Law in the Internet Society

! The Diminishing Marginal Costs of Social Networking

Elliott Ash


Phase 1. When homo sapiens first evolved, humans existed in small hunter-gatherer groups, where social networks were mostly limited to extended families. These networks were closed systems, where interaction with other networks was limited to mating? and violence? . Pre-agricultural technology limited productivity, and primordial human groups rarely exceeded 150 individuals (Seabright 2004). Anthropological evidence indicates that human males were instinctually murderous, making the establishment of relationships with individuals outside of the group prohibitively risky.

Phase 2. The invention of agriculture around 8000 BC touched off a rapid increase in population density, making affordable social interaction possible with a larger and larger range of individuals. The demographic concentration reached its zenith with the metropolis, where industrial-age technologies in sanitation, transportation, and telecommunications made possible social interactivity between thousands or even millions of individuals at a reasonable cost. But even here, substantial costs remained (think of an NYC-London telephone bill). Relative to the population of the earth, the range of individuals with which meaningful social interaction was available at reasonable cost was tiny. There still existed an increasing marginal cost of social networking, inasmuch as those individuals separated by geographical and political boundaries could not communicate without significant difficulty.

Phase 3. In the age of the internet, the geographical premium on social networking was eliminated. Given relatively trivial startup costs associated with hardware and electricity and ignoring linguistic complications, every individual could now connect without intermediary to every other individual on the planet at zero marginal cost.


The three phases described above exist in some capacity to this day, with some degree of hybridization being the norm. Pre-industrial societies in New Guinea are still more-or-less in Phase 1? . Much of the rest of the world lives in some rendition of Phase 2, with varying degrees of fear of strangers and preliminary use of the internet. I use the term Phase 3 purely; Phase 3 activity is limited to the internet. In my analysis, then, few people live exclusively in Phase 3, but many live in a hybrid of Phase 2 and Phase 3.

The historic decline in the marginal costs of social networking has transformed society. These transformations are many, but for this essay I will focus on the organization of social environments and the mechanisms of social control.

The Organization of Social Environments

As the cost of networking declined, individuals gained more and more control over their social environments.

In Phase 1, the individual has negligible control over his environment. He can choose to tolerate the tribe in which he was born or else die in banishment.

In Phase 2, the individual has far greater control over his social environment--especially in cities. The increased population density makes building and maintaining the optimal social environment relatively inexpensive. In the words of Paul Seabright (2004: 121),

The inhabitants of cities interact with each other in ways that no one has foreseen, not even themselves. Conservative authorities – aristocracies, churches, guilds – have always been wary of cities, seeing them as decadent places not only because decadent people choose to live there but also because people’s behavior changes when they arrive in the city. In the city, individuals experiment and invent; they refashion everything from their political ideologies, their relationships with their parents, their sexuality, and the music that moves them, to the industrial processes with which they work.
As the range of social partners increases, deviance becomes subjectively normalized as subcultures develop. Seabright marvels at city-dwellers’ willingness to interact with complete strangers, but he overstates his case. Individuals that we meet in cities are not totally anonymous, because we can infer much from the location of the meeting, as well as the stranger’s appearance, dress, demeanor, and other physical cues.

That complete anonymity did not arrive until Phase 3, in which individuals have almost absolute control over who exists in their particular social environments. Think of it his way: one cannot exercise absolute control over who sits at his lunch table, but he can exercise absolute control over who is on the contacts list of his instant-messaging program. Likewise, the Phase 3 agent exercises almost complete control over his social manifestation. Aside from the boundaries established by language and knowledge, we can control how others see us on the internet. This unprecedented realm of agency allows humans to abandon the encumbering limitations on social action imposed by physical circumstances and find superior social spheres. Moreover, if the optimal social environment doesn't yet exist, Phase 3 permits creation of new social environments at trivial cost. The internet presents complete freedom of social group formation, even more intensely than cities do. Humans can live flourishing lives of the most extreme esoterica without leaving their homes. Studies? suggest that the unique control one has over one’s social groups in the internet has desirable effects on personality and well-being.

