The Fan Club Effect

I’ve known for a long time that fan clubs affect my selection of a particular product or technology, and have been trying to articulate just how they affect the thought process involved in selection. My recent experience in the world of photography has helped me work through that enough to write about.

I generally remain neutral about the technologies I get involved with, as I believe each technology has it’s own place and purpose. I learned this holds true in computer languages, operating systems, and nearly everything else in life. It is interesting, though, to watch the fan clubs of all camps and the impact they have on neutrality and public opinion. In many cases, it actually works against many manufacturers to have such zealous fans. This too holds true of all things, ranging from computer languages to cameras.

One thing that got me looking at Nikon as a better solution for my specific type of photography was the Canon fan club. One message I kept hearing over and over again from the Canon community was, “we’re just as good as Nikon”. Every Nikon test was followed up with a comparative study about how it was wrong, and every YouTube video showed some pro photographer demonstrating the two side by side, and making note that Canon appeared just as good as Nikon, or that any changes were virtually unnoticeable to the naked eye.

You know what was missing from all of this? A barrage of videos from the Nikon camp insisting their equipment was “just as good” as Canon. In fact, I had to search long and hard to find any Nikon user who felt the need to prove themselves on par with Canon. The only people who fit that bill were some of the Jerry Springers of the Nikon world, and nobody pays them much attention any who. I would have even liked to have found some more serious photographers comparing their gear to Canon if anything, just to defend the thousands of dollars I had invested in Canon at the time. No serious Nikon user out there seems to feel the need to prove themselves as good as Canon. They’re too happy with their gear to care, and they’re too busy shooting great photos to care what the other camp thinks.

I’ve found the Nikon fan club, while occasionally appearing arrogant, is for the most part simply confident in their equipment. Consumer confidence often follows product quality and can (and should) play a huge role in the technology you buy. If there’s one thing that the Canon fan club is giving off in their attitude, it’s that they have much lower confidence in their own gear than the Nikon camp. So much that they seem to feel the need to prove they’re just as good as Nikon. All. The. Time. The air I get from the Nikon fan club is: we don’t care. We’re too busy shooting. Yeah! That’s the kind of fan club that is going to get my attention. And it did. The Nikons I now own are always in my bag. They’re absolutely incredible for what I do. I have no regrets, but I also don’t care if you want to shoot Canon all day long. Most of us can’t outshoot either brand’s top of the line cameras.

I think both manufacturers make great products and you can make fantastic photos with either brand camera. If you’re going to print, the difference is even less than when looking at pixel. I like my Nikon gear for what I do much better than my Canon gear. I think it’s more color accurate, sharper, and has far more range. I can (and have) proven it with tests. But that may not be the important thing for other people’s needs. Canon has many features that might make it better for some applications. So what should YOU do? Try both out and look at what’s important to you. Rent them for a week or two and see how you like them. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what others think of your gear, what matters is what you think of it, how well your personality resonates with its interface, and how comfortable you feel as a photographer behind it. My wife shoots Canon all day long, and loves it. She also makes excellent photos. At the end of the day, nobody cares what brand paintbrush Leonardo Da Vinci used to paint the Mona Lisa.

People can make all the scientific / pixel peeping arguments they want, and yes some lenses or cameras are technically better than others. You know what, though? People were having the same arguments 10 and 20 years ago, and even the “best of the best” equipment and lenses 20 years ago couldn’t compare to the image quality you can pull out today. The whole thing is pointless and temporal. Whatever comes out in the next five to ten years will likely make everything we’re using today look like old hat, too.

You know what’s important? Making fantastic photography. That’s what people remember. The photo of the kissing sailor in Times Square wasn’t taken with today’s camera system using top notch glass… but it was an incredible piece that has become iconic, and will likely never be forgotten. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima won a Pulitzer, and was an old black and white press camera. Out of all the people arguing about primes vs. zoom vs. Nikon vs. Canon, have any of them ever won a Pulitzer? I doubt it. We are too spoiled.

