Why Facebook will endure even when it enrages its users

Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

For every Facebook  privacy breach, there’s yet another petition calling for users to sign-off from the social network.

This time, it’s a Dutch non-profit that is encouraging users to sign-off for 99 days in response to Facebook’s controversial mood manipulation study, in which researchers tinkered with the kinds of posts 700,000 users saw in their news feed.

While there certainly can be personal value gained from taking a break from any online activity, getting a relatively small number of people to boycott their accounts for a few months isn’t going to put a dent in Facebook, which has a billion-plus users. As of Friday afternoon, only 9,000 people had signed up for the 99-day Facebook fast.

Facebook’s network effect is too strong. Essentially, the critical mass on the site has created an inertia in the company’s favor, one that would be very difficult to reverse at this point.

Past efforts like “99 Days of Freedom” also failed. A 2010 “Quit Facebook” protest, which was meant to show how unhappy people were with the network’s simplified “privacy dashboard,” recruited just over 30,000 of the site’s then 500 million users, or about 0.00003% of all accounts.

Brian Arthur, a professor whose research has become the basis for our understanding of the high-tech economy, explained how certain technologies take off because of early adoption by users who favor the service, even though it may not necessarily be the best option:

“Early adopters impose externalities on later ones by rationally choosing technologies to suit only themselves; missing is an inter-agent market to induce them to explore promising but costly infant technologies that might pay off handsomely to later adopters.”

Here’s how this applies to Facebook: the social network got big because it initially appealed to college students who signed up for the service to connect with other young adults their age. They weren’t concerned about data collection and emotional experiments — probably never though to pay attention to that long-winded user agreement.

(Thinking back to when I stared my own account in 2004, I can’t even remember if I glanced at the user agreement.)

Those college students formed the base of Facebook’s user network, choosing it over competitors like MySpace and Friendster. Then their parents, aunts, sisters and cousins signed up. Then they started posting pictures of their lives and interacting in ways previously unavailable at that scale.

They got enough value out of the service that it wasn’t worth finding another one with better user policies: They would have to convince their thousands of connections to move, as well.

Plus, it’s not just Facebook anymore in terms of digital communication. It’s Instagram, WhatsApp and who knows what else in the future.

It would take an event big enough to cause a meaningful percentage of Facebook (FB) users to close their accounts to essentially create a reverse network effect. Such an outflow is possible but unlikely. Even basic breaches of privacy and questionable research ethics aren’t strong enough vices to sway users away from the value of being connected to a billion people.

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