How Networking Influences What We Speak

David Singh Grewal, an Eliot Fellow in the Social Sciences at Harvard University, is author of the book Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, in which he explores, among other topics, the relationship between language, networks, and globalization.

In the wake of the recent quorum we ran on this very subject, David has agreed to guest blog here. We are pleased to have him.

How Networking Influences What We Speak

A Guest Post by David Grewal

Anyone who’s read the Nobellist Thomas Schelling‘s classic The Strategy of Conflict will remember his example of Grand Central Station.

Schelling asked what he called an “unscientific sample of respondents” where they would go to meet a lost friend in New York City, without having specified a place in advance and without any way to communicate. A large majority said they’d go to wait at the clock tower in the middle of Grand Central Station — and they added overwhelmingly that they’d do so at exactly twelve noon. Schelling used this and similar examples to illustrate the logic of what he called “tacit coordination” — the way in which we rely on even entirely arbitrary conventions to coordinate our activities with others in the absence of explicit prior agreement.

Schelling’s work got me thinking about other examples of tacit coordination. I began to wonder whether the same logic of meeting up with a lost friend by choosing a prominent landmark couldn’t explain a lot of what we now call “globalization,” especially if you think about what economists call “network effects.”

Take a more complex version of figuring out a rendezvous point without having specified the details in advance: the problem of global linguistic coordination, which was the subject of a recent Freakonomics quorum.

If you picked two people at random off the face of the earth and asked them to pick one language in which to communicate with someone they knew nothing about, which language would each person choose? The language they’d pick would depend on a series of “reciprocal expectations” — best guesses not just about which language you suppose the other person speaks but which language he thinks you suppose he will speak — which depends, in turn, on which one you think he thinks you suppose he will speak. And so on, until your head swims.

In today’s globalizing world, the probability is increasing that two random people would choose English for their best chance at unplanned linguistic coordination. And this isn’t merely a thought experiment: it’s being played out, with more information among the parties, in the decisions of hundreds of millions of people now learning English as a second language.

Is what’s true of English true of other “standards” — other social conventions that enable coordination among diverse groups of people? Think about a measurement system. Sure, some people will claim that the metric system is intrinsically better than the Imperial because it’s easier to calculate in a decimal system.

But Britain didn’t switch from Imperial to metric just because the latter is base ten. It did so because of what economists call “network effects.” The value of any given coordinating standard — like a measurement system or a language — is worth more when more other people use it. And Britain’s neighbors and largest trading partners generally do. There are “economies of scale” to being part of the larger network.

Globalization has introduced a new coordination game among literally billions of people. With apologies to Thomas Friedman, the world isn’t flat. But it is networked — and we’re all heading to Grand Central Station after one fashion or another.

Chaitanya Vardhan

A thinks B thinks A thinks that
that A thinks B thinks that
A thinks

A spekas

B speaks L1 L2 L3

According to your " Language example", the issue is only about what B speaks????


I think that this is an execrise in fractions and the objective is to find the lowest common denominator. I travel alot and when i meet people and want a greater insight into other countries I ask how much coca-cola is. Innocuous enough, since people generally don't dislike it - it's a major factor in determining the cost of living all over the world. in china it's 35 u.s. cents for a bottle and in england it's usually around 2 dollars. I think that my case is the most practical application of this phenomena.


Here's a true story.

In my student days, I was traveling through Europe. In Florence, a friend learned that I was traveling through Trieste, not a small city, en route to Budapest. Another friend was visiting relatives in Trieste, so in those pre-cellphone days, my Florence friend asked me to deliver a message to the other if I ran across him. Neither of us knew how to locate the recipient, so it was a crazy longshot.

Nevertheless, as I sat for a couple of hours in the Trieste station waiting for my next train, my friend sauntered past. I delivered the message as requested and continued my journey. Tacit indeed!


