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Are fanboys the victims of an elaborate social experiment?

apple flagThey’re waiting, down there at the bottom of well-reasoned articles and in forums across the Internet, eager to stoke the fires of a flame war, exaggerate minor flaws in “the other” products, and generally let non-believers know that “UR FONE SUX.” You know who I’m talking about: fanboys.

After the slew of recent holiday tech announcements drew fanboys out of their lurk-holes in droves — slinging accusations of bias like so many Molotov cocktails – it raised the question: What does it take to turn an otherwise healthy human being into a raving Droid, MacHead or WinDrone that refuses to hear anything other than songs of praise for their chosen obsession?

Turns out, that leads down a rabbit hole to darker questions. Could snarky advertising campaigns and carefully engineered interfaces be inadvertently tapping into neuroscientific principles and creating hordes of irrational super fans? And once you’ve become a fanboy, is it possible to reject the ideology of <INSERT PRODUCT HERE>?

Stop caressing those smartphones you so oddly self-identify with, folks. This is going to be an interesting ride.

Us. vs. them

The jump from Average Joe to Raving Fanboy isn’t much of a jump at all, as it turns out. Its roots can be traced to a decades-old psychological theory known as “social identity” that was put forth by psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner.

The Neuroscience Marketing blog offers a great summary of the duo’s full testing of the theory. Click either link if you want the dry details, but in a nutshell, people naturally tend to categorize themselves into groups over the tiniest and most meaningless of even artificial differences in order to give themselves a sense of belonging in the world. Once you’ve established yourself as part of a particular group, you tend to show intense loyalty to the cause, favoring facts and people that agree with your group’s view while simultaneously discriminating against outsiders — especially if they belong in a competing camp.

In other words, as social creatures we’re socially predisposed to “us vs. them” behavior. Democrats versus Republicans. Atheists versus believers. Yankees versus Red Sox. Our brains slip into such artificial distinctions as easily as we slip into clothes … and if you’re not with a fanboy’s chosen cause, you’re against it.

im a mac im a pcViewed in that light, commercials such as Apple’s “I’m a Mac, not a plodding PC” and Samsung’s “I’m a cool Galaxy S III owner, not a dork waiting in line for an iPhone” pieces take on a whole meaning, literally fanning the flames that lead to irrational fanboyism.

Am I saying that tech companies are trying to intentionally push those hardwired hot buttons? Not at all. What I am saying is that <INSERT PRODUCT HERE> and <INSERT PRODUCT HERE> owners could already be inclined to dislike one another, and inflammatory, divisive ads only serve to exaggerate our natural tendencies.

The social identity theory suggests that fanboys might not consciously choose to become the hardcore brand devotees that they are. That’s troubling, because other studies and theories suggest that as with any other crackpot cause, once you’re in the cult of a given product, extricating yourself can be extremely difficult.

A fanboy’s brain literally changes to see the world his way.

Blinded by the light

Once a fanboy has established himself as part of a given group, his devotion is fanatical. His chosen (or not-so-chosen) product can do no wrong, competing products can do nothing right, and any criticism of the enlightened brand is tantamount to heresy or blasphemy. The truly hardcore even call themselves brand evangelists.

The religious overtones don’t end there. One bit of evidence claims that extreme fanboys could see their chosen item of worship as truly being holy.

The BBC program Secrets of the Superbrands decided to drag Alex Brooks, the obsessed editor of World of Apple, in for an MRI scan to determine how an Apple fanatic’s body physically responds to Apple stimulus. Neuroscientists showed him pictures of both Apple and non-Apple products and found that Brooks’ brain indeed behaved differently for each. The scary part: The areas of Brooks’ brain that activated when he saw pictures of Apple products were the same parts of the brain that flared up when religious people are shown images from their chosen faith.

apple brain response“This suggests that the big tech brands have harnessed, or exploit, the brain areas that have evolved to process religion,” one of the neuroscientists proclaimed.

I disagree that the effect is limited to big tech brands or is even being actively “exploited,” but it could explain why fanboys attack any perceived slight towards their chosen products with such tremendous zeal.

It’s hard to turn your back on your god, after all.

Hook ‘em while they’re young and you have them for life

Fanboyism is more than a religion; once you’ve locked yourself into a particular product family for an extended amount of time, your body actually adapts to better function with it, as I talked about in last week’s column, Are we evolving tech, or is tech evolving us?

Helen South, the About.com Guide to Drawing and Sketching (who also happens to be a lover of both psychology and Linux), raised an interesting point when we were talking about Windows 8 and its unfamiliar gesture-based control scheme. Could Apple’s fierce defense of its gesture-based patents in the courtroom be partially due to the human brain’s tendency to adapt to the interfaces it uses on a frequent basis? If common interface quirks like tapping to zoom or “rubber-banding” return to Apple exclusivity, simply attempting to use another phone would feel alien to long-time users.

“Try re-arranging the cutlery drawer and see how long you stop reaching for the fork in the knife compartment,” she wrote. “How long does it take to adapt from right-hand-drive to left-hand-drive when you move countries?”

If you feel flustered just picking up a competitor’s phone, you’re much more likely to stay locked into the “home” ecosystem — and the effect would only worsen the longer you stay with what’s familiar. The interface differences between devices and the confusion a fanboy would feel when using another gadget only highlights the divide between “Us” and “Them.” (There’s that social identity theory again!)

There are indications that the major operating system creators may realize this, as well.

Apple’s developer guidelines for OS X encourage designers to take advantage of so-called Metaphors — “the building blocks in the user’s mental model of a task” — as often as possible while building an app. The guidelines explain that those building blocks come “from a combination of real-world experiences, experience with other software, and with computers in general.” Unsurprisingly, it goes on to suggest that developers should “use familiar OS X user interface components to offer standard functionality.” The iOS Developer Library contains similar “Human Interface Principles.”

These are solid design principals to be sure, but training users to look for “familiar OS X user interface components” in their mental building blocks for a basic task just seems so calculated, so… Orwellian.

interface guideline microsoft msdnAnd it’s not limited to Apple. Microsoft is journeying down the same path with its Windows 8 gesture guidelines, which tell developers to avoid using similar gestures “to avoid confusing users.” In fact, Microsoft has guidelines in place for virtually every aspect of Windows 8 apps.

What does it all mean?

To be honest, I’m not certain. I don’t mean to suggest that the random snipes and irrational arguments of forum fanboys should be tolerated or accepted. If anything, the age-old practice of ‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’ is even more valid if you think my argument holds any water. After all, you can’t fight brain-deep fanaticism with logic.

If nothing else, at least I can rest a little easier the next time a fanboy leaves a comment accusing me of bias or throwing a fit over a minor flaw that I identify in an otherwise wonderful device; there’s no point getting mad. He’s just engineered that way.