Your article in The New York Times today was idiotic. TheGalaxy S III is a nerd phone, a soul-less, heartless, hardware disaster. This is just another phone with next-gen hardware and nothing to show for it. More pixels with no vision.
You used to know how to write. Now you are pushing trash!?
You should be fired and replaced by somebody who has some clue what he’s doing.
Getting feedback like that is part of the tech critic’s job. I’m sure drama critics, music critics and art critics get their share of joyous mail, too. “Haters gonna hate,” as my teenage son reminds me.
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Frankly, these days, my primary reaction is curiosity. What, exactly, is going on with these readers? How could something as inanimate, mass-produced and commoditized as a phone get them so worked up?
Take the reader whose e-mail I quoted above. At the time he wrote that note, the phone was not even available. There’s no possible way he could have tried it out. And therefore, there’s no way he could judge whether or not it’s a “heartless hardware disaster.” So what would drive him to sit down so confidently to write about it?
In the 1980s and 1990s, consumer-tech religious wars were a little easier to understand. Back then, there were only two camps: Apple and Microsoft. Apple people hated Microsoft because (went the thinking) it had gotten big and successful not from quality products, but from stealing ideas and clumsy execution. Microsoft people hated Apple because (went the thinking) its people and products were smug, elitist and overpriced.
There was also an underdog element, a David-versus-Goliath thing. It was fun to cheer for one team or the other.
The hostility for and against Microsoft and Apple hasn’t abated. (At a product announcement last week, I sat next to fellow tech columnist Walt Mossberg from The Wall Street Journal. We laughed about our hate mail; Walt, in fact, has identified what he calls the Doctrine of Insufficient Adulation. That’s when you give a rave review to an Apple product – but you still get hate mail from Apple fanboys because, in their judgment, it doesn’t rave enough.)
But over time, new religions have arisen: Google. Facebook. In photography forums, similar battles rage between proponents of Canon and Nikon. There are even e-book religious wars: Kindle vs. Nook.
And now this: Samsung.
Samsung? Welcome to the big leagues.
So what is going on here? Why would somebody take time out of his day to blast a heap of toxicity to the reviewer of a cellphone?
In politics, scientists describe a communication theory called the hostile media effect. That’s when you perceive media coverage of some hot topic to be biased against your opinion, no matter how evenhanded the coverage actually is.
In electronics, though, that effect is magnified by the powerful motivating forces of fear.
When you buy a product, you are, in a way, locking yourself in. You’re committing to a brand. Often, you’re committing to thousands of dollars in software for that platform, or lenses for that camera, or e-books for that reader. You have a deeply vested interest in being right. Whenever somebody comes along and says, in print, that there might be something better – well, that’s scary.
In that case, you don’t just perceive the commentator to be putting down your gadget. He’s putting you down. He’s insulting your intelligence, because that’s not the product you chose. He’s saying that you made the wrong choice, and all of those thousands of dollars of apps and lenses and books were throwing bad money after good. He’s saying you’re a sap.
The effect in the gadget realm is further amplified by social appearances. We probably have Apple to thank for turning electronics into fashion accessories: you are what you carry.
For example, Microsoft’s Zune was a beautiful, well-designed music player. So why did it die? Because it wasn’t even remotely cool to own one. The iPod was cool. The dancing silhouettes in the iPod ads were cool. You wouldn’t want people to think you’re pathetic, would you?
Here again, a review that pans your chosen gadget winds up insulting you. It’s not just saying, “you made the wrong choice”; now it’s saying, “and you have no taste.”
All right. But why electronics? Why aren’t there flame wars among proponents of different brands of breakfast cereal, or car-rental outfits, or insurance companies?
Partly, no doubt, because these areas haven’t been made into a subject of standard reviews, as have books, theater, movies, restaurants and technology. There is no weekly Times column that reviews breakfast cereals. (Hey editors! Are you listening?)
But in electronics, the Internet is surely a factor, too. Tech products are the subjects of religious wars because the Internet itself is a technical forum. And its anonymity encourages people to vent in ways that would never be comfortable, acceptable or tolerated in face-to-face conversation.
I’d love to suggest that we could all be more civil in our interactions. I’d love to propose that readers write their objections with less vitriol. It would be great if people could learn that they’re worthy individuals no matter what electronics they own.
But that would be like saying, “We should all exercise more” or “Countries should just get along.” Some things are human nature, wired too deeply to change.