Fanboys

Have you ever loved something so much it hurt?

By Lessley Anderson
Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Anytime anybody in the universe says something negative about Microsoft, Brad Thorne* loses it. He fires up Twitter: “You’re fucking pathetic!... You have your head so far up your ass!... I can’t wait until you eat your smug words!”

Thorne, a fortyish IT manager with a preppy wardrobe and shy grin, is actually a nice guy in person. He plays golf and enjoys spending time with his wife and step kids. He works as an IT director at a nonprofit charity organization in the South that’s run by nuns. He is not religious — unless you count his relationship with Microsoft, of course.

“I’m a missionary,” says Thorne. “For me, it’s about being super passionate and super knowledgeable about their products, and not leaving that passion at the door when you leave work. You preach it all the time.”

Thorne is not religious — unless you count his relationship with Microsoft

Thorne has been a preacher, so to speak, for decades. He feels a deep, personal connection to Bill Gates, who, like Thorne, is a “true believer in the power of technology and how it can change everything,” and has an “unabashed way of approaching his foes or detractors.”

But only in recent years has Thorne’s proselytizing for Microsoft assumed a Cotton Mather-esque shrillness. Blame it on the smartphone. The rise of the iPhone helped Apple unseat Microsoft as the reigning tech superpower, and it put Thorne on the offensive.

So when he goes on Twitter he calls longtime Apple-friendly Wall Street Journal columnist and Recode co-founder Walt Mossberg a “douchebag.” He tweets at another reviewer who gave the Lumia 1020 Windows Phone a bad review, and tells her she’s a pathetic loser. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

He seems to love — as in, romantically love — his phone

Anybody following tech media in the past few years would instantly recognize the Thorne type. He’s a fanboy. That is, the kind of crazily obsessed tech enthusiast who appears to have become unhinged somewhere between peeling off his smartphone’s screen protector and making his 457th comment on Android Central. He seems to love — as in, romantically love — his phone. He explodes with rage when somebody says anything less than glowingly positive about it.

Fanboy-ism is not just a phone thing, of course. There are Star Wars fanboys, and video game console fanboys, and comic book fanboys. Before the word even entered the pop lexicon there were fanboys: Grateful Dead tape-traders, ham radio enthusiasts, orchid nuts, and a million other things. But smartphone fanboys are different: They are noisier. They are more aggressive. And they seem, at times, truly out of their minds, or at the least to have seriously lost perspective.

Lol brainless samsungfags, if you hate iPhone so much, why do you care to watch it? Lol the android community is so damn annoying. Shut up about the shit4 or note 3, stop hatin on Apple!

Anonymous Fanboy (from YouTube)

Although phone fanboys are a niche subculture, the objects of their affection are not. The companies behind the products they covet are massively influential: Apple recently climbed to the sixth spot on the Fortune 500 list. More than half of all Americans have smartphones, and for many of those people, the device has become like an extra appendage. We risk our lives texting while driving. We take selfies at funerals. Almost a quarter of younger people even use their phones while having sex. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that some of us develop an abnormal fixation with our phones that goes beyond being extremely grateful for the Google Maps application.

Although fanboys can easily be lumped together as “angry nerds,” look closer and you’ll find that each one is like a snowflake. The reasons they’ve traveled to the fringe are personal, but also familiar. A phone might not seem to be something worth fighting over, but what it stands for most definitely is.

@KEEMSTARx GO ANDROID. Windows sucks ass, especially tablets. ‏@StevenHalstead - 12:41 PM - 13 Jan 2014
Android can suck it.. iOS rules all day long.. It's the originator too. Nuff said @patg1984 - 11:30 AM - 14 Jan 2014
I can't stand how #WindowsPhone sucks so much and misses lots of basic features from #Android or #iOS. Worst purchase of the year :-( @m1nh0ca - 5:19 AM - 11 Jan 2014

Searching for a new big brother

Gene Fisk works at home in Silicon Valley on a startup he founded with his dad. He’s got a little baby and since his wife works, he doesn’t see much of her. They’re new to town and don’t know that many people.

“I’m pretty bad at networking, and it’s kind of — it’s just damn lonely!” he says.

It’s hard to stay on task. Really hard. He drinks coffee at room temperature so he can get it down faster.

He was never especially into phones until he and his wife bought a small, cheap Nexus tablet to use as a baby monitor. They liked it, so he bought his wife a Nexus 4. He thought the stock Android operating system was way better than the “bloated software” on his HTC Amaze 4G, so he ordered the Nexus 5 for himself.

