What is a fanboy?
It seems strange to think that the definition of fanboy isn’t obvious or self-explanatory. But it’s actually a dense, tightly packed term with history, a word that’s constantly evolving.
It’s an insult hurled by snotty internet commenters like a nuke. It’s a badge of pride, a virtual tattoo that proclaims, “I don’t just love this thing, I am a part of it and it is a part of me.” Oh, and fanboy is a nearly neutral way to say you tend to prefer one thing over another.
The origins of the word fanboy in its modern incarnation go back to comics culture (when first used in 1919, it literally meant a young fan of the dude persuasion). Specifically, a comic fanzine called Fanboy, created in 1973 by Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray about a pair of comic-book, uh, fanboys. According to Harry McCracken’s history of the phrase, it was a portmanteau of “fan” and “funboy”, meant to be “disparaging… but in a loving way”. So it grew out of comics and sci-fi culture and eventually spilled over to gaming and tech enthusiasts.
So what’s the difference between a hardcore fan and a fanboy? “Fanboy” isn’t simply the seventh level in the selfsame hell. What I mean: You can be a fan of the Sydney Roosters. A diehard fan. A fanatic, even. But there is no such thing as a Sydney Roosters fanboy. On the other hand, you can be a Star Wars fan, or a Star Wars fanboy (or fangirl). An Apple fan or an Apple fanboy. The difference, in other words, is that fanboys are geeks. And they’re boys (or girls). A sports fanatic can never be a fanboy. Digging sports is manly. (As long as it’s not cricket.)
It also depends on who you ask. Take Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber whom Business Insider gleefully refers to as “King of the Apple Geeks” and Cult of Mac’s Leander Kahney. Gruber says that “the difference between ‘fan’ and ‘fanboy’ is that people use ‘fanboy’ to describe someone they disagree with and whose opinion they wish to discount”. Kahney says it’s “a loaded term. It carries an association of irrationality.” But Steven Smith – better known as the Zune Guy – says that “a fan is someone who likes something, and a fanboy is someone who loves something”. He calls himself a fanboy. So do a lot of other people. Results of the super informal poll – where 60 per cent of people claimed to be fanboys – aside, what’s striking is how the label’s used in the comments. It’s as often a flat description of affinity for a brand or product as it is a marker for someone whose devotion (d)evolves into irrationality.
What drives a fanboy?
If you ask a self-described fanboy why he’s a fanboy, he’ll give you a perfectly reasonable explanation. Well, from his point of view, anyway. I asked Steven Smith why he got a Zune tattoo. His response:
I am a huge fan of music. I listen to every genre of music and the Zune Pass had me hooked. For $US15 a month I could without concern download any cd I felt the need to listen to and if I didn’t like it, delete it. I felt Microsoft was going against huge competition and so I knew my tattoos would turn some heads locally and be a great conversation starter.
Zune is great. He wanted to help Zune. In other words, it’s about the relationship between the fanboy and the thing they love, which has an inherent greatness to it.
It goes deeper than that, though. Consumer psychologists explain that fanboyism is an extension of one’s identity. A fanboy is part of a collective, something bigger than himself. Dr Lars Perner, professor of consumer psychology at the University of Southern California, tells GamePro that “there is a phenomenon whereby an object becomes part of a person’s ‘extended self’. If an individual is really into gaming, for example, his or her console may become an important part of his or her identity.” And Alina Wheeler, author of Designing Brand Identity tells Kotaku that “Strong brands make you feel as if you are a part of a very special tribe of people who are like-minded in their passion and experience.”
What’s connecting this “very special tribe of people” isn’t necessarily a collective experience or a shared background, the traditional sinew that binds groups of people together. It’s “strong brands”. Nintendo, Batman, Star Trek, Xbox, Apple, Linux and Naruto – the things fanboys and fangirls tend to love – are almost entirely brands or objects of mass culture that carry just a whiff of sub-cultural odour. The value of the thing a fanboy loves derives almost entirely from the fact that it is a brand and that it projects a known currency or image, which feeds back into the process of creating the fanboy’s identity. In other words, the point of being Star Wars fanboy isn’t simply that Star Wars is good, it’s precisely that other people know what Star Wars is, and being a Star Wars fanboy says something about who that person is. Being a Star Wars fanboy would mean a lot less if no one knew what Star Wars was.
You don’t have to go any further than a Facebook page to see how we’re all slowly being defined entirely by the brands we “like”, quite literally lumped to together with the “very special tribes of people” who also like Android or iPhone. Where you literally can’t like something or define yourself unless it’s a known quantity or brand. Where one day we might all be fanboys.