Everyone you know is on the internet. Everyone you know is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Almost everyone.
When ‘almost everyone you know’ is on a platform, it becomes difficult to not be on it. Not only do you stand out like a sore thumb, but you also won’t be able to function in society. Day to day conversations sound alien to you. If you don’t watch Netflix shows, your friends won’t know what to talk to you about.
This is the power of ‘network effect’. Every ‘platform’ out there is striving to achieve network effect, reaching a point where ‘everyone’ is forced to use their platform. This is why every new user is of great value to any platform, because every new user increases the value of the platform for everyone on it, making it more likely for even more people to join.
We see network effect, or effects, play out in various scenarios. Elections in India are all about the network effect. A lot of voters, more than enough to influence the outcome, like to vote for the candidate or party ‘everyone’ is voting for. This is what is colloquially known in the Hindi heartland as the ‘hawa’.
People of course move from one candidate or party to another, because the ‘hawa’ can change. The sense of who everyone is voting for can and does change. Similarly, platforms that gain network effects can also lose it. The social media graveyard is full of dead platforms: Orkut, Google+, Blackberry Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, Vine, AOL Instant Messenger, Friendster, Myspace, and so on.
Yet, the update came at a time when privacy awareness has grown into a mainstream concern, and Facebook as a company has suffered one crisis of credibility after another. Whatever the facts, the impact is that a lot of people are angry with WhatsApp. How many people are a lot of people? Enough to make Signal the most-downloaded free app on both Apple App Store and Google Play Store in India. Both Signal and Telegram are climbing up the download charts across the world.
This could be a major point of inflection, bringing network effects to Signal and Telegram, and relegating WhatsApp to history. Perhaps that may not happen, but the moment is pregnant with possibilities.
Why Parler and Tooter won’t succeed
What’s common in mass-market social media platforms that succeed is that their early adoption and promotion is done by techies and nerds. This makes new platforms objects of curiosity and desire. Platforms that start out politically don’t succeed, because they can by definition never achieve network effect. Some time ago, liberals rebelling against Twitter wanted to shift to Mastodon, but the idea soon fizzled out.
For similar reasons, the niche app of Donald Trump supporters and far-Right conservatives in the US, Parler, was never going to succeed in replacing Twitter or Facebook. You could make Parler a sort of internal hub for fellow-Trumpians, but it won’t affect the masses at large in the way that Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Twitter can. Besides, the political branding perhaps made it easy for Apple and Google to take down Parler from their app stores.
A recent similar effort by the Indian Right-wing to move to an Indian app imaginatively named Tooter hasn’t gone anywhere. It won’t. At best they can design an echo chamber for themselves, which has its uses, but it won’t replace Twitter. How do you troll liberals on a platform they are not present in?
Peddling any kind of agenda on social media, or just hollow influencer-ing to make money, needs the social media platform to have network effects. You won’t find any influencer trying to sell you the latest brand of shaving cream on Mastodon.
Your neighbourhood grocer says you can WhatsApp him your grocery list and pay by PayTM. But soon enough people could start saying, “I’m not on WhatsApp. Do you have Signal?” If Signal achieves network effect, people won’t feel they’ll miss anything by deleting WhatsApp. If most of their friends and family are found on Signal, people won’t need WhatsApp.
Out of sight, out of mind
Given the supreme power of network effect, what would it be like if you were banned from a ‘universal’ platform? It would be akin to social ostracisation. It would be like a district magistrate in India barring someone’s entry into the district because the person in question is deemed to be a threat to law and order in the district. You are out of sight, out of mind.
That’s exactly what has just happened to Donald Trump, who has been banned from many online platforms, most notably Twitter, which has been his main weapon for the last five years or so.
Trump and his supporters are also unhappy with their second-biggest weapon, Fox News, which they feel didn’t stand by Trump and projected Joe Biden as the winner on counting day. Trump now wants to have his own TV channel, his own social media platform. Good luck to him. By creating his own platform, he will be moving away from the mainstream platforms, which enjoy network effects. In other words, he will be marginalising himself.
If Joe Biden can succeed in overcoming Covid and get the economy on track, he will likely enjoy good popularity ratings. Fox News will be railing against liberals and Democrats every day but they won’t need to yoke themselves to Trump as they did for the last five years. New figures will likely emerge from within the Republican Party, trying to displace an ageing Trump.
Put simply, Trump without social media will collapse like a pack of cards. The myth of Trumpism as a mainstream force, a platform in itself, will likely be exposed. Nobody is bigger than the network effect — not Donald Trump, not WhatsApp.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.