The concept of Network Effects is well-known and oft-used in economic literature. Metcalfe's Law, which states that the value of a telecommunication network is proportional to the square of the number of users connected to the network, has been in the telecom, networking and internet industries for a long time.
In the post-internet era, this phenomenon has most played up in the world of social media. The last fifteen years have seen social media platforms becoming indispensable to daily conversations, news flow, marketing and media consumption worldwide.
As per Statista, the top fifteen social media platforms range from Facebook, with 2.9 billion users, to Twitter, with 436 million users.
But despite the fact that Twitter brings up the rear end of the top fifteen platforms in terms of network effect strength, few platforms generate as much debate as Twitter does. Twitter users tend to be far more passionately invested in how the platform should operate than the users of any other platform.
A corollary of this passionate 'intellectual ownership' of the platform is that every time Twitter does something its users don't like, they start railing against it. Twitter obituaries are written, and users threaten to leave the platform.
Most recently, the debate on Twitter's future was reignited after the American internet to automobile billionaire and the wealthiest person in the world Elon Musk, took control of the company.
In some ways, Twitter has become like test cricket. As avid cricket followers will know, test cricket has been dying – especially and ironically on Twitter – since Twitter has existed. However, test cricket has continued to exist and draw spectator interest stoically.
The answer to the continued survival of both – test cricket and Twitter – may lie not so much in the quantitative definition of network effects but rather in qualitative aspects.
'How many' is important, but it is also 'who' and 'how' that may answer the unique situation Twitter finds itself in.
Firstly, Twitter has had a distinctive evolution, in that it has attracted users who have something to signal to the world at large. Apart from the usual set of public figures – politicians, entertainment industry professionals, media professionals and sportspersons – Twitter also attracted the most diverse set of users who could be as invested in Bollywood as they could be in particle physics.
Twitter evolved as the only platform, where the two-sided aspect of demand and supply, production and consumption, could not just be satisfied by but in fact, avidly promoted by the same set of users. This has not been the case for other platforms.
Facebook has few overzealous, over-sharing friends and relatives and several passive 'likers'. Instagram has come to be dominated by celebrities sharing content and talking to each other, but everyone else seems to sitting in the bleachers observing a parallel world. Video platforms like YouTube and TikTok also have clearly delineated production and consumption roles, with very few individuals either capable of or interested in straddling both roles.
Secondly, this inherent two-sidedness reflects in the way Twitter interactions are shaped. Active users seek validation by confronting an outgroup and getting amplified by the ingroup. In the process, some users rise head and shoulders above others and attract the attention of all sides as 'representatives' of their object of attention.
The real-life object – a sportsperson, a movie star, a political party – may not even know about their passionate and vocal spokespersons. And when these spokespersons cross over from the virtual to the real world, it only acts as a positive feedback loop to the Twitter amplitude of Twitter voice.
No other Twitter challenger has so far replicated this outgroup confrontation, ingroup amplification and omni-group validation behaviour in any significant manner.
In the US, platforms like Truth Social, Parler or Gab have been a great collection of ingroups. They may sustain simply because the number of users has reached a critical mass. But they may not have the same impact as Twitter as the two-sidedness is missing.
The users of Mastodon, another large collection of one-sided influential voices, recently realized that the added 'feature' of decentralization actually led to discretion and potential privacy issues. The one-sidedness seems to have already morphed into a competition whose maximalist conformance or suspension rules are way harsher than anything Twitter imposed.
In India, Koo has had a rapid user growth, but is yet to get that big break, where it edges out Twitter in driving the narrative for a public event of immense significance or magnitude. It has indeed built a network, but it is focused on reposting everything from Twitter, so the 'effect' has stayed on Twitter. Several other platforms have not even been able to get a critical mass – the first step of creating a network effect.
So in the most recent calls for leaving Twitter, who is likely to leave Twitter? And leaving implies forever, never to come back, never to cross-post from another network to Twitter?
Unless the triad of confrontation – amplification – validation balances elsewhere, the chances are the most recent Twitter emigration may remain a rivulet rather than become a raging tropical river.
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