How did a vocal minority lead to the spark that set the community on fire?

For the past weeks I've been wanting to write something about the chaos surrounding the Windows Phone 7 device reviews and the resulting outcry from a very vocal minority. To prevent pushing people to start up the argument again, I figured I would wait until things calmed down a little.

I waited, because it is not my intention to give my opinion on the matter or even to try and end the discussion. Instead I want to try to find out why this particular topic has escalated to the point where it started hurting the user experience. For me it came to the point where I wouldn't even read the comments on any article that mentioned Microsoft in any way. And even that wasn't enough to really avoid the hateful comments on both sides of the argument.

How does it start?

This question seems to be as good a place as any to start understanding the cause of these heated discussions turning into hateful verbal war.

The first fanboy war I can remember was Mario vs Sonic and the related SNES vs Genesis (or Mega Drive, depending on where you live). Back then the discussions took place either in the real world or in magazines in the 'incoming letters' section. But even then the discussions tended to get heated.

It starts with two competing products that are both good products

So why did this happen? I believe that almost always, it starts with two competing products that are both good products. Products that people fall in love with and feel a certain attachment to. And as with anything you feel an attachment to, you want to defend it. Even more if you have spend a significant amount of money on your new found love as well.

What makes it escalate?

In most cases within a civil community this leads to healthy, if heated, discussion. The iOS vs Android discussion has been going on for a long time, but never got to the point where it damaged the forums and comments enough for people to actually stop reading them. So what went wrong now?

I don't claim to have the answer to this question, but I do have a few ideas. I believe that WP7 is a great OS. Not for everyone, but definitely for some. And I believe that this group of people won't be better off with iOS or Android. However, the media, including the verge, never acknowledges their position. Because most write for the masses, they tend to write what the majority would agree with and advice the majority against picking WP7.

For those who love WP7, this feels like they aren't represented. They aren't heard in the media. So they will have to speak up themselves. And even though these vocal underdogs are clearly a minority of the people who love and enjoy WP7, these reactions are what people will associate with WP7 fanboys. Others will start to think all WP7 users are unreasonable and aggressive and justify treating them the same way.

Those who love WP7, feel like they aren't represented

Was this the right response?

The resulting damage to the forums and the comments lead to a couple of reactions from the Verge's staff. Most notably Josh's forum post. His response seemed to almost be out of fear for what this will do to an otherwise great community. It's understandable that he would want to defend what he and the Verge's team worked very hard to build from trolls trying to ruin it. But I think that skips over the real reason this thing got out of hand in the first place.

Since this is all about opinion, you can't simply say the protesting people are wrong

When so many people are vocal about what they don't agree with, maybe the first response shouldn't be to defend your original point of view. Maybe instead, you should be trying to figure out why this disparity of opinions exists in the first place. Since this is all about opinion, you can't simply say the protesting people are wrong. All you can say is that they weren't represented.

Now I don't justify the aggression and hateful attacks that have been posted on the forums and the comments, but I do think there are better ways to deal with them. And I also believe that the heavy moderation Josh suggested in his post should be a last resort. Not only because this community has so far not needed such harsh moderation, but also because these actions could actually anger people, who already feel like they aren't listened to, more than is necessary. And even if it doesn't, it doesn't take away the cause of the aggression, it just gets rid of some of the symptoms.

So what then?

I don't think there is one simple solution to prevent this from happening ever again. But I think in this case it would be wise to acknowledge the opinions of those who love WP7 and possibly point out that for example the Lumia 900 may not be for everyone, but if you already love WP7, this might actually be the perfect phone for you.

It seems like such a cliche to say we should just respect everyone's opinion and in fact I don't want to even go there. But it would be wise to at least try and understand where people are coming from. Knowing why they are angry already gets you half way. And that goes for both sides. Maybe the Verge should realize that there are people who love the OS and make sure they are represented in the reviews of WP7 phones. And maybe the WP7 fans should try to understand that they are at the moment at least a minority and most people will probably not share their opinion.

To Josh, I would like to say: "You can't control how your readers will respond, all you can do is try to understand your audience better and make sure they are all catered to as best as possible".

You can't control how your readers will respond, all you can do is try to understand your audience better and make sure they are all catered to as best as possible

Final note

This was definitely not intended to reignite the flame wars. Please keep your comments civil and avoid taking sides in the comments. I am very interested in what you think caused this to get out of control though.