Fanboy! The Strange True Story of the Tech World's Favorite Put-Down

Fanboyism, Meet Tech

Geeks have been pop-culture fans–maybe even fanboys–for as long as there have been computers. Literally: Konrad Zuse, who has as good a claim on having invented the computer as anyone, was a member of a King Kong fan club in 1930s Berlin. So you might assume that the word “fanboy” would have quickly become part of the tech lexicon.

It didn’t. As I researched this article, I scoured the Net for evidence that any irate person called any aficionado of any computing platform a fanboy prior to the 1990s. So far, I’ve failed. Search the Classic Computer Magazine Archive, home to thousands of articles from 1980s tech magazines, and you get zero results for “fanboy.” Google Groups’ archive of the popular 1980s USENET newsgroup net.micro also comes up empty.

Judging from Google Groups, “fanboy” didn’t start to crop up as a tech-related put-down until the mid-1990s. (Here’s a pioneering 1996 reference to “Bill Gates fanboys,” in an exemplary USENET flame that also compares Microsoft’s co-founder to Stalin and Mao.) Even then, though, it wasn’t the pervasive, reflexive jibe it would become. As my friend Steven Gray, senior copy editor at PCWorld, pointed out to me, 1996's New Hacker Dictionary Third Edition discusses the ties between fandom and hackerdom and defines several fan-related terms–but doesn’t mention “fanboy.”

“Fanboy” had been around for close to a quarter century by that point, but it remained a comics/sci-fi inside joke. It was, however, in the process of infiltrating the mass media. The 1995 Warner Bros. TV cartoon Freakazoid! , for instance, featured Fanboy, Freakazoid’s self-appointed sidekick–and a walking, talking definition of “fanboy.”

In 1999, Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés created a six-issue miniseries for DC about a Fanboy named Finster–and while Evanier says it sold a whole lot better overseas than it did in the U.S., it reached a vastly larger audience than Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray’s Fanboy.

Since then, Fanboys have continued to multiply like, well, Tribbles. Two film comedies have been titled Fanboys: A 2003 New Zealand short and a 2009 U.S. feature. Both involve Star Wars maniacs attempting to steal pre-release prints of 1999's Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Barry Lyga’s young-people’s novel The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl was published in 2007; Nickelodeon currently airs a CGI series called Fanboy and Chum Chum .

Such references both reflected growing interest in the concept of fanboyism and introduced more people to it. Here’s visible proof of its rise to prominence–a Google Insights graph showing the volume of searches for the word “fanboy” from 2004 (when it amounted to a trickle) to the end of 2009 (when it reached new heights).

As “fanboy” has become a household term–at least among fans–its use in tech-related debate has exploded over the past half-decade or so. You’re most at risk of being dubbed a fanboy if you’re say anything nice about Apple; for all of the company’s success, there are still scads of people who instinctively dismiss its customers as irrational cultists. Chatter about gaming consoles is also rife with references, and no platform is immune–apparently, advocates of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii are all nothing more than fanboys.

Judging from my Google searches, though, a surprisingly wide array of major brands spawn a meaningful number of fanboy references, good or bad.

My takeaway here? “Fanboy” is a compliment–even when it’s slung as invective. It’s not evidence that your customers are delusional worshipers of crud. Most often, it’s a sign that you’ve managed to make products that are good enough to make a critical mass of folks really happy–so much so that it drives unbelievers bonkers.

The time to worry, then, is when nobody thinks your users are fanboys. Heads up, RadioShack: the fact that the phrase “RadioShack fanboy” is virtually unknown is not a good sign.

Another conclusion: After having read a few hundred instances of “fanboy” references during research for this article, it’s clear to me that the word has lost whatever potency it might once have had as an insult. It’s too much of a cliché, too inappropriately dismissive, too likely to be tossed in as an ad hominem attack by someone who shows signs of extreme fanboyism himself.

“I hate the term ‘fanboy’ now,” laments early adopter Jim Engel. “Not because I feel made fun of, but because it’s used most by the worst examples of fanboys.”

On the other hand, the sillier, more satirical use of the word, as established in Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray’s 1973 fanzine, remains appealing. Long may it wave–and may dictionaries get the story of “fanboy” straight.

All of which left me wondering: Is the guy who coined the word “fanboy” a tech fanboy of any sort?

“Of course I am a Mac person,” Lynch told me. ”But over the years Mac gets more and more like Windows. Its main saving grace is that there are no Mac viruses. The minute one shows up, though….I will get me a Dell notebook and not hackintosh it.” Spoken like a true non-fanboy.

(Thanks to Jay Lynch, Jim Engel Steven Gray, Bhob Stewart, and Steven Rowe for their help with this article.)

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