On being a fanboy

This morning I did something I’ve never done before: buy a major new gadget on the day of release. At any rate, I tried to; the Google Nexus 4 sold out within 30 minutes, and at no point during those 30 minutes was the Google Wallet payment system working for me.

I feel compelled to defend myself against an accusation of fanboy behaviour: the truth is, I was long overdue for a new handset, and once I finally got round to purchasing one it was worth waiting another couple of weeks for the latest product to be released rather than buy at the end of the cycle. But the very fact that I feel defensive about it made me think again about the idea of fanboyism.

I’ve written before about the idea of a fanboy and I defended it as a valid concept, but one that is misapplied and overused. The most serious charge against it is that it’s a subjective label that’s only ever applied to other people. I think a lot of the reason for this is the diminutive “boy”, which doesn’t add in practice do anything more than add a slight sneer to the meaning of “fan”.

So, in the context of rival technologies, what does it mean to be a fan? My own definition is that the fan differs from an admirer or advocate by investing some of their own self-worth in the fight. If I’m a fan of company Y, and their new product is brilliant, I feel this reflects well on me. If their new product sucks, I should feel embarrassed (or more likely, will contort myself into arguments about why it doesn’t suck).

It’s easy to misjudge people’s emotions when reading their blog posts, but when I read John Gruber reporting the latest and greatest Apple product launch or record sales figures, I can’t help hearing pride in his voice. But Gruber doesn’t work for Apple. He didn’t design the iPhone or write the software. He’s just a blogger, albeit one who’s aligned himself consistently with one vendor. Obviously there are people who are emotionally invested in every vendor, and I don’t mean to single Gruber out. He’s just a well-known example.

The issue is clouded when a choice of vendor is associated with genuine moral issues like customer lock-in, anti-competitive behaviour or abuse of intellectual property. It’s right to care about these issues, and it’s natural that emotions get bound up in the consequent arguments. But it would do us all good to remember that backing a winner doesn’t mean we are better people.

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