The process of obsessively researching phones coincided with Fisk’s discovery of Google+. Despite the fact that he’s in his mid-30s, Fisk had never gotten into Facebook (he thought it was too ugly looking), but he got sucked into Google+. He would “get riled up” when people in his network posted what he considered to be lame articles about phones.

“It starts small and someone will come in and say something that is just, you know, like either obnoxious or inaccurate,” says Fisk. “Like, this guy basically just vomited up a couple specs, like: ‘The camera’s going to be this many megapixels and stuff,’ and they were all wrong!”

Marooned in his home office, pounding tepid coffee, Fisk meandered down the path of calling various journalists and commenters “idiots” in his posts. Especially those who unfairly bashed Android. He had, without realizing it, become a fanboy.

“I can bitch anonymously, and I’ve tried to tone it back, because I let it get to me,” he says.

But that’s not all that gets to Fisk. He has a meta-frustration that seems to be always vibrating in his mental circuitry, like a hum you can’t place. It has to do with the power that technology companies wield over his life.

He talks about being “trapped in his contract” with his former phone carrier, and about being unable to receive Android updates because of some Machiavellian plot on the part of the manufacturer to force consumers to upgrade their phones. He paints Apple as a ruthless force that effectively killed Flash, the software plug-in favored by designers, by refusing to support it on Apple’s mobile devices. At the time, Fisk made his living as a Flash developer.

“Apple to me is just a gigantic, media-bending smokescreen,” he complains.

Fisk talks about Google as if it’s a political candidate running for control of the universe

The frustration he feels has led him to rally behind the one company he feels might actually be doing something good in the world: Google. He loves not just the phones, but the company in general. He notes that Google has invested in aging research and helped wire the city of Kansas City, where he used to live. He says it could charge more for its Nexus phones, but doesn’t.

“I’m sure they do nefarious stuff, but they seem like a decent company,” says Fisk. “The world wants a big company to be behind.”

Fisk talks about Google as if it’s a political candidate running for control of the universe. With every “you’re an idiot” post he makes online, he’s unwittingly helping campaign for its world domination.

The echo chamber effect

Michael Fisher strokes the box with the faux wood grain finish, gently easing off its cover to peek inside. He removes a packet of earbuds.

“These are the linguine flat wire edition with the gel ones that go in your ear,” he says approvingly. Then he peels off the plastic screen protector on the white Samsung Galaxy Note III smartphone. “Aaaaah yeah,” he growls. “Now that’s the good stuff.”

Fisher is editorial director for the mobile tech news organization PocketNow, and this is taking place in what’s called an “unboxing” video. A YouTube genre unto itself unboxings are, literally, just people taking new phones (and other gadgets) out of their packaging and describing all the stuff that’s inside. Like, as in, “here’s the manual,” and “here’s a mystery cable.” In many cases, the device is never even turned on.

Unboxing videos are massively popular. On PocketNow, they get hundreds of thousands of views — more than the actual editorial reviews.

“We are much less reviewers than we are sportscasters,” says Fisher. “We generate what I refer to as ‘geek porn.’”

If PocketNow is a pornographer, it is one of many within a bustling, sweaty industry. There’s never exactly been a dearth of gadget coverage online, but the last seven or so years have seen an orgiastic explosion of still more, particularly devoted to the rapidly growing mobile sector.

From sites with an operating system-specific focus, like Phandroid and Android Central to more platform-agnostic operations such as TechnoBuffalo and AnandTech, there’s now an extraordinarily large number of places to visit online to indulge one’s interest in the latest phone release or operating system update. Like candy at a check-out counter, this display encourages compulsive behavior. It has created the fanboy.

Once somebody has acquired this level of arcane knowledge, there is absolutely nothing to do but share it with other fanboys

“I find myself watching [unboxing videos] for products I just already bought!” says Dominick DeVito, an Android enthusiast. “And I have no idea why, since 75 percent of the video is watching the person’s hands with the device still powered off.”

Simon Kingsley is a high school student who makes cellphone review videos as a hobby. He pans all the Android devices with hyperbolic statements delivered in a monotone (the Nexus 5 Android has “too high resolution which can cause eye cancer”). But they’re actually thinly veiled satire of things he thinks iPhone users would say. Kingsley is an Android fanboy.

“The reason I like technology is hard to explain,” says Kingsley. “It is a sensation … After watching countless hours of videos and reading countless hours of articles relating to technology, it just implemented into my brain and has made me me.”

His persona, like that of your average fanboy, is fed by the perpetual-motion machine of tech media. He typically reads 20 tech news sites and watches as many YouTube channels every day; he’s spent so much time reading articles about phones and watching videos about phones he’s become a walking encyclopedia of stats.

