Social vs system trust

I decided to tune to Financial Times Tech Tonic podcast just now as I was plowing through some data cleaning — an entirely mundane process that involves lots of spreadsheeting and copying and pasting — and figured I should be listening to some serious, adult business things.

(Not humblebragging, I am seriously having problems trying to relax.)

One of the episodes that caught my attention features author Rachel Botsman, who wrote the book Who Can You Trust? on the evolution of trust in the digital age and how technology has undermined our faith in formal institutions.

From Kirkus book review:

At a time when trust in institutions — Congress, the church, the media, etc.—is in great jeopardy, another form of trust is quickly becoming the glue that keeps society together. It is called distributed trust, and it involves “people trusting other people through technology,” writes business consultant Botsman (co-author: What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, 2010). Later in the book, she continues, “the rise of multi-billion-dollar companies such as Airbnb and Uber, whose success depends on trust between strangers, is a clear illustration of how trust can now travel through networks and marketplaces.” In an absorbing, story-filled narrative that will leave readers with a new understanding of the phenomenon that drives life in our digital age, the author makes clear that distributed trust—a “confident relationship with the unknown”—now powers such disparate enterprises as Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites; social media platforms; peer-to-peer lending; online education courses; and Wikipedia and other information-sharing sites. In the case of self-driving cars, we now trust “our very lives to the unseen hand of technology.” Examining trust and its various types (local, institutional, distributed), Botsman explains that we have been making “trust leaps” of one kind or another for centuries; a current example is entering credit card details into an internet site for the first time. She details the mechanisms that encourage the popularity of these transactions and the stories behind the success of such companies as Jack Ma’s Alibaba, where 80 percent of all goods are bought and sold online in China, whose people demand proof of trustworthiness. Other sections cover trust and money, the risk of overtrusting robots, and the importance of reputation on the darknet. As the author notes, trust is “society’s most precious and fragile asset,” and we should all take a “trust pause” before deciding who to put faith in.

Trust is an interesting subject to study, however, it isn’t easy to quantify. It is one of the subjects I have tried to delve before in the first year of my Ph.D. How do you measure trust? And if you have established the framework to do so, on what grounds?

One very interesting points I found out when it comes to thinking about trust in the digital age (also bear in mind the context I was researching in is about dissent and social movements mobilised via social media) is the distinction between social trust and system trust. Social trust refers to the feeling of connection to a certain individual, group, or organisation — and is built on the belief that the members of the group you belong to are more honest and trustworthy than non-members. It lowers down the inhibition you have towards others, as well as minimising the process of information verification.

System trust, on the other hand, refers to the credibility structural elements of digital platforms — such as social media platforms — demonstrate, that could increase perceived credibility and reduce perceived risks of trusting someone. This is something like having a legit testimonial of oneself on the website or having your own photo as the Twitter profile photo instead of default egg illustration.

This combination of social and system trust in order to evaluate credibility in the social online sphere is no doubt particularly interesting, but what I think as an emergent area of inquiry too is how the UI of these platforms could exhibit some elements of social trust as well, instead of just putting the ball back in the users’ courts.


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