The Apple fanboy problem

Summary:Apple fanboys have a reputation for hostile attacks based on suggestion, and it's harming Apple's image.

Apple "fanboys" have gained a negative reputation as a hostile entity. The vitriolic fanboy mob mentality has made online discussions about Apple difficult to keep civil, and has created an environment of increasingly shocking and disturbing hostility.

In my opinion, it's damaging Apple's reputation.

This week, "king of the fanboys" John Gruber and Apple evangelist Shawn King were instrumental to an online witch hunt that eventually included threats of violence toward a female blogger.

The witch hunt was based on inaccurate information about Macworld exhibitors that the men had provided to the public.

I know because that blogger is me. And I'm not the first person to have a troubling story like this about these people.

The article Macworld 2012: The Island of Misfit Toys opened with an anecdote and photo of an exhibitor described as "The saddest booth babe in the world," conveying the woman's unsmiling demeanor.

Shawn King, an Apple pundit, commented beneath the photo that the woman was not a "booth babe" but a developer, and that she was likely the sole proprietor of NeoPlay Entertainment.

He claimed her name was Piroska Szurmai-Palotai, and along with filling in the story about her first time at Macworld, he was indignant and offended that a developer would be branded a booth babe.

King delivered the story to John Gruber, who reported the information in a chastising post directed at me entitled, "This Is Sad All Right."

Later, Gruber would follow up with a second support post that added more from King, where King instructed how I should edit my article, instructed me to apologize to Ms. Szurmai-Palotai, and more.

Zsfia Rutkai

Zsfia Rutkai at Macworld 2012

My response was to amend my post and get to work. But I could not proceed further with anything until I verified the woman's identity and contacted her to apologize, and find out how she wanted me to proceed with amending the article.

Like everyone else, I assumed that Mr. Gruber and Mr. King were stating accurate and true facts.

The influence that John Gruber has is not to be underestimated, most especially with a certain kind of Apple fan. This type of fan is well known by anyone that writes about Apple online: the vitriolic fanboy. And they admire Gruber to what has now been shown to be some very dark extremes.

After Mr. Gruber's post went up, the bloodsport and viciousness directed at me began. It did not let up for three days.

I verified and published the true name and job title of the woman in the photo: Zsfia Rutkai.

She is not a developer (she's their PR person), and told me she was not offended by the characterization in my article.

It remains to be seen where King and Gruber got their information. Regardless, a whole lot of their devoted Mac following took it, and ran with it.

The effect of the misinformation

From within an hour onward of John Gruber's post, Ms. Szurmai-Palotai had been effectively Googlebombed - mislabeled and mischaracterized in all top search results for her name.

Piroska Szurmai-Palotai

It was clear that before his post, she had a very small internet presence. Her true search results show her to be a chess and technology enthusiast.

As I researched Ms. Szurmai-Palotai, I watched over the hours as Gruber's post and its citing by other blogs and forums (of which there are now several) began to cloud out organic results for her name - and her name on NeoPlay's apps.

Based on the incorrect information, those that took up the cause populated her name on things such as the Change.org petition that was started to force me to apologize to her, despite the fact that Ms. Szurmai-Palotai was nowhere to be found.

The misinformation gave a significant number of people fuel to stalk me, attack me for hours at a time, malign, insult me in disgusting ways, threaten me with weapon-specific violent death (an axe), and lead social media attempts to force me to lose my job over the matter.

Many referenced John Gruber, and/or his post as they did this. Plans were openly made to make media to attack me - another Angry Mac Bastards podcast.

This kind of attack appeals to the Internet's root nastiness toward women

Women are already geek outsiders in Apple culture.

In this particular instance the Apple fanboy target was female, and so the suggestion to openly dislike the target became ugly with what we all sadly know as the Internet's root nastiness toward women.

During the onslaught after Gruber's first post about me, a few neutral Apple personalities expressed to me that they were becoming uncomfortable with what they called "vicious bloodsport."

Readers came from the post to call me a whore (among many other things on Twitter) and resorted to ad hominem attacks - truly, they had nothing else.

I didn't take it personally. I knew that something was wrong with Gruber and King's claims. But I also know that this is how the Internet treats women.

These guys know what their negative influence can do. No one deserves it, and I didn't "have it coming" - no matter how justified their followers felt tying the vitriol to my work in human sexuality and women's issues.

I don't know these men. I have never met them or had direct contact with any of them. Yet this is the second time they have come after me - for writing something about Apple that displeased them.

Finding the truth

When people online - such as Shawn King, via John Gruber - began calling for me to apologize to the woman in the Macworld photo, it became clear that none of these people had actually had any contact with her.

I found Ms. Szurmai-Palotai online rather quickly, and saw that she was not the woman in the photo.

I then went to work tracing the company, other domains on its server, who they belonged to, and I mapped out the NeoPlay Entertainment staff structure. I wanted to ID the woman in the photo - and ask her what she wanted me to do.

I found documents and citations showing that Ms. Szurmai-Palotai was actually the company's Director of Communication. I found the company's male owner, Krisztian Mehes. But the girl in the Macworld photo was far more elusive. In the morning I began making phone calls to Macworld exhibitor coordinators, and more.

By the afternoon I found Zsfia Rutkai. I contacted her, explained the situation and apologized if there was any offense - for I meant none.

She then added a comment to the post for clarification, and we exchanged further emails about her company, and about being called a booth babe - to which she told me she didn't take the issue seriously and was not offended. Ms. Rutkai was a lovely grownup, made a Saddest Boothbabe Facebook page for fun, and was a PR professional.

The Apple fan culture has a sickness

This story about John Gruber and others like him in the Apple evangelism communities is not unique to this columnist in any way.

Over the past few days a number of people got in contact to relate that had been on the receiving end of similar directed attacks. One man wrote me,

The Shawn King & Gruber circus has been doing this for YEARS. I've dealt with those guys since 2004 and when this crap is all over, they go back to sending their army to attack other people.

It's not just being a target for whatever reasons; disagreeing with the men that run blogs like Gruber's (such as Angry Mac Bastards or King's blog) typically results in vitriol directed at the dissenting voice. One writer commented to me,

I found when disagreeing with Gruber that his fans were the most personal, reflexive unthinking commenters I've ever had.

You don't need to have had a brush with the Internet Hate Machine to know that one person can make someone's life miserable - and that gets magnified by 1,000 when it's an entire group of people operating solely on belief.

When this is done to human beings and not the companies on which the culture ostensibly about, it becomes ugly and personal.

It's worth examining motivations here.

People so eager to do a blog post takedown that they don't check their facts for days, and do a follow up to take another shot at the person in the crosshairs... they must be pretty unhappy, right?

It's strange. Men like John Gruber, Shawn King and all the rest in their circle seem to be the guys that have everything to be happy about. Apple is at the top; it's never been better, more profitable or more mainstream.

They have everything to be happy about - but are still acting like the little guy that keeps getting pushed around.

Thanks to these men, the Mac insider crowd has now come to be known as a group of vicious people that attack before getting their facts straight.

John Gruber is considered a canon in Apple circles; a hero to some and a man with unusual access to the company - so anything he says is considered a gold standard.

You may disagree with what I did in my Macworld piece. I'll take it on board.

But what is happening here is a problem.

And I believe it is a lot of what is perpetuating Apple's bad image.

It is an aspect of Apple's legacy from an older era - one that needs to go away.

Topics: Apple

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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