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Who Can You Trust Online?

It’s a question that comes up constantly in our digital lives, and it’s also a subject of great fascination to internet scholars in a range of fields.  While you clutch your credit card, wondering whether it’s safe to make a purchase on a new e-commerce site, business researchers are busily delving into the factors that will or won’t lead you to click the “buy” button. While thousands of women flip through online dating sites, wondering if the single men they are looking at are really single, there are dozens of psych researchers investigating the trust dynamics of online dating. And while social media users scan the latest headlines, wondering which new stories are actually fake, sociologists and political scientists debate whether the Internet can support the kind of trust necessary for real political and community engagement.

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Yet the very idea of online trust can feel like an oxymoron, particularly when we compare it to what offline trust can look like. That’s what’s struck me as I watched Odysseo, a horse and acrobatics show put on by the circus company Cavalia. I was invited to an Odysseo performance in Vancouver as part of social media week, presumably so that my various social media presences could shed light on the show. Instead, the performance cast fresh light on my social media existence, and in particular, on the role of trust in our online lives.

I was struck by how the act of “trusting” a circle of friends on social media pales in comparison with trusting a fellow acrobat to dangle you by the wrist, thirty feet in the air. And how hard is it to trust a fellow human, compared with trusting a horse not to trample your head — while you’re climbing underneath it as it gallops around a ring at 40 MPH?  How about trusting the entire chain of people who have stacked and interlocked themselves together in order to boost you twelve feet in the air?

That’s a big part of what thrills us about the circus, of course: the spectacle of trust made visceral. It’s not just performers’ strength, dexterity, or courage that wows us, but the trust they place in one another.  This trust is inseparable from what  Francine Formaux describes as the aesthetic of risk: the circus is a form of entertainment in which risk is central. Indeed, Formaux places the evolving treatment of risk at the centre of the different between a traditional circus and the new generation of circus (of which Cavalia is a part). Whereas performers in a traditional circus were responsible for their own gear and rigging, many of today’s circuses have professionalized the setup of working conditions—which, while arguably improving safety, also mean that the performer must place even more trust in others. That is some profound trust: trusting one’s actual life to someone else doing their job.

What Does It Mean To Trust Someone You Don’t Know and Can’t See?

Measured against that yardstick, the trust we ask from one another online seems relatively trivial. First, it’s never visceral: as Justin Hurwitz puts in in his legal analysis of the evolving nature of trust online, online trust is “an intangible and important coordinating principle that facilitated interactions on the early Internet, but one that is decreasingly viable as a coordinating principle today.” Trust, as it develops in offline contexts, is inextricable from the tangible, face-to-face nature of human relationships.  In the absence of that physicality—the ability for trust to be seen and felt, in eye contact or a handshake—many scholars are skeptical about the very meaning of “trust” online.  Take this 1998 evaluation of trust in the virtual corporation, by Jones and Bowie :

The social relationships provided by the virtual corporation are not physically or psychologically proximate enough to conclude that individual members are “embedded in a web of social relations” as required by sociological explanations for the development of trust. Although stories of electronic relationships developing on the “web” are increasingly common, these relationships are often enough based on deceit that most people do not regard them as a sufficient basis for meaningful trust. Certainly the relationships most conducive to trust based on embeddedness will not develop easily in the virtual corporation.

Online trust is not only less tangible than offline trust, it’s also less durable. We invest ourselves in a particular community or conversation—perhaps engaging in a high degree of disclosure —and then move onto the next.  I’ve spilled my guts in communities of feminist scholars, new mothers, and homeschoolers…only to move on to new interests and communities, leaving my once-trusted comrades behind. This is characteristic of the online community dynamic that Bateman, Gray, and Butler investigate in their effort to explain the variation in online community commitments and behaviour: as they note, the inclination of any one community member to sustain their community participation depends on the extend to which they ”feel a bond of loyalty and obligation to the community.”

Third, online trust is rarely a matter of life and death. Yes, there are occasional, horrific cases of cyberbullying that lead to suicide, and there are certain circumstances in which sharing personal information online (for example, coming out as a gay teen) might represent a physical danger. But for the most part, when we talk about trusting one another online, we’re talking about emotional vulnerability, financial risk, or perhaps, professional exposure.

Why Online Trust Matters

Yet for all that, online trust is not without significance. In a world of diminished social capital, the ability to build and sustain trust online may be vital to the health of our communities, our economies and our democracies. As Kittilson and Dalton write,

Although participation in traditional associations may be waning, interactions on the Internet are rising rapidly. As these new virtual forms of association proliferate, it is important to consider how they might affect civic attitudes and behaviors. Evidence that points toward the critical nature of face-to- face contacts in social groups for building tolerance and political activity would bolster the argument that America’s social capital is in jeopardy. However, evidence demonstrating that virtual interactions also foster democratic norms and activities would support a more positive view of current trends in associational life.

Given the importance of online trust, it’s worth asking how we can raise its visibility and impact, so that it earns the kind of awe and respect we give to the spectacle of trust between acrobats, or between horse and rider.

We can begin by making our trust mechanisms more visible and explicit: on Facebook, for example, you can’t see who a post has been shared with, so you don’t know when you’re part of a small, trusted circle, and when you’re seeing something that’s public. We can also encourage more durable commitments to trusted networks by imposing some costs on leaving a community—not with the aim of trapping people, but to encourage people to think carefully before they walk away from a circle of trust: for example, by asking people to formally leave a group with a message, instead of just disappearing.

Most crucially, we can be explicit about the stakes of online trust, going beyond the occasional headline about a cyberbullying victim, and instead exposing the day-to-day emotional and professional vulnerability inherent in sharing intimacies online. When we post on a forum of fellow medical patients, we can explicitly note the sense of anxiety that comes from discussing health information online, invoking expectations of trust and confidentiality. When we share a professional misstep or failure on a corporate Slack channel, we can note that we are trusting a set of colleagues with that information so that we can collaborate on a solution, or learn from one another’s mistakes.

Simply by calling out the vulnerability that comes from sharing—and the implied trust on which it rests—we reveal the existence and power of online trust. It’s not as visceral or spectacular as circus acrobatics, but it is just as powerful, and just as necessary to life online.

As long as online trust remains intangible, transient, and low-risk, it will fail to garner the kind of investment it requires. Given the social, economic, and political importance of reviving our stores of social capital, we can’t afford to skimp on that investment. For under-investing online trust is itself a risk—one every bit as dangerous as riding 40 MPH, underneath a horse.


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Ethnologie française, nouvelle serie, T. 36, No. 4, SPORTS À RISQUES ? CORPS DU RISQUE (Octobre-Décembre 2006), pp. 659-668
Presses Universitaires de France
University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 161, No. 6 (May 2013), pp. 1579-1622
The University of Pennsylvania Law Review
Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, Trust, Business and Business Ethics (Apr., 1998), pp. 273-292
Cambridge University Press
Information Systems Research, Vol. 22, No. 4 (December 2011), pp. 841-854
Political Behavior, Vol. 33, No. 4 (December 2011), pp. 625-644