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See Inside March 2011

Gadget Politics: Why Tech Fans Share the Love and Hate

The truth behind what makes technology's true believers tick



Illustration by John Hersey

I’ve been a consumer technology critic for over 10 years. During that time, hate mail has been part of my job every day.

In the early days I thought I understood it. Back then, it was all about Microsoft versus Apple. It was easy to see why people took sides: Apple was the underdog taking on an established giant. It was fun to root for one side or the other.

Today, though, there are fanboys and haters ready to attack every conceivable position in the tech world—“position,” of course, meaning “company or product.” Mention almost any big name, and you’ll hit a raw nerve: iPhone. Android. Kindle. Canon. Nikon. Google. Facebook. And, of course, Apple or Microsoft.

We’re not talking about civil disagreements, either. We’re talking about name-calling, hair-pulling, toxic tantrums, featuring a whole new arsenal of modern-age putdowns (the suffix “-tard” is always popular). It’s gadget hate speech.

At tech conferences, we columnists compare notes on the hostility of our hate mail. Doesn’t matter if you think you’re being evenhanded in the review; someone will flame you for it.

So when the Apple iPad debuted last year, I tried a crazy experiment: I wrote two reviews in the New York Times in a single column, taking opposite positions. One was for the fanboys—all positive. One was for the haters—all negative. Surely, I thought, this would satisfy everyone.

Incredibly, though, the stunt pleased nobody. The anti-Apple bloggers wrote about my “love letter” to the iPad; the fanboy bloggers foamed at the mouth about the “hatchet job” I’d written. Each side ignored half of the review!

Later, I learned that I was witnessing a well-documented cognitive bias: the hostile media effect. It says that people who hold strong opinions about an issue perceive media coverage of that issue to be biased against their opinions, regardless of how neutral the coverage may be. But that phenomenon usually applies in politics, not electronics. That could only mean one thing: that gadget brands have, in fact, become politicized.

What’s going on here? Why do people work themselves into such a lather over their choice of phone, for heaven’s sake?

First, tech companies these days work hard to link their products to style and image. Those colorful, silhouetted dancing iPod ads never mention a single feature—except how cool it makes you. The message seems to be, “You’re not worthy if you don’t buy one”—and suddenly, if someone disses your gadget, they’re also dissing you as a person.

A second factor is that gadgets are expensive, and they quickly become obsolete. You become invested in the superiority of your purchase. People see you using it, judging your choice—so you defend your choice. Insult my gadget? You’re insulting me.

The old Apple underdog phenomenon is still at play, too—but now in reverse. Apple is now the overlord of music players, tablet computers and app phones. Forget the 1997 Apple commercials that encouraged us to “Think different.” Today if you buy Apple, you’re not an iconoclast—you’re a sheep. Those who once would have rooted for Apple the underdog now root against it.

For the same reason, Facebook and Google gain their own hater populations as they grow bigger and more prosperous. Size and success naturally stoke suspicion and cynicism.

But why gadgets? You don’t encounter this degree of rabid partisanship among customers of rival clothing stores, insurance companies or banks, and those are large companies, too. And why now? I mean, you didn’t hear about people in the 1950s flying into name-calling rages over their choice of toaster oven or gangs in the 1980s starting rumbles about brands of hair gel.

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