As more people use a social media site, the network effects occurs, creating an experience and network that cannot be replicated.
When Elon Musk took over Twitter, talk was rampant about starting a new social media platform for the predicted mass exodus of disgruntled users. TikTok has long been under scrutiny for its links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and many have wondered why a US tech company cannot just make another, safer site where short-form video lovers could migrate. Due to the network effect, creating new social media platforms isn’t that simple.
If you’ve ever wondered why social media sites like Twitter and TikTok cannot be easily replaced, it’s the network effect at work. This concept is defined as a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains value as more people use it. The more people who use a social media site, the better the user experience becomes for everyone.
In other words, each user—and their individual contributions—adds value to the entire network. “The idea is that you have to reach critical mass and before you do that, it’s not a super valuable service. But after you reach that, it’s very hard to beat, because it’s very hard for others to replicate,” Zsolt Katona, a business professor at UC Berkeley, told NPR.
According to Investopedia, the concept of a network effect originated with the invention of the telephone. “Theodore Vail, the first post-patent president of Bell Telephone, used the network effect to argue why Bell Telephone should have a monopoly on telephone networks,” Caroline Banton explained on Investopedia. “Later Robert Metcalfe, the creator of Ethernet, helped to popularize the idea by introducing Metcalfe’s law, which states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.”
Businesses and marketers have also benefited from the network effect. For example, the more popular a service or product grows, the more its users spread the word about it. Fans essentially become unpaid salespeople drawing new customers to the brand—something that continues today in the form of social media influencers.
TikTok, the favored platform of influencers, has more than a billion monthly active users worldwide. It has formed countless niche communities between those who share a love of food, politics, memes, music, fashion, and more. Abandoning that for smaller online communities can make those who stay, and those who go, feel they have lost the energy and vibrancy they once enjoyed online.
As for Twitter, there’s a network effect linking its 237 million monthly active users. Several challengers have emerged since Musk acquired Twitter, including Mastodon and Post, but neither has come close to providing the same atmosphere. “I’ve basically been using Twitter for 15 years at this point, and there’s no way to quickly replace the followers and following that you accumulate over that amount of time,” writer and long-time Twitter user Drew Austin said, adding that Twitter is still the default.
In 2020, Instagram introduced Reels to compete with TikTok, but their short-form videos haven’t come close to threatening TikTok’s existence. People still come to Instagram primarily to enjoy glamorous photo streams, the “meat” of the Instagram social experience. Reels are something of a side dish—good, but not enough to make anyone drop TikTok.
Although the network effect is responsible for the success of big social media platforms, the effect can sometimes backfire with congestion. When a social site becomes too loud and crowded, it can push users to smaller, more curated online communities. Or when a platform becomes uncool, as Facebook has become for some younger users, it causes them to leave for more relatable social platforms.
Concerns over data privacy can also surpass the network effect if enough people seek a safer alternative. For now, it seems that the network effect is making the most popular platforms too big to fail. But if fickle social media trends change, Twitter and TikTok could eventually find themselves buried in the social media graveyard right next to MySpace and Vine.