Tyranny of the Network Effect

Do you ever feel that digital media platforms like Facebook wield a tyrannical power over our lives?

There is an explanation.

The network effect refers to the positive feedback loop created by the mass adoption of a service or platform. For example, let’s say your friends are on Facebook, inviting each other to parties and complementing one another on their exciting lives and accomplishments. Naturally, you want to be invited to parties and be validated as a human, too. So you create a Facebook account. Now other people who want to go to parties with you and receive signals of your approval have a greater incentive to join Facebook as well. On and on it goes, until the perceived cost of not being on Facebook is higher than the perceived downsides of joining the platform.

The network effect explains why so many of us use Facebook so resentfully. Even while we are fully aware of the privacy and equity issues of social media, the phenomenal scale of Facebook market penetration means we feel like we need it to be connected to it. So, while many of us claim to ‘hate Facebook’ in no uncertain terms, we voluntarily continue to utilize it.

The network effect is like a kind of tyranny all to its own. It makes platforms like Facebook seem like nonnegotiable requirements for living and communicating in the modern world.

Social networks of such immense scale, like Facebook, have achieved their tyrannical reign over our lives by convincing us that our connection to one another depends on the wizardry of their platforms. As soon as we accept this proposition, there is no limit to the privacy we will trade to capture and access the attention of one another. All hail the corporate enterprise that convinces us that our human relationships and social organization depend on their clever algorithm.

Perhaps the only way to subvert the tyranny of the network effect is to remember that human communities — still, believe it or not — possess the power to organize themselves. As long as we credit the power of Facebook with enabling our collective action, we ignore the ways that the platform is conforming our relationships and communities into its image. Facebook is only one network, and while it may operate at a stunning scale, it’s presumption of being an ‘essential network’ is nothing more than a self-claim — a self-claim that it desperately needs us to believe.

Platforms are nothing apart from our adoption of them.

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