(This is a snapshot of my old weblog. New posts and selected republished essays can be found at raganwald.com.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007
  Off topic: "Fanboy" considered tired

I really said all this before, but it seems that the world does not hang on my every utterance for guidance in their affairs.

So I’ll say it again: Calling someone a “fanboy” weakens your argument, not strengthens it. It makes your argument look like it emerged straight from an AOL chat room.


Surprisingly, more than half of the labels on the iTunes Music Store are either exclusive or with at most one other store.


It may surprise Apple fanboys, but more than half of the labels on the iTunes Music Store are either exclusive or with at most one other store.

Does the second one really make its author seem hip and cool and smart at the expense of those hapless Apple fanboys? I didn’t think so either.

Look, if not wanting to be mistaken for an immature kid isn’t enough reason to avoid this word, I have a much better reason.

In any conflict, there is a strategic advantage for one side or the other to increase volatility. If you have a lead and a small advantage in games, you want to settle things down and let statistics do their thing. In match-play backgammon, for example, when you have match equity on your side you want to be very conservative with the cube.

You want to reduce volatility when you have an advantage and increase volatility when you’re behind.

Inflammatory labels are a way of increasing volatility, of shaking things up. And the same rule applies: if you’re in the right, if your arguments are cogent, you want to keep things rational and logical.

But if you’re weak, if your ideas are not sound, the only way to win is to turn a discussion into a brawl, and hope you catch a break.

I trust that your ideas are sound. So don’t fall into the trap of increasing volatility.

p.s. And if someone else hangs that label on you? Take satisfaction in the fact that they just admitted that their ideas are too weak to stand alone.

Comments on “Off topic: "Fanboy" considered tired:
Hmm, you have me wondering if "fanboy" is always derogatory. I recall using it on my blog to describe Paul Thurrott but it wasn't meant as a negative but rather as an admission of, and deference to, his vastly superior knowledge on the subject in question (meant akin to the way someone who isn't a software developer might call me a "geek" when describing my technical proficiency).

In my mind "fanboy" comes down to the intent of the author and tone of the statement, is it belittling or not? Or is it always? Now I wonder....
I'll accept that anything the receiver thinks is a compliment is a good idea :-)

That being said, it'll be tough convincing a Black man who grew up in the sixties that "boy" is an endearment.

But try me... I'm not young enough to know everything ;-)
Hmm, well I'm not going to bite at the race-baiting, that's coming over the top a bit. Sufficed to say if Paul Thurrott thinks it's an insult I'll happily offer up an apology.

Oh, don't take my comment too seriously! The last sentence was strictly in jest.
You make some great points about volatility - I had never really thought of it like that.

I'm a bit with Chris on this one, though.

The term fanboy, to me, is used usually in jest.

But since I will freely admit the groups to which I am an admitted fanboy:

OSX, Ruby, Google, Rails, etc.

If people *are* fanboys, and can admit it, then I believe they will not find the term offensive.

If they're in some kind of deluded reality where they belive they have the One True Opinion and are not in fact fanboys, then yeah, those people might take offense.
f they're in some kind of deluded reality where they belive they have the One True Opinion

If they are deluded, then their opinions are wrong. And thus, one can dismantle the opinions without worrying about what names would or would not be offensive to them.

This is my basic point, in a discussion there is never a good reason to use that word adversarially.
Hi there - I truly enjoy your blog; it really has encouraged me to push my programming envelope and you have also offered up some great discussions on other subjects as well.

I also enjoy Raymond Chen's blog for similar reasons and have noticed both of you spending time discussing, for lack of a better term, netiquette. I bring up Raymond because it may be that I am drawing a conclusion based on a combination of both of your activities. Consider that a disclaimer.

While I honestly enjoy these posts as much as any (ok, I like the programming stuff more) and wouldn't want to discourage more output, I can't help but wonder if maybe your posts are a sign of "blog fatigue" and that maybe you need a break.

I know you don't post for my benefit and I don't know you personally but I'd be sorry to see you burn out and quit blogging. Hopefully you're just shining some light on a topic that has caught your attention and that's that.

Respectfully yours,
I can't help but wonder if maybe your posts are a sign of "blog fatigue" and that maybe you need a break

Thanks for your concern.

No blog fatigue here, although I have noticed that the signal-to-noise ratio on programming.reddit.com has been steadily falling.

This very evening I read someone accuse someone else of having a "faggoty ego." And this is supposed to be a technical community!