Culture and age need to be included in this discussion, as well as the availability/popularity
of alternate communication technology (cellphones in general and cellphones w/internet access). Here in Taipei where the norm is for college students to have cellphones, their default 'what I will do if I can't find anyone' is to call or text message. Case in point: Last night I took 14 students out to a restaurant (the university pays!) which most didn't know. My default mode (I'm 51) in an outing involving so many people using public buses is to arrange a meeting place in case we get separated. When I started to explain the merits of meeting at point A (suggested by some students) vs point B, one student in great exasperation said "We'll just call if we get lost". None of them had my phone number, but they had each others...

Of related interest: we could have taken the air conditioned subway or the public bus(at rush hour on a hot & humid day from a bus stop on a busy, polluted road). The price difference was maybe 15 US cents (insignificant to them). They automatically wanted to take the bus -- probably because they didn't have important details like the address of the restaurant and needed to peer out of the windows to locate it).



Excellent post. Mr. (Dr.?) Grewal's work is a welcome corrective to the drivel that largely poses for analysis on the topic of globalisation.


@ Andy
The first place I would search (if I had their name) would be MySpace or Facebook. If I didn't know their name I could still use the sites to search certain networks (for example, if I knew they were a student at Cornell).


Another application of this that entered my mind would be where or how would you track someone down in cyberspace, that you had a brief interaction with in the real world? Would you Google their name, or post a "Missed Connection" on Craigslist? Or maybe email TheirName@yahoo, msn and gmail? What if you didn't know their name? What is the virtual "clock tower at Grand Central station"?


Dr Grewal,
How do you think speed of communication affects network performance? In the real-world analog that is the Internet, it means almost everything, but usually people talking about network effects cite Metcalf's law as the prime directive. Metcalf's law doesn't take segment speed into account at all (It says network value is proportional to the square of the network participants)
In your example, I see a difference between the days when it took 6 months for message to go from London to Bombay and back and today. And i wonder if we have considered how much of the network value is due to the speed-up (which isn't going to get effectively faster) and how much is due to increased network membership (which could still improve)

David Singh Grewal

Hi Freakonomics folks -

So a few quick thoughts come to mind as I've read though these comments. I'll jump in...

First, Chris - yes, you're absolutely right. The rise of a universal standard is not a permanent thing by any means - and it may end up that we come to coordinate a lot of our activities in Chinese some day. In my book, I try to examine both the rise and fall of universal conventions, and I look at both the nineteenth-century gold standard (a universal monetary convention for about fifty years) and the English language in that light. As for language, however, my bet it still on English as a global second language for some time to come. As Peter Strevens, a late linguist at Cambridge University points out, a fascinating thing about English is that within our lifetimes, there will be more English speakers who learned it as a second language from someone who also learned it as a second language than there will be native speakers. That's incredible "network power," and so I suspect it will take a big shift - maybe even bigger than the economic rise of China - to alter that "coordination solution." I can imagine the collapse of a global standard of communication - and the fragmentation of different versions of English, rise of regional languages, etc. - more easily than the switch from one consolidated global convention to another. But what do you think?

NSK - you're right that we need to distinguish between "fashion" or fads and network power. The way I try to do that in my book (particularly in the last chapter) is by considering whether some norm or behavior has a functional end. So the guy dressing in a business suit for a meeting (in order to be taken seriously) may be consciously coordinating with others in a way that's different from the emulation we see in, say, pop culture fads. If that's right, then the (originally) Western mode of "suit and tie" which we've seen spread all over the world may have "network power" in a way that the latest hairstyle does not - which may also help tp explain the pervasiveness and durability of some dress styles. What do you think?

And Raj, I wonder if something like this distinction isn't also at play in the difference between verbal "tics" like uhhmming and aaahing and the choice of a language to speak. Are these extra little words a way to signal some sort of in-group participation or are they unconscious mimicry that operates (perhaps?) on a different level. I put forward various ideas about this in the book, but I don't think I came to any firm conclusions. I guess I'm still thinking about this issue too!

