Twitter winding up might not be a bad outcome

Social media also destroys the most valuable network effect out there, which is the time that we can share with others. Photo: AFP
Social media also destroys the most valuable network effect out there, which is the time that we can share with others. Photo: AFP


The network effect of time is far more valuable than of social media platforms that mostly waste it.

Intellectuals, Indian or otherwise, are not happy with Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk. Many of them have been threatening to leave the digital public square and move to Mastodon, which is something like Twitter, but not quite like it—if you’re not familiar with it.

Influencers are worried that the social media network might close, making it difficult for them to continue with their influencer activities.

Politicians must be thinking that if Twitter goes bust, what will happen to all the announcements they need to keep making? Further, how will their propaganda reach the world at large?

Ordinary folks are probably thinking, where could they possibly continue to have all their fun if Musk’s takeover of the blue bird fails to make business sense? Even doom-scrolling might never be the same again.

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In short, the world is worried about what will happen if Twitter shuts down. Nonetheless, the chances of the platform shutting down are rather minimal. And this is because Twitter has the ‘network effect’ working for it. In simple words, this implies that one is on Twitter because everyone else is on it, and everyone else is on the platform because everyone else they know is also on it. The larger point here is that the greater the number of people connected to any particular network, the more valuable it is to people who are already a part of it. And hence, such a network almost always has some business case because it takes on a life of its own.

One of the earliest examples of something that worked because of the network effect was the landline telephone. As Oliver Burkman writes in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals: “Telephones are valuable to the extent that others also have them. (The more people who own phones, the more beneficial it is for you to own one; and unlike money, there’s little point in accumulating as many phones as possible for your personal use)."

In the modern era, social media platforms thrive on the network effect. WhatsApp is an excellent example of this. In early 2021, huge privacy concerns arose around the app and many individuals publicly declared that they would leave WhatsApp and switch to other apps. But nothing much came of it. WhatsApp continues to be around and most of us continue to use it.

In this scenario, even if Musk is unable to handle Twitter, it is highly likely that some other tech major will end up buying the firm, though at a price significantly lower than what he paid for it. Despite its recent troubles, Twitter will continue to remain a business case because of the network effect. People will still to want to use it. This will allow its new owner access to a huge amount of data, which is something that can always be monetized, through targeted advertising, for one.

Having said that, Twitter and the telephone are perhaps the most obvious examples of the network effect. They are valued not just because you and I use it, but because everyone else more or less also does the same.

In that sense, a non-obvious example of the network effect is time. An individual having all the time in the world isn’t of much use. Others must have it as well for it to be valuable. As Burkman writes: “To do countless important things with time—to socialise, go on dates, bring up children, launch businesses, build political movements, make technological advances—it has to be synchronised with other people’s."

As with Twitter, a single person or a limited number of people being on a common standard has no value. A social media network derives value from the fact that many people are on it. Similarly, with time, it is of value only when others around us also have it.

This is something which is not very easy to understand, given that we live in an era where there is “a quest for more individual control over... time."

Nonetheless, the network effect by which time thrives is very important, given that any change in the world, from making babies and ideation in a small firm to the launch of a major revolution, happens when people coordinate and share their time.

We now live in a world where the importance of social media platforms grows day by day. Many social media apps, from Twitter to Instagram, are designed to get in the way of our concentration and take away our attention. Burkman writes: “Most other resources on which we rely as individuals—such as food, money and electricity—are things that facilitate life, and in some cases it’s possible to live without them, at least for a while. Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention." And social media platforms tend to destroy this individual attention.

Further, other than individual attention, social media with network effects also destroys the most valuable network effect out there, which is the time that we can share with others. And for time to be more valuable and have a greater network effect, the world could do with fewer social media networks. Hence, Twitter shutting down may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Now that’s something worth thinking about.

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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