Banning is a Defensible Moat

Metcalfe's Law states the value of a network is proportional to the square its users. It's not really an empirical description of our social universe so much as a decent heuristic. Generally speaking, the more users there are, the more they can do together. And this "more" grows faster than linear.

The most obvious consequence is that it's extremely hard for upstarts to compete against an well-established network. Having a better product isn't a sufficient condition to compel defection. "If you build it, they will [not] come." Challengers have to be very creative. They have to create something that is extremely compelling to a dense core of early adopters. And, those users have to stick around.

In the aftermath of 2021 Capitol Attack, many challengers saw an opportunity. The cost of acquiring a large cohort of users — those banned or following banned users — was almost zero. By offering them a new home, these networks could grow quickly.

The problem with this logic?

The big platforms weren't caving to political pressures, they were capitalizing on them. They weren't acting as responsible citizens, they were cheaply discharging toxic assets. That is,

1. The offending cohorts hurt their bottom line; and,
2. The cost of expulsion was uniquely low given the surrounding political climate.

Viewed this way, the true cost of acquisition for this cohort isn't near zero -- it's expensive as fuck. (At least, that's true if your goal is long-term growth and wide-adoption.) Those expelled were more likely to be toxic, in the sense that other users don't want to be around them. By greedily scooping them up, challengers concentrate a repulsive force, at the expense of future growth. Said differently, they accidentally help make the incumbent's moat deeper.

It's easy to read this sketch and think: who cares? The people "shown the door" are generally shitheads. But, I think platform-level banning is bad for social media as an ecosystem. I didn't always think this. But I've changed my mind over the last year or so. The owners of centralized networks are unlikely to be good long-term arbitrators. Want a vivid example? Look at the clumsy attempts at massaging the discourse surrounding COVID.

As to the future? Well, there is little reason to expect improvement. At scale, the learning task demands decanting absolute truth from a distorted digital projection of social reality...then, punishing the wicked deviants. Even if this were tractable, it seems dystopian. Culture is the fabric we weave together. I'm not sure abdicating agency is the way through our contemporary condition. Instead, I think we need more of it.

Loading more posts…