Language, the Network Effect and ICT — a Short Introduction, Here and Now

I believe there is a common misunderstanding which clouds many people’s (lack of) understanding with respect to the “network effect”. This is, roughly: The difference between knowing a language and using a language. If you call me on the telephone and say “hello”, then it helps both of us if we agree on the meaning of that greeting. This has nothing to with how often you say “hello” and/or how many thousands or millions of people might say “hello”.

This is, perhaps, one of the main reasons why I stopped using twitter many years ago, and also why I stopped using Facebook more recently. If millions or even billions of people scream unintelligible noise and/or nonsense into a channel, then that channel breaks down due to a negative network effect.

Let me try to expand my explanation of this phenomenon with the help of an example. Everyone who understands basic English knows what the words “here” and “now” mean. However, probably only a quite small number of people will know what “deixis” refers to. This has nothing to do with actually using these words, but rather different levels of literacy normally correspond to different network effects.

This is the case whether people use telephones or computers, a pencil and paper or simply their own vocal apparatus. The common fallacy of thinking there might be a universally positive network effect from networked “information and communications technology” backfired bigtime when during a recent trip to the United States I became aware of how widespread the spam “robocaller” problem has become there.

The herd mentality of a huge mob does not deserve to be trusted any more than the careful analysis of an individual researcher. Indeed: The brute force of many mindless machines is less valuable (not more valuable) than the prospect of splendid isolation from the rampant rage of a wild, errant and fickle crowd of murmuring maniacs.

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