As one commenter on Reddit, described it:

They don't want a fast phone. They want a quad-core phone. They don't want a good-looking display, they want a 1080p display. They don't want a battery that lasts X hours, they want a X mAh battery.

Anonymous Fanboy (Reddit)

Once somebody has acquired this level of arcane knowledge, there is absolutely nothing to do but share it with other fanboys.

“Among my close friends and family no one really operates at the same level as me,” says one high school Android hobbyist.

Thus, fanboy culture takes place in the comments sections of tech news sites and YouTube.

The Nexus 5 has a pathetic battery life, WORST, And Touchwiz is in FACT the laggiest shittiest worst UI on Android. Touchwiz sucks, Its laggy on fucking all phone, Even the s4. Like really, It looks like it was designed by Fisher Price.

Anonymous Fanboy (YouTube)

Commenting becomes a hobby in and of itself, with competition for social status and special props for being prolific, funny, or especially persuasive.

“I remember when I reached a certain number of posts, people acted like I was a god or something,” says Android fanboy Xavier Mathews.

One community manager describes how some fanboys even set up fake user accounts and operate them as straw men in online debates so they can knock them down to bolster carefully calibrated points.

He bans them, but they keep coming back. In a war of words, the person who gets the last one wins.

I hate to call myself a windows fanboy...... but I kinda am. #sorrynahtsorry @_blaidd_drwg - 10:16 PM - 12 Jan 2014
Microsoft could sell a lot of those keyboard covers if they made one for the iPad. @gruber - 7:06 PM - 18 Jun 2012
Here's the deal: Apple sucks. Samsung sucks. HTC sucks. Motorola sucks. Nokia sucks. They all suck just buy a damn phone & shut up about it. @kinielcat - 1:05 PM - 6 Jun 2013

On the Origin of Species

The urge to join groups is a natural human desire. Evolutionarily speaking, our babies fared better if we surrounded ourselves with helping hands. But even today when you can survive as a loner, there’s something intoxicating about being part of an experience that’s larger than oneself.

Politics, religion, sports, bands — these are the tents under which we typically congregate. Allah, Judas Priest, the Cubs, sure. But smartphones? It seems sort of hard to believe that a graham cracker-sized computer that’s supposed to be a tool, a means to an end, could somehow deliver the same level of ecstatic experience. That it could be powerful enough to feel like a movement.

“I’m geeky, I love playing with gadgets,” says tech reviewer Molly Wood, who formerly worked for CNET. “But of all the things that would get me angry enough to attack someone, the last one is a phone … Don’t you think there’s a better thing to love?”

There’s something intoxicating about being part of an experience that’s larger than oneself

But it isn’t necessarily about loving the phone. (Ask a fanboy why they became obsessed, and the answers are surprisingly quotidian: something along the lines of, “It made me a more organized person.”) It’s about what the phone represents.

For Fisk, rallying behind Google is politics, insofar as politics is activity relating to the bureaucracies that control us. Those bureaucracies have traditionally been governments. But as we rely more and more on technology, tech companies become the new authorities. Their whims and policies can severely impact our lives. For instance, a Google algorithm change can wipe out your website’s traffic, causing your advertisers to abandon you. Apple can refuse to support the software you’ve built your career on, leaving you scrambling for a new profession.

So it may seem trivial to debate megapixels versus debating, say, Obamacare. But the urge is the same for fanboys like Fisk. Despite the fact that he’s actually providing free advertising for a corporation whose end game is to make money off of him, he operates as if he’s a foot soldier helping to campaign for a brighter tomorrow. And in his mind, he is.

For Thorne, loving Microsoft provides an inspirational organizing principle to his life. He uses Bill Gates and his record of accomplishments much the same way others use religion: as both a road map and a motivation to be one’s best self. And in true apostle style, he’s taking it to the streets.

The sports analogy, too, applies. Because fanboys pick a team and fight for it, obviously, but also because they derive intellectual satisfaction from their endeavors, much the same way sports fans do. Both memorize arcane stats, banter, and engage in endless analysis, all of which can seem totally boring to an outsider, but couldn’t be more compelling to the fan.

“I think that gadgets, like sports, allow us to work out some of our natural passions in an arena where there is much lower stakes,” says Freddie deBoer, a blogger who says one of his favorite things to do is argue about phones. “It’s tribalism where nobody dies.”

For others, smartphones are a status symbol they can flaunt, plain and simple, like the popular girl flashing her Benetton label in junior high or the middle-aged dude showing up for a date in his Porsche Carrera. Lewis Hilsenteger, founder and host of an unboxing channel on YouTube, says acquaintances constantly ask him what phone they should buy.

