WhatsApp and the Erosion of the Network Effect

Everyone is already on the telephone network.
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Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg during his company's IPO. (Reuters)

Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp isn't just a milestone for the current generation of mobile apps. It also shows how, in the mobile world, some of the key assumptions about the way communications networks function may need revising.

Take the network effect. The simplified version says that a communication network gets more valuable as more people join it. Just so we're using the canonical understanding, here's Wikipedia:

The classic example is the telephone. The more people who own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner. This creates a positive externality because a user may purchase a telephone without intending to create value for other users, but does so in any case. Online social networks work in the same way, with sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ becoming more useful as more users join.

Lock-in was common: you use Microsoft Word because everyone else uses Microsoft Word. You use Facebook because everyone else uses Facebook. Et cetera. 

The switching costs between full-blown social networks on the web is high. Sure, all your stuff is on the network, but more importantly, you'd have to recreate your network. Not just the set of friends, but the actual usage. So, switching required a lot of members on the network to make the same decision. 

With a phone, your network of contacts goes with you to any app you want, instantly, and the push notifications allow friends on any of the apps you've installed to contact you at any moment. Friend uses SMS? No problem. Friend uses WhatsApp? No problem. Friend's on Facebook? No problem? Friend's on Twitter? No problem. Friend's on Snapchat? No problem.

One doesn't have to use all these apps so much as to be available on them. Communication can then occur fluidly between them. All of these applications provide me the precise same service of message delivery in precisely the same way, as an alert on my phone. The phone easily coordinates handles a network of networks. 

Andreesen Horowitz's Ben Evans has been brilliant on the dynamics of competition in the "social mobile" space

The winner-takes-all dynamics of social on the desktop web do not appear to apply on mobile, and if there are winner-takes-all dynamics for mobile social it's not yet clear what they are. There are four main aspects to this: 

  • Smartphone apps can access your address book, bypassing the need to rebuild your social graph on a new service
  • They can access your photo library, where uploading photos to different websites is a pain
  • They can use push notifications instead of relying on emails and on people bothering to check multiple websites
  • Crucially, they all get an icon on the home screen. 

Any smartphone app is just two taps away - a desktop site can crush a new competitor by adding it as a feature with a new menubar icon but on mobile there isn't room to do that. Mobile tends to favor single-purpose, specialized apps.

Under these conditions, it's not that the network effect goes away, but its influence wanes. Facebook has 945 million mobile users. That's one hell of a network. And yet they just spent $19 billion on WhatsApp hundreds of millions of users.

Another way to think about it: everyone is already on the network—that's what a phone number is, a network ID—and so the reward for connecting people isn't very great. Many messaging apps can thrive because they are mere front-ends to the underlying network of phones. Other factors like user experience, photo features, ephemerality, or pseudonymity determine usage. And apparently, many people have intuitive specifications that allow them to discriminate between these superficially similar offerings. 

That's not a text, it's a snap... Don't Facebook message that... DM me.

Under these conditions, Facebook's strategy seems properly opportunistic. They could care less about what app you use, as long as they can use your words to bucket you for marketers and your metadata to understand your social graph. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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