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In defense of fanboys

Why tech needs its swarms of rabid product boosters. Here's why it pays to listen to fanboys, even if you find them intellectually umkempt and annoying.

I'm on the take. Microsoft pays my salary. I'm an Apple elitist. If you listen to the "fanboys," as tech product boosters are often called, you'll find that I've been accused, as have most tech writers, of all these things. Often in the same day. But the next day, you'll hear that I am biased against Microsoft, or maybe that I'm just not smart enough to appreciate the Mac.

Professional writers and bloggers, as well as people who write just for the fun of it on their own blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, often find that it's difficult to say anything nice about a product without arousing the ire of people who think its competitor is obviously superior.

Those who have a critique of a popular tech product, company, or industry sector are similarly likely to bring out online crowds of people who band together to defend their technology against the dangerous opinion (and possibly the hidden, nefarious agenda) of a writer who clearly doesn't see the truth.

Guy Kawasaki: The original fanboy? Rafe Needleman/CNET

Writers hate fanboys. We hate them because fanboys can take a reasonable argument and turn it into a screaming match. But we can love them too. There's a validation that comes from getting the fans riled up. If they're yelling, we must have said something worth yelling about. At least that's what our bosses tell us when a fanboy attack lays us low.

Plus, it's page views. The more people read and comment on our stories, the more money we make. A bad story can mean a short-term financial gain, even if it can damage a writer's, and a whole site's, long-term credibility.

But to say that we use and then dismiss fanboys doesn't adequately describe our relationship with them. Individuals fanboys may be intellectually unkempt, and in hordes as annoying as a swarm of gnats, but it pays to listen to them. Fanboys are important and valuable. Here's why:

Fanboys move businesses
Fan activism has a long history. It is, in a loud way, democracy in action. A fan letter-writing campaign saved "Star Trek" from being canceled after two seasons in 1968 (it was renewed for one more). In the modern era, after Apple removed the FireWire port for the 13-inch MacBooks, a fanboy yawp contributed to the reinstatement of this feature in the next revision of the product, now the MacBook Pro. Individuals may be singly annoying, but the collective voice of fans gets changes made--often quickly.

One can argue that even a lone fanboy can help a struggling company. Evangelists (as paid fanboys are called) like Guy Kawasaki at Apple and Robert Scoble at Microsoft have both helped the companies they worked for stay relevant and appear human, even when the tide seemed to be turning against them. (Kawasaki and Scoble are no longer affiliated with these companies.)

Fanboys keep us honest
On the Internet, anyone can say anything about anything, for free. If a writer gets something wrong about a popular tech product, a polite e-mail from a reader may alert him or her to the error. But the real learning--the unforgettable experience that ensures that the writer will never make that mistake, or anything like it, again--comes when a particularly biting fanboy (or an army of them) slams the writer in public for the error. It's humiliating, it's stupid, and it's why some writers are more careful than they would otherwise be.

I get slapped by fanboys myself. A recent example, from Andy Sternberg on Twitter: "@rafe may be the ultimate iPhone elitist, if yesterday's @buzzoutloud is any indication. [tweeted from my BlackBerry]."

This brief rant, against my sweeping dismissal, during a podcast, of the BlackBerry as a media platform, caused me to reconsider my position on the product. The writer was wrong that I'm an elitist but dead-right that I need to consider what I say about the product more carefully.

Fanboys create standards
People are joiners. They want to feel they belong. And fanboys are the clubs tech users can join. There's a practical advantage: If you use the same products and standards as the people you respect (or fear), you can get help using it from people who know how. Fanboys can set de facto standards of use and thus reduce training costs across the board for consumers. (There is, however, often a hazing ritual. You may have to live through being a new user, or "noob," while you get yourself up to speed.)

Fanboys can also thwart growth of their platform or product. Linux die-hards that continue to push that platform as a good product for end-user consumer desktop computers set unrealistic expectations. But even obnoxious and dismissive statements (like writing "Get a Mac!" in reply to a question or complaint about Windows) do raise awareness of the fanboy's pet platform.

Fanboys are fun (and profitable) to bait
Whenever traffic starts to lag for a blogger, he or she can just write something off-kilter about the Mac. Or Windows, Linux, the BlackBerry, the Xbox--name your hot button. Lob a few logic bombs into a story, and watch the hits roll in. It's not a good long-term strategy to build trust among the readers you want, but it is a quick way to make yourself feel important and turn pages in the process. Just please don't make a habit of it.

I conclude, therefore, that fanboys are good for technology, good for business, and good for the economy overall.

That still doesn't mean that I like them.