The things us camera nerds see important make for great intellectual self-pleasurement, but are really not important to photography. And while I like to play around and explore different technical areas of the latest tech (because I’m a nerd and that’s what I do), there are far better photographers than I using far worse equipment than I, and taking better pictures than I currently have the talent for. Those are the people I’m trying to learn from right now (in real life), and so far they don’t seem to care about gear. A vast majority of photographers are not good enough to outshoot their current gear. The photographers we’ll be talking about in 20 years are likely the ones shooting through gear held together by duct tape; they’re intimately familiar with their gear, they feel confident and comfortable, and most importantly, it’s just a tool that lets them work. In other words, the fan clubs out there largely consist of the people who aren’t making history. I take their opinions with a grain of salt. But they still have a way of driving technology. Fan clubs have an interesting way of shaping the products they use. Sometimes this can be counter-productive. But it is certainly interesting to watch. If it weren’t for the Canon fan club, I’d have never given Nikon a serious look.

A manufacturer can help shape their fan club, to a degree, with social networking, how they come off in advertising, what partners they’re willing to work with, and so on. This is probably why the good companies are very discriminating in who they sponsor, or at least they should be. It’s a little harder to control your fan club in technology as you’ve got IRC chats, hacker conferences, forums, and a lot of other public venues outside of your control, where the fan club is really defined. This is why many technology companies hire reputation managers, to help steer the culture behind their products, and that’s a very good thing for them. Building an atmosphere to support a positive community can help avoid your users from accidentally turning people away from the brand you worked so hard to develop.

Another example, this time from technology: the Perl language got a bad reputation through IRC of having a rather nasty, arrogant fan club many years back, which is one of the reasons I began looking at better alternatives such as Python. I code better than most of the clowns who used to hang out in Perl chats, but that didn’t stop them from angering every person who asked a question or had a different way of doing things. This was forged many years ago through a number of such mediums, and seems pretty consistent with the type of messy and poorly supported code you saw coming out of that community at the time. Has it changed? I don’t know because I don’t cut Perl code anymore. I’m too busy actually writing code to bother with fan club drama. Often times, running into a bad culture leads to the good experience of finding some other alternative tools that suit you better. The culture behind the products or technologies we use certainly plays a role in that, but it seems that often times, technology that’s best suited for you will also be accompanied by many like-minded individuals similarly using the same tools.

And following the drama (or extinguishing it, if you’re a manufacturer) is where you can usually find the problem brands, or at least the brands that might not be the best fit for you. Whether it’s open source projects, computer languages or electronics, the cultures that have the most drama or “something to prove” can often show you which products you might want to avoid, and possibly which products might be second best in quality. Why? Because if the fan club were confident in their products then there would be a lot less drama, and a lot more actual using of the product. At the very least, you may find a perfectly good product, but is then completely ruined by its user base.

I’m grateful both Canon and Nikon exist as they egg each other on by competing for the top spots. More importantly, though, they both appear to be working consumers in the right direction. Both have solid photographers backing their gear. Many of them think highly of both companies, and do it openly. I originally discovered Scott Kelby when I was shooting Canon, and while he was switching to Canon, I was considering the switch to Nikon. I don’t respect him any less for that. And while Joe McNally shot Nikon (and still does) while I was shooting Canon, I still respected him greatly as one of the best flash photographers (and writers) I know. The pros are all generally neutral, but use the gear they like best – and I doubt they have the time that some couch commandos do in online forums to argue over the stuff. In this case it appears to me that one company makes better sensor technology and optics, while the other makes better electronics, and the rest comes down to different blokes/different strokes. I wish the two would get together some day and make the mother of all cameras.

Figuring out the culture of the tools you’re considering can help you figure out where confidence levels in a particular technology are. Stay away from the companies who nurture an overly defensive type of public reputation (Canon does not, but their user base still needs work; part of it I believe is technology driven). While it’s not a technical answer, looking at who a fan club is comparing all their technology to can definitely help figure out what other alternatives others are (or should be) looking at.

I find the best way to gain consumer confidence to this level is to simply make an excellent technology or product, and then the culture will generally attract more positivity. I have an amazing user base using my Ballistic software in the App Store. I don’t do any advertising, nor do I compare myself to or bash the competition. And yet I’ve been featured in NRA magazines, reviewed by many others, and have a very solid and steadily growing user base, with no real drama that I’m aware of. Granted, ballistics is small potatoes compared to digital imaging or computer languages. My point, however, is that making the best technology possible is the number one thing you can do to attract the right people. If you make the number two technology, you stand to attract people who need to justify it.

There’s something to be gained by evaluating both consumer confidence and the culture surrounding a product, even if you still end up at that product choice in the long run.