We tend to think that network effects only move in a positive direction. (Is this a true statement? I think so, tell us if I’m wrong). The more people who participate on Facebook or eBay (or Slack!), the more valuable these platforms become.
Network effects dominate our world of open online education, as platforms such as edX and Coursera become more powerful the more learners they attract.
You can cite your favorite example a digital platform that gets more useful, and more valuable, the more people use that platform. Would you choose Netflix or Spotify - or maybe YouTube or the Apple app store?
It turns out that network effects, however, can be bi-directional. Reverse network effects occur when increased scale damages the quality of the platform or service. These reverse network effects can be tricky, as increasing scale may simultaneously increase the overall value of the platform, but also proportionately decrease the utility of the platform for individual users.
The idea of reverse networks effects is not original to me - as I learned when I Googled the phenomenon. Here is a 2014 an article from Wired - Reverse Network Effects: Why Today’s Social Networks Can Fail As They Grow Larger.
What is maybe an extension of the thinking around reverse network effects is that increased usage may be beneficial to the health of the overall platform, but may reduce the utility of the platform to the people using the tool. A growing Twitter and LinkedIn user base is good for the company Twitter, but maybe bad for individual Twitter and LinkedIn users. Perhaps we could call this the network effect paradox?
Two examples of reverse network effects that I can think of are LinkedIn and Twitter.
How many LinkedIn connections do you have? I’m curious.
Currently, LinkedIn tells me that I have 1,463 connections.
Now there is no way that I know 1,463 professionals. There is only a relatively small subset of these LinkedIn connections that I would ask for a recommendation, or be interested in their career progress.
The reason that I have so many LinkedIn connections is that either I’ve asked to connect with someone, or I’ve been asked to connect. These connections are spawned my episodic interactions. I’ll be meeting with someone, or reading about their work, and I want to learn more about their professional backgrounds through LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is great for professional situational awareness. It is important to know the professional background and networks of the people that we work with - even if we are only working with them tangentially, superficially, and briefly. LinkedIn is part of due diligence.
The problem is that LinkedIn does not make a distinction between our closest colleagues and our most tenuous connections. There seems to be no inner, middle, and outer circle of LinkedIn connections. This is not how we run our professional lives, and LinkedIn’s inability to discriminate by the strength of the connection limits the value of the platform.
We have good reasons to initiate and accepted new LinkedIn connections, but each new contact degrades the signal-to-noise ratio on the platform.
Okay, how many Twitter followers to you have? How many do you follow?
As of this moment, I have 2,534 Twitter followers, and I follow 857.
The reason that I follow people on Twitter is the same reason that I connect with people on LinkedIn - I’m using Twitter as a mechanism for professional networking. Following someone on Twitter is a signal that you care about their thoughts. That you want to hear what they have to say.
Of course, the more you use Twitter to network the less effective Twitter becomes. Following lots of people means that each tweet is less likely to come from close colleagues. Following many people on Twitter will reduce the quality of the average tweet.
We would be smarter to only follow the best tweet writers and our closest colleagues, but the Twitter professional networking ecosystem does not work that way. Instead, we are incented to follow more people - as the following others encourages people to follow you.
There is some professional value associated with the size of one’s Twitter following. In academia, the value of the scope of one’s Twitter network is both obvious and poorly understood.
Exactly how Twitter can be used as a platform for thought leadership - and particularly thought leadership in higher ed - is potentially powerful but difficult to evaluate.
In general, however, more Twitter followers is better than less. To get more Twitter followers, we follow more people, and in following more people we reduce the utility of Twitter as a communications platform. The more successful you are on Twitter, the worse Twitter gets.
To what degree is our educational technology community theorizing the tools that we depend?
Can you enumerate other examples of reverse network effects?
Do we have reverse networks effects in higher ed?
When do our platforms become the subject of scholarly discourse?
Can we anticipate reverse network effects in open online education?