“I think people really fear they’ll go out and buy the wrong thing,” he says, or that “somehow their purchases in the tech space will say something about their status as a human being.” It reminds him sometimes of the kid in school who was laughed at for not having the right shoes.

Fanboys have the time and money to research and invest in the perfect phone. With that comes bragging rights. It’s part of the fun of owning it.

Why are you so angry?

Aaron Baker, the director of content and partnerships for tech news organization PhoneDog Media recently received a disturbing tweet:

Did you mention on your Lg G2 vs S4 comparison on youtube that the LG has NO MHL LINK????? I’m searching for you with a shotgun!

Anonymous Fanboy (Twitter)

The threat was in reference to a cable that hooks into your TV — apparently the person was apoplectic that Baker hadn’t mentioned it.

Tech journalists, including Baker, typically love gadgets. It’s often why they get into the biz. But many say they can’t understand how you could go from being a phone fan to a phone fanboy — that is, someone who actually gets violently worked up over Nokia’s abandonment of Symbian.

We’ve entered an era of heightened belligerence, brought on, paradoxically, by the fact that phones are becoming more alike

Brian Klug, senior smartphone editor for tech news site AnandTech, points out that gadget reviewers like himself who get free phones to review will never truly understand the mindset of somebody who has to pay real cash for theirs.

“People become less objective once they’ve made an investment. They’re smart. They’re savvy. They’ll defend their purchase,” says Klug. It produces “the most rabid fanboy kind of attack.”

Aaron Baker, who received the shotgun tweet, has another theory. He thinks we’ve entered an era of heightened belligerence, brought on, paradoxically, by the fact that phones are becoming more alike.

It used to be that phone debates were solely about specs: which device had the most processing power, better battery life, highest screen definition, and so forth. Now, he says, we’re entering a time when phones have mostly achieved the same benchmarks on those fronts. The competition is becoming: Do you like the way the touchscreen works? The colors of the interface? The size of the device?

Baker believes that as phones’ differences move into more subjective arenas like design and “user experience,” the debate becomes by its very definition more emotional.

“That’s where it descends into personal attacks,” says Baker.

Holy shit man, you sound like such a bitch. Hope you haven't run out of Kleenex yet. If you like the damn Maxx... GET THE DAMN MAXX AND STFU ALREADY! For crying out loud.

Anonymous Fanboy (Android Central)

Of course the internet’s cloak of anonymity can bring out the worst in people, too. Trolls come in all flavors, including fanboy. But while the classic troll is an anarchic trickster, looking to wreak mayhem and rack up lulz along the way, an enraged fanboy can be something more conflicted.

Thorne, the Microsoft fanboy, is devoted to a podcast series about technology — he listens to it in the background at work. He used to comment on the show while it was in progress in an adjoining chat room. His ne plus ultra was when one of the podcast’s hosts quoted one of his comments on air.

“It proves your passion is worth it, if you will,” says Thorne.

The problem was that Thorne had a hard time being taken seriously.

“Being a hardcore troll doesn’t get you that power,” he admits. “To be listened to by others … it’s about having an open mind.”

He’d try to stay level-headed, not call people names. It turned out that wasn’t possible.

“I get fired up reading comments and my fingers go nuts on the keyboard,” he says.

Thorne’s struggle to achieve respect through striking the right tone echoes what American literary critic Kenneth Burke described as a kind of search for solidarity-through-rhetoric. As humans we attempt to escape our existential isolation through identification with others. And the classic way of achieving this is by pointing out our similarities through language, e.g.: a politician saying to a farmer, “I was once a farm boy like you.” In Thorne’s case, it was by appearing to be open-minded. However, Burke wrote, solidarity can also be achieved by disagreeing.

“There’s a sense that we’re cooperating by competing,” says Clarke Rountree, chair of the Communication Arts department at the University of Alabama in Hunstville and president of the Kenneth Burke society. “If you don’t have someone on the other side arguing with you, then you’ll be a lone voice.”

Recently, Thorne forced himself to, as he put it, step back and “look in the mirror.” This is making you stressed out and irritated, he said to himself. So why do it? He began downloading the podcasts so he wouldn’t be listening to them live and the temptation to send flame-y comments would be diminished.

But the road to belonging and acceptance through levelheaded discourse was just too long and lonely to bear. And so he chose the alternate route identified by Burke: dissention. He logged on to Twitter and let it rip.

Oh what a shock…another smug Apple douche with his head so far up their ass his opinion means zilch.

In this world, his fingers are free to go as nuts as they want. He has found solidarity: he belongs to the world of fanboys.

*Some names and identifying characteristics have been altered

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