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Network Effect: What It Is, Pros and Cons

What is the Network Effect?

The network effect denotes a situation in which the value of a product or service increases as more individuals or participants engage with it. The internet serves as a prime illustration of this phenomenon. Initially, the internet had a limited user base, primarily comprising the military and select research scientists, thus offering minimal value to the broader populace.

However, as access to the internet expanded, users began generating a greater volume of content, information, and services. The proliferation and enhancement of websites attracted more users, fostering increased connectivity and commerce among them. As internet traffic surged, its utility and value proposition expanded, triggering a network effect.

Key points:

  • The network effect refers to the enhancement in the value of a product or service due to increased user participation.
  • Online marketplaces like Etsy and eBay experienced significant growth by tapping into online networks and attracting consumers to their offerings.
  • Despite access to both online and offline networks, certain companies struggle to achieve critical mass—the requisite number of users for the network effect to materialise.
  • Congestion represents a negative aspect of the network effect, where excessive user activity can impede network performance, diminishing its usefulness and frustrating users.
  • As a business or product gains popularity, its users effectively serve as advocates, propagating awareness and interest through word-of-mouth promotion.

How the Network Effect Works

The network effect can enhance user experiences as participation increases, while also attracting new participants seeking to leverage the network’s benefits.

Social media platforms exemplify the pervasive nature of network effects. For instance, on X (formerly Twitter), the platform becomes increasingly valuable to users as more individuals share content such as links and media. This dynamic has fueled exponential growth rates for networking platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

Multiple network effects manifest when individuals join social media platforms. As user numbers swell and engagement deepens, companies eager to promote their products and services flock to these platforms to capitalise on the burgeoning audience. The influx of advertisers translates to increased revenue for social media websites, enabling them to evolve and offer expanded services to users.

History of the Network Effect

The concept of the network effect emerged in the early 20th century alongside the introduction of the telephone. Theodore Vail, the inaugural post-patent president of Bell Telephone, utilised the network effect to advocate for Bell Telephone’s monopoly over telephone networks.

Subsequently, Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, played a pivotal role in popularising the concept with Metcalfe’s law. This principle asserts that the value of a telecommunications network is directly proportional to the square of the number of connected users within the system.

Today, the network effect holds tangible significance and applications in everyday life, as evidenced by social media giants such as Meta, X, and LinkedIn. Often, the greater the number of users registered on their platforms, the more valuable the product becomes to its users and the more advantageous the position of the company is for shareholders.

What is Network Externality

Network externalities are the alteration in the benefit a consumer derives from a product as the quantity of other consumers purchasing the same type of goods rises. Fundamentally, this theory revolves around the confidence consumers place in the network of connections within an extranet system.

Network Effect vs. Network Externality

While related, the concepts of network effect and network externality exhibit distinct differences. Network externality, an economic term, describes how the demand for a product is influenced by the demand of others purchasing the same product. In essence, consumer buying behaviours are shaped by the actions of others in the market.

For instance, observing numerous cars in a restaurant’s parking lot might lead one to infer that the restaurant serves excellent food, prompting them to give it a try based on the assumption that the collective judgement of those patrons cannot be mistaken. Similarly, trends in fashion impact consumer purchasing decisions, with clothing styles fluctuating based on the imitation-driven buying and selling behaviours of consumers.

Positive network externalities can contribute to the emergence of a network effect. For example, if many of your acquaintances are active on Facebook, you might join the platform with the intention of connecting with them, which constitutes a positive externality. Subsequently, if your participation on the platform involves sharing quality content that resonates with a broad audience, it can amplify engagement levels and foster a network effect.

Fact: The internet serves as a prominent illustration of the network effect. The increase in user numbers has resulted in a proliferation of websites, heightened engagement, and an expansion in the range of products and services offered by companies.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Network Effect

The primary challenge for any company aiming to leverage the network effect lies in achieving initial traction or attracting a sufficient user base to initiate the phenomenon. This critical threshold of users necessary for a substantial network effect is termed as the “critical mass.”

Upon reaching critical mass, the product or service garners additional users due to its utility or benefits to consumers. Consequently, the prospect of the network effect motivates companies to strive for self-sustainability.

Moreover, the network effect fosters positive outcomes by stimulating entrepreneurs and creators of intellectual property to develop more efficient and distinctive products for public consumption.

However, there exists a downside. Overcrowding can occur if a product or service attracts an excessive number of users. Consider the internet, where an abundance of users can impede network speed, diminishing user satisfaction. Providers utilising the network effect must ensure adequate capacity expansion to accommodate all users.

Furthermore, there’s a risk that once a company achieves and maintains critical mass, it might become complacent and less innovative, relying on its established consumer base.

How the Network Effect Builds Businesses

The internet’s network effects often prove advantageous for various service-for-hire platforms and websites. With a growing presence of professionals, spanning from dog walkers to tutors to electricians, displaying their services on the internet, more customers are gravitating towards these digital directories. Similarly, e-commerce platforms like Etsy and eBay experienced surging popularity as more vendors joined these marketplaces, catering to consumers who embraced online shopping.

Moreover, the network effect has been instrumental in propelling the growth of ridesharing services. Companies such as Uber and Lyft expanded their presence and operations with the backing of individuals who signed up as drivers, thereby broadening the companies’ geographic reach across cities and states. With an expanding pool of drivers, both Uber and Lyft witnessed a rise in their market value.

How the Network Effect Influence Pricing

In markets influenced by the network effect, businesses may adjust their product pricing strategies as the network effect becomes apparent. Initially, when a business is in its nascent stage, pricing strategies may differ from those employed once the network effect gains traction. With the growth of a business facilitated by the network effect, it often becomes advantageous to raise prices as demand for the product escalates.

Businesses frequently aim to maximise profits by setting prices at the highest possible level without surpassing what customers are willing to pay for the product. However, initiating with lower prices (or in some instances, offering the product for free, as mentioned earlier) and subsequently increasing prices as the network effect takes root can lead to a broader user base.

How to use the Network Effect to your Advantage

Harnessing the network effect can propel business growth. By grasping the underlying principles driving this phenomenon, businesses can strategically capitalise on it to bolster demand for their products. Once the effect gains momentum, users effectively become brand advocates, disseminating information about the product through word of mouth.

In markets characterised by network effects, businesses often vie to establish early presence to exploit this dynamic. Consider instances where unfamiliar businesses distribute free items on the street; this strategy aims to pique interest in the product, prompting individuals to purchase and share information about it. Subsequently, as demand for the product surges, prices escalate, and consumers become increasingly willing to pay higher prices. As user numbers expand, so does the perceived value of the product.

Fact: Companies like Meta, Apple, and Airbnb have attained rapid growth and emerged as industry leaders, largely propelled by the network effect.


What are instances of the network effect?

Social media platforms like Facebook and X serve as prime examples of the network effect. These websites become more valuable as their user bases expand.

What constitutes a network effects platform?

Platforms reliant on the network effect encompass the internet, mobile phone networks, landline networks, and social media platforms.


As the internet, a significant showcase of the network effect, integrates further into our daily routines, understanding this phenomenon and its advantages will become increasingly crucial for both producers and consumers.

The majority of businesses can leverage the internet to harness the benefits of the network effect and enhance their business growth. Nonetheless, it’s essential to recognize that the network effect isn’t confined solely to online environments; thus, capitalising on it across all channels can attract more users to a business.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for informational purposes only. BARTERCARD has no business relationships with any company or organisation mentioned.


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