Networked Momentum, or Why It Can Be So Hard To Opt Out

The NY Times’ Room for Debate forum has taken up the question: “Is Facebook a Fad? Will Our Grandchildren Tweet?” Contributors included Sherry Turkle and Keith Hampton among others. Each offers a quick take on the question of about 300 to 500 words.

In his comments addressing adoption patterns of social media networks, Hampton, a professor of communications at Rutgers, makes the following observation:

“Once critical mass has been reached, not only does the value to participants increase, but the cost of not participating and of discontinuance also increases. It is costly – in that you risk social isolation – to abandon a technology used by the majority of your communication partners.”

When I read this I was immediately reminded of the very useful concept of “technological momentum” articulated by historian of technology Thomas Hughes. I’m going to pull a Jonah Lehrer here and copy and paste a brief description of “technological momentum” from a post a few months back:

“Hughes seeks to stake out a position between technological determinism on the one hand and social constructivism on the other. He finds both accounts ultimately inadequate even though each manages to grasp a part of the whole situation. As a mediating position, Hughes offers the concept of “technological momentum.” By it Hughes seeks to identify the inertia that complex technological systems develop over time. Hughes’ approach is essentially temporal. He finds that the social constructivist approach best explains the behavior of young systems and the technological determinist approach best explains the behavior of mature systems. ‘Technological momentum’ offers a more flexible model that is responsive to the evolution of systems over time.”

Hughes was mostly concerned with what we might call hardware. The power grid was one of his key examples. But Hampton has articulated a social network variation of the principle. It is not enough to talk about social media participation merely in terms of opting in or opting out. For one thing, even those who opt out aren’t really altogether “out” as the folks at Cyborgology have pointed out. For another, one ought to account for the very real costs attached to opting out. These costs constitute an inertial force that can keep users logged on. Perhaps we might call these “sticky” networks.


2 thoughts on “Networked Momentum, or Why It Can Be So Hard To Opt Out

  1. Michael — As usual, good post, but one quibble. I don’t believe it’s correct to say that Thomas Hughes’ conception of technological momentum mainly concerned hardware. I’m on vacation and so don’t have my books at hand, but as I recall from reading his original paper and subsequent additional paper (in the Does Technology Drive History? collection), from the get go he saw technological momentum as being a product of individual (i.e., human) resistance to change as much as hardware. Also in this regard note Langdon Winner’s very useful concept of the “technological imperative,” in which the culture becomes committed economically and socially to various technological systems. It’s possible but difficult at this point to “opt out” of the automobile and air travel systems, for example.

    1. Doug, I think you’re right. Hardware was not the best word there. I was trying to get at the distinction between the sorts of systems Hughes discusses and digital networks. Although, I think that I wouldn’t quite put it as a matter of individual resistance to change either. I think the point is that down the line from the initial period of adoption, individuals can’t really resist the system effectively, at least not without incurring significant costs. Although, of course, that says nothing about whether or not those costs are ultimately worth bearing regardless.

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