But Phase 3 is not a cure-all; if nothing else, isn’t there something left that requires physicality? In McKenna and Green (2002), 73 percent of survey subjects indicated that they had physically gotten together with an online friend. This study confirms our powerful intuition that there online interactions currently lack something that in-person interactions retain, something that holds unique value to human social psychology. The ineluctable physicalities of sexuality and reproduction also chafe against the extensive control afforded by Phase 3 sociality. Nevertheless, the internet greatly expands the individual’s control over his social character and environment.


Conceptualization of personhood—that is, the definition of the agent-unit in the social network—evolves. In Phase 1, out-groups are dehumanized. In Phase 2, personhood is extended to all humans (and sometimes to animals). In Phase 3, physical indicia of humanness are no longer apparent, reducing humanness to its cognitive and communicative components. In Phase 3, computer programs that can mimic these components are subjectively indistinguishable.

The Dissemination of Ideas

The decreasing costs of social networking also have important effects on the dissemination of information. In Phase 1, ideas are controlled by unitary authorities in closed systems. Each tiny group of individuals has to independently invent technological improvements.

In Phase 2, multiple interconnected systems share ideas with each other. More efficient and effective ideas can communicate to other systems.

Phase 3, there is a single universal system with each unit connected to each other unit, with no centralized normative authority nor intermediary.

The findings in Young (1998) indicate that the regionalist structure in Phase 2 might be more effective at spreading ideas than Phase 3. Larger systems tend to have greater inertia, because a larger number of people have to adopt the new idea for it to tip. In Phase 2’s regionalist structure, a smaller community can adopt new ideas and norms, and from there spread to other communities.

Adding to this analysis is Seabright (2004), who writes that “paradoxically the most sophisticated networks may not mix people up enough. Networks that are too primitive and inefficient keep people with ideas from ever meeting; but networks that are too predictable and efficient mean that like may spend too much time with like, the official rules may be too solemnly respected, and nobody is quite open enough to surprise” (110). In Phase 3, isolated subcultures can hold onto unhealthy ideas that would be repaired in Phase 2 societies. For example, Phase 3 makes it easier for the religious to avoid the irreligious; alternatively, it makes it easier for the engineers to avoid the scientists. Either way, the complete control one has over the Phase 3 social sphere might hinder the efficient spread of ideas.

Evolution of the Internet Dynamical properties of the internet

The Mechanisms of Social Control

Parallel with the transformation of individual control between the phases, the mechanisms of social control have also changed drastically.

In Phase 1, the social order is maintained by reciprocal maintenance of social norms within small tribal groups through physical punishment or social banishment of deviants. These prosocial actions are motivated by evolutionarily conserved sociomoral-emotion mechanisms.

In Phase 2, legal systems develop, where a centralized state authority with a monopoly on violence ensures a cooperative social environment by deterring harmful behavior. This system is costly, but it is a small price compared to the economic benefits derived from peaceful coexistence and transaction with a large number of individuals. It is also harder to control: “even those with apparently great power – derived from their ability to inflict unchallenged violence – find the sheer complexity of the cities impossible to organize to their satisfaction” (Seabright 2004:121). While greater social complexity affords the government more resources with which to control the citizenry, that same complexity makes the citizenry more difficult to control.

In Phase 3 societies, the citizenry becomes exponentially more difficult to control with centralized state instruments. Individuals have full control over the character of their social environments, so they no longer need state protection (most notably, from physical violence). Market actors and anarchistic groups develop effective technological safeguards to protect individuals from commercial crimes, including fraud. Widespread encryption technology makes government regulation of electronic transactions prohibitively expensive. Because violators can be costlessly banished from social environments, sociomoral emotions regain some importance in policing norm violations.


As the foregoing analyses suggest, the decreasing costs of social networking have had profound effects on human society. As the individual has gained greater control over his social environment, full human flourishing has become available to more people at less cost. And while vast societal wealth has made supervision of peaceful activities easier, increasing social complexity has made centralized societal management near impossible.


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r9 - 31 Dec 2008 - 19:43:15 - ElliottAsh
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