Solon, thanks for your kind words. It's still "Mr." But that should change soon... Fingers crossed.

Amanda, very interesting - I try to account for some of these things in my broader argument since the details of any particular instance of a standard's having "network power" may be very complex and context-specific. I like the image of the kids on the bus needing to navigate their route in real time!

Chaitanya - I may not have expressed the situation of "reciprocal" or "convergent" expectations very well in my post. What I was trying to get at is the idea of convergent or joint expectations - where two parties who need to coordinate try to anticipate which possible coordination solution out of many will be the one that they'll both guess. It's an interdependent process which some analytic philosophers and economists have thought to lay behind the formation of social conventions where the convention on which people converge - say, driving on the left rather than the right - is otherwise arbitrary. In my book, I try to bring that sort of thinking to bear on the process of globalization.

As for the Lady Who Did Her Math Homework - well, what do you think? Could something like "network effects" considered in the domain of thought lead to a sort of global meeting of the minds? I'm not sure, but I was thinking about ideas of "groupthink" and "epistemic communities" toward the end of the book and wondering whether I could push the idea that far...

Finally, misterb, I try to address a bit the way in which many instances of "network power" may differ from the relatively abstract model of Metcalfe's Law (which is, roughly, that the power of a network judged by internal connections grows exponentially with new network nodes added). I suspect that for Metcalfe's Law to hold we have to consider uniform nodes and modes of interaction (or, as in your example, constant speeds of communication, etc.) Where that changes - as in the examples of globalization that I consider - it all gets much messier. And maybe even, I hope, more interesting...

I enjoyed all your comments very much! Keep well, everybody -

David Singh Grewal


Raj Pandravada

I wonder if what David said is also true about speech patterns. While growing up in India, I was taught to pronounce words phonetically, with the correct intonation and everything. I never heard or used the kinds of speech fillers and anomalies that currently plague our language - the ubiquitous 'ahs' and 'ums'.

With the advent of cable TV and largely puerile (speech-wise, at least) shows such as 'Friends', many Indians took to peppering their speeches with untold amounts of 'likeyaknows' and 'o-my-gawds', playing a tacit co-ordinating game with American teenagers half a world away, most of them completely fooled into thinking that it was somehow cool.

Now of course, teenagers the world over have these speech impediments; all subconsciously semi-programmed into aligning with something they will come to regret at an interview or Toastmaster's meeting ten years hence.

You call it Network effect. I call it, for lack of a better term, the 'Friends' effect.


A Lady Who'se Done Her Math Homework.

Are we not talking about one global mind set? the highest (not the lowest) common denominator?
This definately would be an extraordinary achievement i.e., a meeting of our minds. What an intriguing idea i.e., or should I not say thought.


I think one needs to be careful to distinguish between "fashion" and "network effects" (even though it might be difficult to separate one from the other sometimes).

Soccer is ever more popular because more people from soccer playing countries are migrating to the last bastion that soccer hasn't "conquered" (i.e. the USA). This to me is a spreading "fashion", there is no real benefit to me playing or following soccer just because others are (not that my self-esteem is taking a hit because I play basketball).

However, wearing clothes that are "in style" do help me increase my self-esteem because I am sure (most) others will approve of what I wear. So, the more people wear a certain style, the greater the network effect.

All of this raises a question: why do many photo sharing sites force you to register before you can see photo links sent to you by your friends?

One would assume that making it easier for me to see my friend's photos (without the hassle or fear of registering) will draw me to their site if I ever needed to share my own photos.



I very much agree but I miss one point: If a critical mass of people starts to coordinate on a different standard....standards can change. 1.3 billion Chinese is quite a lot and if China would exert pressure on its neighbors and some other countries depending on China (think of some African countries for a start) a critical mass might be reached at some future date.


Regarding comment #1. Mandarin is the official language in China, but only 53% of the population speak it. They have a lot of work to do before they start export it.