I used to think Apple and Linux fanboys detested the business press most, perhaps due to what they perceive as a lack of understanding about their technologies of choice.
But after watching the video of last week’s excruciatingly painful keynote between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and BusinessWeek reporter Sarah Lacy at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, it led me to believe that Facebook fans have happily joined the ranks of technology’s most venomous fans.
If you haven’t heard, here’s what happened. For Zuckberberg’s keynote appearance, the conference organizers decided that a Q&A format would be better than a speech. By the end of the discussion (you can see the full video on Justin Smith’s blog here), the fans in the audience, many of whom were Facebook application developers, felt that Lacy had become too chummy with the young CEO. They started cackling at her to “ask something interesting!”
It gave way to a mob mentality of faceless Facebook fanboys screaming at her, and the talk spiraled out of control.
While Lacy’s questions were at times remarkably self-indulgent (or sometimes not questions at all), and it was annoying how she repeatedly went out of her way to note that she had spent time with Zuckerberg to write a book about him, the Facebook fans’ behavior at this incident seemed over the top. Moreover, it revealed the friction between journalists who cover technology, and hardcore enthusiasts who read their stories and watch their interviews.
This friction has played out on the web during the past few years as both the trade and mainstream press opened up their sites to user-generated content. Up to now, it’s been especially vicious in the world of the Linux operating system and Apple products.
Here’s a couple examples that should elucidate the point:
On CIO.com last summer, a freelancer wrote a story called Eight Reasons Not To Use Linux in the Enterprise. The resulting comment thread by Linux aficionados descended into character assassination, with personalized critiques of the author and his sources. Essentially, they contended he was nothing but a Microsoft lackey who hated open-source.
Apple fans have also gotten into the fun more recently with the iPhone for business announcement. Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Worthen wrote an interesting blog post in the wake of the iPhone SDK launch after he interviewed a Forrester Research analyst that raised some interesting questions about the iPhone as a device suitable for business. Of course, the fanboys argued ridiculously, Worthen must have been on the payroll of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion.
The Facebook Q&A, to me, was like watching these types of comment threads play out in person.
In my mind, there’s a few reasons for this rocky relationship between the media and the fanboys.
One is spineless web-rage. The ability for fanboys to post anonymously, or, in this case, to shout like mongrels from the middle of a conference venue, has allowed them to cross the line into being downright disrespectful while hiding behind their strength in numbers.
Secondly, collective intelligence (as spawned by user generated content and social technologies) and the mob mentality aren’t one and the same, and these fanboys have frequently opted for the latter. They go after the messenger rather than the actual facts. If the journalist says or writes something that displeases them or is construed as slighting their technology (or hero) of choice in any sort of way, they lose it (and usually go over the top, because you can tell they enjoy the sport of it).
The last issue: a great many business journalists, often concerned with the big picture, don’t always write stories and ask questions with the type of granularity that fanboys might like. The Facebook keynote served as a fine example of this. If people were expecting a BusinessWeek reporter to ask the world’s most exciting new business leader nitty-gritty questions about application development and widgets, they might have hired the wrong person for the job.
C.G. Lynch is a Staff Writer for CIO. He uses Facebook frequently, runs Linux on his home computer, and enjoys his iPod quite a bit.