The Next Big Thing: Facebook and the Network Effect

There’s a Silicon Valley technoid sort of thing called the network effect. It’s an algorithm, you know, something from math class. Now, I have to say that I don’t think about algorithms on a daily basis and I bet you don’t either, though in my distant computer networking technology life, I lived that stuff every day. But even if you don’t care one bit or byte about computery Mac-PC, iPhone-Android, Facebook-Twitter geeky marvels, it has affected your life and it began affecting your life a long, long time ago.

The network effect describes how “the systemic value of compatibly communicating devices grows as the square of their number.”   Sorry.  I didn’t get it either.  In other words, the more folks that are connected to a network—any kind of network, be it a telephone network, personal computer network or social network, the more valuable or useful it is. In other words, nobody cares if there are only 1,000 users on one of these networks, but if there are millions of users on that given network, then everybody wants to get on the network because everybody is on the network. The thing snowballs, it grows and grows and pretty soon, you’ve got the next big thing.

I saw the excellent movie The Social Network recently—you know, the Facebook movie, where Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg invents the next big thing—Facebook—enabling friends to find each other, hook up, share screwy details of their lives in cyberspace.  But in the process, he loses all his friends. A fine, classic tale of Faustian mastery of the universe and its unexpected costs—Zuckerberg achieves his goal, invents the coolest, most important Internet thing of the 21st Century thus far, achieves fame, fortune and everything that goes with it, but doesn’t get the girl. The Zuckerberg character, amazingly and intensely played by Jessie Eisenberg, driven, focused and brilliant—a venture capitalist’s dream—but as John Lennon might’ve said, seems crippled inside, a bit devoid of humanity’s vulnerable spark. Remarkable.

But here’s what hit me—there’s a scene midway through the film in which a crowd of Harvard students are gathered in some dingy dorm dive, hootin’ and hollerin’, drinking shots, smokin’ weed, while four or five kids sit at a table, wired, networked and plugged into their laptops, wildly coding, try to hack their way through a computer labyrinth designed by Zuckerberg, testing their chops. First to correctly and successfully make it down the rabbit hole of this Wonderland wins an unpaid internship amongst the crazily talented coders of Facebook—a ground floor slot, a shot at changing the world. One of the kids makes it through, there’s a hush as Zuckerberg checks his work, then everybody goes nuts as he utters, “Welcome to Facebook.”

There it is—in 2003, technology was the coolest thing on campus—everybody was into it, because everybody was into it. Facebook was cool.

What’s remarkable about this scene to me is that if it had been 1970, forty long years ago, the weed-smokin’ kids in that dark dump in Cambridge would’ve been wielding guitars, jamming, trading riffs, scribbling subversive lyrics, marching on the streets and a-carrying signs because, back then, rock ‘n roll was the coolest thing—it was the big thing of that time. And those kids were looking for the next big thing—who was going to change the world, who was going to be the next Beatles or Dylan? Turned out, they were looking in all the wrong places.

The next big thing of the last quarter of the 20th century, though we didn’t know it at the time, was happening in technologically subversive labs, basements and garages, mostly in California, what was to become Silicon Valley. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, the computer network technology that interconnected every personal computer on the planet as the Internet exploded, came up with the network effect in 1974. His network enabled those new-fangled personal computers to communicate, share information, share a network. At the same time, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, after thousands of hours of practicing their own technology riffs, choruses and tunes, built the machines that every one of us uses today. And thirty years later, Mark Zuckerberg picked up the tune, improvised on it and came up with the social network, the next big thing that everybody uses because everybody uses it. Changed the world.

But somewhere, there’s another kid, brilliant, quirky and maybe annoying. There’ll be an idea and then the network effect will kick in. It’ll be coolest thing around, the next big thing.

Addendum: Zadie Smith, writing in the New York Review of Books, has a fine, cerebral take on all this–the move, Zuckerberg, Jaron Lanier and what it all means.  Recommended.

Note: This piece was broadcast on the Lake Effect program on November 22, 2010, Milwaukee’s WUWM, 89.7 FM, NPR. Have a listen here.

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2 Responses to “The Next Big Thing: Facebook and the Network Effect”

  1. markhstevens says:

    The question is why can’t “we” figure it out? It’s always that extra wrinkle, that extra inside-out thought, that additional glimpse of ‘what’s possible,’ a few layers down, and then making it happen. And the next question I wonder is how is the ‘next big thing’ going to change our lives, embed itself in our lifestyles? Still haven’t seen the movie, but must do so.

  2. I think that extra inside-out angle is where the magic is, it, the “insanely great” stuff that Steve Jobs always looks for that nobody can explain. Crazy rare.

    Isn’t it all about the speed of communications? Used to take days for a letter to arrive and we were all loosely connected. Now, we’re always on, always connected, instantaneously. So we speed up our activities, multi-tasking, sometimes losing focus. We gain something, but lose something. On the other hand, it simply “is.” We are becoming 21st century people (whatever that is), very different from, say, 18th century folks. As Ray Davies said, “you take all your smart modern writers, give me William Shakespeare…I’m a 20th century man, but I don’t want to be here.”