neither would Larry Page, nor Steve Ballmer, nor Jeff Bezos. And no, Steve Jobs wouldn't have, either. You are less than nothing to them.

And yet, fanboys consistently get in heated arguments, indulge in name-calling and ad hominem attacks, force their blood-pressure up, get their adrenaline pumping and froth spewing from their mouth as they violently bang on the defenseless keyboard, riling against some letters and numbers on a screen. This person whose words are appearing on my screen is saying something that disagrees with my personal opinions. I have to take him down! It goes without saying that the vast majority of these armchair debaters would never have the balls to say in person half the things they say hiding behind the shield of the Internet and the anonymity of their usernames.

What I don't get is how they haven't arrived at the same conclusion I did? That it isn't worth the time and effort to 'defend' a person that would never do the same for you. Why do you love these corporations so? Doesn't it make sense to care for those that care for you? Is it the people behind these companies that you love, or the logo on the product? If Jonathan Ive were to leave Apple tomorrow and go work for Samsung, would your allegiance go with him? Or would you now argue that the man who you for so long proclaimed a genius of industrial design has suddenly turned into a talentless hack? And that his successor, Whoever Smithwhat, was always the true genius, anyway? I don't know about Josh, but I truly don't "get it."


Wrap-up


Who is right? Who is wrong? Is anyone? I certainly don't know. As I said above, I probably lack the conviction to give an absolute answer to the question. Maybe if I had some fanboy blood, I would know.

What I do know is that I don't believe Joshua Topolsky is biased. Or rather, he is no more biased than is inevitable as a result of the mere fact that he is, after all, a human and has opinions. I believe that he approaches his reviews with an open mind, but can't help but compare with equivalent products from Apple or Google, and finds Microsoft's offering to be lacking. But what do I know? It's entirely possible that this is wishful thinking. Maybe I am a fanboy, after all; a fanboy of The Verge, and as such am biased. In fact, I know I am (a fan, that is). The Verge is the first website I visit everyday - though this is subject to change with the approaching start of the NBA season - and I revisit it several times a day. I believe their reviews are never less than savoury.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe Josh really does have an anti-Microsoft agenda, and he has carefully and cunningly worked his ass off for several years, slowly but steadily climbing the ranks in the world of technology news and reporting, so that he would one day be in a position of influence, allowing him to spread his long sequestered message of hate.

Unfortunately, the fanboys are on to him, and they will not stop until they have exposed the long con.