iSheep, Fandroids, and why we care so damn much about our smartphones

CNET's no stranger to the vitriol being hurled around by passionate handset users. (Skim through the comments section of any major phone review and you'll see.) But we just had to ask: Why all the hate?

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
11 min read
Smartphone fanboy graphic
Sound familiar? Mari Benitez/CNET

It's 10:30 p.m. and already there's a line of two dozen or so people.

They're sitting on lawn chairs, tucked under blankets, and pushed neatly to the edge of the sidewalk by one of those extendable nylon straps you see at movie theaters. It's chilly here in San Francisco, and Ryan Rawson wears an extra jacket to keep warm.

"What kind of things do people actually get excited about in life?" he asks, standing nearby the line. "A date? Buying a car?" Then he says definitively: "Getting an iPhone."

Ryan Rawson photo
Ryan Rawson was one of several people who waited outside the San Francisco Apple store for the iPhone 5S. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rawson

Rawson, along with everyone else lining the block down Stockton Street, is waiting for the Apple store to open so he can get his hands on the iPhone 5S. Tall and burly, he sports a lush beard that clashes with the faded pink highlights he has sprinkled throughout his bleached hair. Then again, maybe Rawson is full of contradictions. He's owned four Android phones over the last three years, but here he is -- in line on a Thursday night, waiting for the newest iPhone.

When asked about what he thought of the Samsung commercials that openly mocked Apple line-goers such as himself, Rawson retorts brusquely.

"Samsung wishes they had people wait all night for their phones."

Meanwhile, down in Los Angeles, Ricky "the Android Guy" Perez as he calls himself, is busy maintaining his video blog about everything Android. With more than 21,000 YouTube subscribers, Perez posts videos ranging from spec comparisons to app reviews. Though the majority of his videos extol the virtues of Android devices, there are others that point out his distaste with the iPhone.

In one video, "The Truth About the iPhone 5S," Perez says the handset's Touch ID fingerprint scanner is "a marketing gimmick," and that its improved graphics processor is meaningless because "you still don't have an HD screen on that thing." He then closes the 7-minute video, remarking that he just wants to make sure "you guys don't get bamboozled into buying this."

Perez, of course, isn't the only one who wants to persuade others that the iPhone is a dud. And Rawson certainly wasn't alone with his sentiments against Samsung as he sat outside with fellow devotees. Everyday, fans of these mobile brands are stepping inside the proverbial ring, hurling names at each other like iSheep, Fandroids, and iHaters across the Internet, with hopes of bringing the opposition down.

AskTheAndroidGuy screenshot
Ricky Perez in one of his videos criticizing the iPhone 5S. Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

This is just one side of the "smartphone war," a term that's also used to describe the legal conflicts between Apple, Samsung, Google, and Microsoft. Though these companies are duking it out behind closed court doors over patents, the battle being waged between their customers remains very public. They're the ones putting on the gloves and visibly fighting over who's better and who's right. (To get a better idea, you can check out some of the reader comments left on CNET's high-profile phone reviews, like the iPhone 5S and the Samsung Galaxy S4, where comments like "awww, poor little iHater" and "typical clueless iTard" run rampant.)

And though it's true that trolling and arguing on the Internet about technology is nothing new, there's something about the smartphone that takes it to a personal level.

This time, it's personal

Currently, the smartphone is one of the most ubiquitous consumer items, with the Pew Research Center (PDF) estimating 56 percent of American adults owning one. That number jumps to 91 percent if you consider the standard cell phone.

"The phone category is an important category at any tech company," says Matt Donovan, general manager of brand for Windows Phone at Microsoft. "It is the most competitive piece of tech on the planet."

Because smartphones are everywhere, and users identify with them so strongly, having an opinion about one isn't limited to a select few. Clifford Nass, professor and director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab at Stanford University, argues that unlike the rivalries that are waged between, say, luxury items, people have their own 2 cents when it comes to a phone.

Apple Siri and Google Now
The idea that something is "human," is closely tied to speech. CNET

"This isn't Ferraris versus Porsches," Nass says. "In the case about smartphones, everybody knows what they are."

Our phones are also with us all the time. It's the first thing we check when we wake up, we look at it when we're alone, we look at it when we're with company, we feel naked without it, and we even take it to bed with us. It has access to our entire social network, it holds our photos and our calendars, it's our source for immediate information, and it's an extension of who we are.

