Network Effects

A catalogue of things I've written (or collected from elsewhere) about network effects.


From Consciousness: An Outside View:

In economics, a system is said to enjoy a "network effect" when each additional user provides benefit for all other users. Examples of such systems include telephones, railroads, and social networks like Twitter. When network effects are particularly strong, a population tends to converge on a single network — the so-called "winner-take-all" dynamic. It's hardly guaranteed that a single winner will emerge (there are countervailing forces, after all), but the economic benefits push people toward bigger and bigger networks.

A variety of human social systems exhibit network effects. The easiest to understand are languages and cultures. The more people who share a given language or culture, the easier it is for everyone to communicate with each other — i.e., the fewer miscommunications there will be, linguistic and/or cultural.

Now (as I will argue) certain states of consciousness also enjoy network effects. It's not hard to see why this should be the case. Consider the benefits of syncing up with those around you:

  • Better communication. When people experience the same consciousness, it's easier for them to understand each other's behavior and motivations. You can see this in reverse when people misunderstand each other due to different states of consciousness, e.g., when an extrovert mistakes an introvert for being unfriendly, or when someone who's been drinking mistakes friendliness for flirting.
  • Shared goals. Many states of consciousness are intentional (i.e. directed toward a goal), and often these goals are best pursued collectively. Political rallies, riots, religious worship, finding mates, watching sports or comedy, going into battle — all of these activities benefit from the presence of others who share the same goals and the same types of consciousness.
  • Shared environment. When we're synchronized with the people around us, we can benefit from an economy-of-scale by sharing a single environment (rather than requiring isolated environments tailored to each person). This is true whether we're pursuing collective goals or individual goals. Many students can use the same library, for example, even when they're studying alone.

If these benefits are hard to see in daily life, it's because most of us are mentally-healthy, well-adjusted adults. We synchronize with each other so effortlessly, and so automatically, that we hardly even notice. But it's happening all the time — as we can see from the (rare) examples when it breaks down.


Any drug that can reliably induce discordant consciousness is a potential threat to those who aren't using that drug. But the threat will be especially pronounced when the induced consciousness has its own network effects. Marijuana and LSD aren't used in isolation (e.g. the way someone might take Adderall as a 'study drug'). They're enjoyed with others — in the context, if not always the immediate presence, of a community — and the consciousness that they induce harmonizes with itself. Thus these drugs are nontrivially contagious, and compete with the network effects of the rest of the population.


From Personhood: A Game for Two or More Players:

Once the idea of personhood gets started within a community (more on this in just a minute), most humans will eventually get sucked in. That's because personhood exhibits network effects — the more the merrier. Person-Person relationships are more productive and mutually beneficial than Person-Nonperson or Nonperson-Nonperson relationships. Thus the economics dictate that personhood will come to dominate the population, so that almost everyone who is able to meet the requirements of personhood is eventually inducted into its sacred order. Anyone who doesn't 'play along' will be left out in the cold.


People with Asperger Syndrome force us to confront personhood in a rather peculiar way: by using a self-consistent variant on the traditional contract.

Relative to 'neurotypicals,' Aspies seem to care much more about, and put much greater emphasis on, the criteria of integrity and use of reasons. They have a heightened sensitivity to these dimensions of personhood, and prickle more when others make contradictory statements, for example, or shrug off reasons in favor of "intuition." On the other hand, Aspies seem to care much less about, and put far less emphasis on, the criteria of politeness,proper comportment, and the proper use of social emotions — owing, perhaps, to a dulled sensitivity.

What's most intriguing, here, is that Aspie personhood is reflexive: it reinforces itself and produces its own network effects. Put ten Aspies in a room together and they'll have a glorious time, exchanging all sorts of information — mutually and blissfully ignorant of each other's (quote/unquote) faux pas. In other words: Aspie personhood harmonizes with itself. This is in stark contrast to the way e.g. schizophrenic patients interact with each other.

But Aspie personhood clashes with neurotypical personhood and vice versa. Any mixture of the two populations will be discordant; someone is bound to take offense. Either an Aspie will bristle at some (seemingly) contradictory statement made blithely by a neurotypical, by taking it too literally, or a neurotypical will bristle at some rude social gesture made inadvertently by an Aspie, by taking the 'affront' too seriously.


From Post-Atheism: Religion Refactored:

Evangelism... helps [a] religion spread to more brains. Incidentally, it also furthers the survival goals of the tribe, owing to the network effects that religions enjoy (more followers = more benefits to each follower).

Last updated July 29, 2015.