Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Building trust online


What makes us trust? What information do we need in order to decide whether or not someone is trustworthy
According to Ken Grimes in To Trust Is Human, an article published in the New Scientist in May 2003 (registration required), trust is hardwired into us – we are born with a biological urge to trust. Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California is one of several scientists who are trying to understand the biological mechanisms that underpin human social interactions and he blames our tendency to automatically trust people on the hormone oxytocin

[…] It seems that this urge to respond positively when someone shows trust in us is largely outside our control. “In light of the underlying neural anatomy, our experimental results suggest that oxytocin influences human trust decisions in ways largely beyond the realm of conscious perception […]” says Zak. “Trust in our species therefore appears to be driven by an emotional ‘sense’ of what to do, rather than a conscious determination.”

Studies have indicated that people are more trustworthy when they are shown trust. Economist Ernst Fehr from the University of Zurich in Switzerland says

“Threats introduce hostility and distrust into a relationship, […] and that initial distrust may be self-fulfilling because it seems to generate untrustworthy behaviour.” He adds, “I think that trust has an emotional component and a cognitive, conscious component. It is important to understand both.”

In short, whilst we are preprogrammed to trust when trusted, that initial expression of trust still has to be earnt. If you show me that you trust me, the release of oxytocin prompts me to both behave trustworthily and to trust you back, but “decisions about whether or not to trust someone in the first place are made more consciously because we need to take into consideration our beliefs about another person’s intentions”
In face-to-face meetings, one of the most important cues that we rely on to tell us whether someone is honest is body language. If you’ve ever had that feeling when talking to a someone that you really don’t trust them, but you can’t put your finger on why, then the chances are that the unease came from your subconscious interpretation of their body language, particularly if it conflicts with their verbal communications
In online relationships, whether they are personal or professional, these cues are missing, making it harder to assess whether or not we want to trust any given individual. Instinct notwithstanding, online relationships are frequently viewed with suspicion, at the very least until the two parties have met and established that neither are misrepresenting themselves (i.e. until they have been able to verify their initial conclusions by checking body language)
However, when the two parties are not able to meet, maybe because they are on different continents or their schedules do not allow it, we need to find different ways to establish trust.
Christopher Allen takes a look at the process of building trust incrementally through a series of acts in which the level of required trust gradually increases. As less risky agreements are successfully concluded, so trust is earnt and we are willing to risk more in future collaborations.
Allen is making this point in order to compare human trust with computer trust which has a tendency to be binary – either yes, you trust this website/plug-in/authentication certificate or no, you don’t. His example is of building face-to-face trust, but it is equally relevant to online social networking
In Orkut, I am connected to nearly 1.5 million people through 120 ‘friends’. Put to one side the issues around the definition of ‘friend’ and the way in which social networking sites attempt to impose a top-down codification of social relationships, (c.f. Lee’s post about content classification which has some relevant points to make about imposition of taxonomies – just think ‘relationships’ instead of ‘content’), and instead ask, ‘How many of those people do I trust?’. Answer: Not many, because I have had little or no interaction with them so I have nothing upon which to base my trust.
Sites like Orkut are good at creating weak links where high levels of trust are not required, but less effective at enabling people to turn weak links into strong links, i.e. at facilitating progressive trust. In theory, that’s what the communities and messaging system is for, but in reality (in my experience) very few weak links are converted that way
For purely personal sites, whilst this is a shame, it is not all that detrimental to me as an individual. In professional online situations, difficulties in building trust are far more serious, particularly when you are not working in the same physical space as your colleagues/collaborators, but are instead relying on communications tools such as e-mail or instant messaging
Whilst there is an implicit reason to trust someone in your own company simply because of who they work for, it makes for a far more effective working environment if that weak link can be strengthened. As for trusting someone outside of your company, that’s even harder because far more is at stake – not just your reputation within your own company but your relationship with the outsider
If I suggest to my boss collaboration with another company on the basis of a weak relationship with someone from that company, I had better hope that it all comes together smoothly, or I damage my own trustworthiness in my boss’s eyes and loose a (potential) friend at the same time
Trust is the cornerstone of social interaction and businesses impose an expected level of trust on employees every time they assign them to a team – they are saying ‘trust these people, whether or not you know them’. When that doesn’t work out, when someone doesn’t trust their colleagues, problems occur and the project suffers
Shimon Rura hits the nail on the head when he talks about how blogs help build trust. Projects blogs, for example, allow people to not just transfer information about the project but also to build stronger relationships with their co-workers through these small acts of trustworthiness – posting action points when you said you would, contributing to discussions, offering solutions to shared problems
Social tools such as blogs, wikis and bulletin boards – particularly when used in a professional intranet context – allow individuals a voice and provide an arena for trust to be built. If I need to bring in additional expertise to a project I am running, it helps me if I can socially connect with candidates so that I can assess whether or not I can trust them and, from there, decide whether they are suitable for me to work with.
Blogs and other social tools make the path of progressive trust easier by facilitating low risk interactions, improving communication and allowing both parties an increase in contact if things go well, and an easy ‘get out’ if they don’t. And for any organisation where people are collaborating online, an ability to increase trust with colleagues is invaluable.

One Response to Building trust online

  1. By Sam on April 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

    I have a question….uhhh….how do you learn to trust someone? Because my boyfriend says i dont trust him, and the truth is i just dont know how. Please answer back.