Nass theorizes that smartphones are also considered intimate because we associate the device with human speech. Whether that speech comes from your friend on the other line, or from virtual assistants like Siri, Google Now, and S Voice, it doesn't matter.

"Speaking is the most social and human thing we do," says Nass. "The minute you start speaking or listening to speech, the part of your brain that associates 'humanness' kicks in."

Because we regard these devices as both personal and intimate, passionate emotions come easier with smartphones. And when you're perceived as being too passionate, too emotional, too partisan, the inevitable occurs: you're slapped with the loaded "fanboy" label.

Some may embrace this title and carry it in stride, but usually it's taken as an insult. That's because while being a mere fan of something carries positive connotations, being a fanboy implies that you not only like something, but you must also carry an unreasonable and antagonistic attitude against something else as well.

There can be only one...er, two

In the world of tech, fanboys aren't unique to smartphones. They exist among many industries, and competition always seems to boil down to the top two brands that dominate the market share: Xbox vs. PlayStation, Nikon vs. Canon, Windows vs. Mac. No matter how many other contributors there are to the market, rivalries work best when there are two. After all, having two entities simply makes it easier to choose a side.

"It's like good and evil," says Nass. "The brain loves duality."

For smartphone software, Apple iOS and Google Android run on 91 percent of the world's smartphones combined, according to International Data Corp. In terms of hardware, Apple and Samsung are the two most profitable mobile manufacturers in the world.

But all that success garners a lot of unsavory attention as well, in the form of antibranding. A quick Internet search for "iPhone sucks" and "Android sucks" yields 54.3 and 52.3 million hits on Google, respectively. Both the "I Hate Samsung" and "Apple sucks" Facebook pages have racked up nearly 4,000 likes each. There is a iphonessuck.com and a "What I Hate About Android" Tumblr page. Not to mention the proliferation of memes and countless comical images.

iOS and Android
Combined, iOS and Android run on 91 percent of the world's smartphones. Lynn La/CNET

"No large brand is immune to criticism," says Candice Hollenbeck, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in consumer learning and social behavior in marketing. "Because they have the power and influence, eyes start turning to them."

Although one can never know all the personal reasons an individual decides to take it upon himself to disparage a company, there are some common attributes that help explain exactly why "haters gonna hate."

The joys of antibranding

Doctoral researcher Laurence Dessart studies businesses and management at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Over the last year, she distributed online surveys asking people who actively bad-mouth companies including Samsung, Apple, and even Starbucks, why they engage in such activities. So far, she's observed that personal identity plays a large role.

"People who hate a brand do not want to be associated with the brand because of what it represents," says Dessart. "It clashes with what they see in themselves, and how they want to be seen by others."

For example, one of the most commonly cited problems survey participants reported against Apple was its use of proprietary software and hardware, which is perceived as Apple's way to lock in consumers into its ecosystem.

Perez says it is these limitations that push him away from iOS and toward Android. Because of its open-source software, Android offers its users more freedom for modification. In Perez's case, this level of customization aligns with how he sees himself.

"I'm a techie," he says. "Techies tend to lean towards Android due to its openness. I just like the personalization, and not having limitations."

Once an identity is pinned down, there is then a desire to seek out and join like-minded people. In fact, one of the most common reasons noted by those in front of the Apple store the night before the iPhone 5S release was "the group experience" and camaraderie of waiting in line.

New York Apple Store
Many Apple users cited the "group experience," as their motivation for lining up for the iPhone. This sense of camaraderie can also be used to band against a brand as well. Sarah Tew/CNET

"The social and psychological benefits that you get from being part of a community are the same across all kinds of people," says Dessart. She also says, however, that there are benefits to banding against a brand as well.

"We have to be part of a community in order to oppose the brand because as a standalone person, we have no weight."

This has become much easier thanks to the advent of the infinite clubhouse known as the Internet, which provides space for people to meet up and discuss their thoughts. Some might argue that all this spirited debate is really to help others become more informed. Perez, for example, says he started his Android vlog to close what he saw as a disconnect of what people thought the OS could and could not do. He wanted to end the misconceptions and educate.

Perez's desire to educate comes off as sincere. But perhaps the majority of those online who adopt a condemning tone under the guise of didacticism, do so not to enlighten others, but rather to feel smarter about themselves.

Stanford's Nass suggests that people are quick to vocalize their critical comments because of the "brilliant but cruel" phenomenon. This term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, after her research found that negative book reviews were seen as more intelligent and reliable than positive reviews, thus shedding light on people's natural wariness against overly positive evaluations.