I plan to use these netiquette posts in the future. When I see someone veering into boorishness, I will just link back to one of these posts, saving myself a lot of typing :-)
"Fanboy" can actually be a useful shorthand. Since we don't have time to do a background check on everyone we read online, we have to rely on reputation. Saying someone is an "X fanboy" means that their views on X are narrow and positively biased. Often it's not clear that a particular piece is biased, since it can be biased by presenting reasonable benefits and ignoring non-obvious costs. Unfortunately, much of the internet falls into this category.
Since we don't have time to do a background check on everyone we read online, we have to rely on reputation.

How interesting. What do you think of:

Ad hominem circumstantial involves pointing out that someone is in circumstances such that he is disposed to take a particular position. Essentially, ad hominem circumstantial constitutes an attack on the bias of a person. The reason that this is fallacious is that pointing out that one's opponent is disposed to make a certain argument does not make the argument, from a logical point of view, any less credible; this overlaps with the genetic fallacy (an argument that a claim is incorrect due to its source).

Ad hominem is logically fallacious but useful, because it often takes a lot of time to vet an argument. Say someone makes a claim about the physics of global warming that benefits Texaco's interests. Tracking down the science of it can be difficult -- at worst, you would have to get a degree in atmospheric physics to weigh the literature. Now say you learn that that person was paid $1 million by Texaco last year. *Logically*, this shouldn't change your views, but in reality you are well-served by automatically discounting this claim.

I don't know "how interesting" you find this -- it seems pretty obvious to me.
Oh yeah... What do you think of this one?

I was not being sarcastic, I find the question interesting. As an aside, you may not have a lot of experience talking to people with an open mind, but you are doing so in this case.

I find the question of someone's reputation very interesting and relevant on line, and I have blogged about that. However, I do not think that someone's reputation affects the truth or falsity of their arguments.

Do you grasp the difference?

Now, with respect to vetting an argument, haven't we wandered off topic?

The post was pointing out that calling someone a fanboy weakens your argument.

So for example, if I say that Scheme is a powerful language, perhaps you might point out that I wrote a Scheme implementation, therefore I am biased in some way.

You say, "This is useful, because I might not enumerate all of Scheme's weaknesses next to its strengths."

Well, that may or may not be true, but it still doesn't invalidate anything I said about Scheme. What I said is true or it isn't.

If it is true, my bias doesn't make it go away (It makes someone with a bias the most likely person to point that out, which unfortunately adds little or no informational content to the debate: there is a selection bias at work.)

And if it is false, just say so. Failing to point out a flaw in my argument looks an awful lot like there isn't a flaw in my argument.

If we are discussing something that requires a lot of effort to track down and validate, perhaps you would be best served by doing so.

Remember, the goal here is to learn and develop. For example, someone claimed that Ruby was powerful because of its design, not a specific feature.

As a Schemer, this was hard for me to grasp without actually trying it seriously. So a lot of effort was required to validate the claim.

But you know what? I knew I would learn something from taking the time to find out.

That's the basis of the rational approach. The scientific method. Empirical evidence.

The other way... we call that "playing the man and not the ball."
Do you grasp the difference?

I'm not sure if you were trying to be condescending here, but... wow. If you were, you succeeded admirably.

That's the basis of the rational approach. The scientific method. Empirical evidence.

The other way... we call that "playing the man and not the ball."

Well, any good rugby player will tell you that each has its place ;).

I agree that reputation doesn't affect the truth of someone's arguments, but that's not usually what's at issue in online
discussions. Most blog writing is advocacy or polemics, both forms of rhetoric. So the ultimate goal is to persuade others of a particular position. Making sound and valid logical arguments is one tool for this. Other "alternative" tools include selectively presenting the facts that support your case is another, shifting the debate to more favorable ground and, yes, questioning your opponent's credibility. I think this is the context where "fanboy" gets used, and it's a fair play.

Note that none of these "alternative" techniques weaken your argument in the sense of damaging the soundness or validity of its logical part. It has no effect one way or the other. The fact that you choose to question an opponent's credibility may suggest that you don't have strong arguments to make, but that's just another part of the rhetorical game.

I think we agree that, in a discussion genuinely searching for truth, the various alternative methods are unhelpful. (Our legal system operates in more of a no-holds-barred fashion...) But I also believe genuine truth-seeking is rare in the blogs.
My personal path does not lead through demagogy. If yours does, for a while we will travel apart.

But who knows? Paths sometimes proceed in parallel and meet in unexpected places.

You may find the technical posts on this blog more to your liking.
Well, I'm reading it and taking the time to comment, so I obviously find some value, right? I found your blog through the tech posts, which I do in fact enjoy.

On the other hand, a decade or more of usenet makes you see demagogues everywhere.

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