"Being negative makes you feel smarter," says Nass. "The guy who says 'I agree' never seems as smart as the guy who says, 'I disagree.'"

Their eyes were watching trolls

And while all this disagreeing, name-calling, and back-and-forth bickering appears as if it's only occurring in an echo chamber located far off in an obscure universe populated by die-hards and savvy tech buffs, companies do take notice.

In short, fanboying has hit the mainstream.

One of the most memorable and recent acknowledgements of the consumer smartphone war happened earlier this year, when Microsoft released its Nokia Lumia 920 ad. Titled "The Wedding," the commercial depicts Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy enthusiasts sitting on either side of the aisle during a wedding.

A few angry quips are exchanged (most notably, "Would you mind moving your enormous phone?" and "Autocorrect this!") before an all-out brawl ensues. At the end of the ad, two users are seen with their Lumia 920s. One asks that if people knew about the 920, would the fighting stop, to which the second person responds: "I don't know, I think they kind of like fighting."

Judging by the more than 45,500 likes it garnered on YouTube, the commercial not only received a positive response, it was also a clear indication that mobile corporations were aware of the kind of dialogue that was being exchanged among users. It was Microsoft's way of recognizing the conversation and injecting itself in it at the same time.

"As soon as we got into market," says Microsoft's Matt Donovan, "the truth became evident: all the oxygen in the category was being soaked up by Apple and Samsung."

But instead of directly criticizing the consumer for their choices, like how Samsung did with its iPhone line ad years earlier, the Lumia ad poked fun of the passions that were involved with the brands.

Donovan said that Microsoft didn't want to disparage any of the devices or companies involved. Instead, they wanted to support those who already owned Lumias, and bring attention to the kind of comments that were being hurled around.

"[People] had to admit they all saw themselves from what we were showing," he says. "It's a very real discussion, debate, and conversation between those two fan bases."

And if the likes of Microsoft are catching wind of these discussions, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Apple and Samsung are listening in, too. In fact, sometimes these companies are the ones behind mass trolling efforts, like in the case of Samsung paying students to go online and bash HTC phones, or BlackBerry's odd "Wake Up" stunt that took place last year in an Australian Apple store.

Whether these companies are actually doing anything with the negative comments targeted back at them, however, is unknown. But University of Georgia's Candice Hollenbeck says that companies at least pay attention to their detractors just as closely as they do to their followers, if not more so.

"They want to be seen in a positive light," she says. "You don't want [antibrand communities] to grow, you need to mediate and appease."

Citing antibrand advocates who successfully changed the unfair business practices of McDonald's and Walmart, Hollenbeck says that with enough pressure, companies can and do respond to consumer demands.

"With the Internet, consumers have really been given a megaphone," she says. "And you have to either respond, or you can't survive."

Sing the song of angry men

Given all this passion burning inside consumers, it's not surprising to see that if you sit an enthusiast down in real life and remove the anonymity that the Internet provides, the debate is often more mild-mannered than expected.

"Android has cool stuff, and the iPhone has cool stuff," says Robert Nguyen, who also stood in line near Rawson at the Apple store. "It's just personal preference."

Ricky Perez also admits that he gives credit where credit is due. "It's important to do things well," he says. "There are definitely situations where iOS, or even Windows Phone, is a better solution."

Pile of phones
Where do your loyalties lie? Josh Miller/CNET

But even though this level-headedness may be a more accurate reflection of how users really feel, you wouldn't be able to tell if you browsed the Internet, where the most caustic, aggressive, and often lewd, sort of vitriol occurs. Indeed, even Google is trying to curb the acidity of online comments by encouraging YouTube users to post under their real names, and allowing channel operators to moderate comments.

This abrasive level of discourse shouldn't surprise anyone, however. The desire to be a part of something -- whether that involves carrying the flag of a beloved brand or burning another's down -- is natural, and it can get ugly.

There will always be someone who'll tell you to stop drinking that Apple Kool-Aid, or that you and your Samesung should go home. The Internet will always have its trolls, and brands will always have their haters. And considering how personal and essential smartphones are to us, it's no wonder that emotions run higher with this device than with any other gadget in the world. So maybe it's not a date, a car, or a new phone that gets most people excited. Perhaps, above all else, it's wholeheartedly defending something you damn well believe to be true.

Editors' note: Sadly, after this piece was published, we learned that Stanford University's Professor Clifford Nass passed away on November 2. For more information, visit Nass' memorial page.