It’s a matter of trust

I attended the Eduserv 2008 Symposium recently. The theme was ‘What do current Web trends tell us about the future of ICT provision for learners and researchers?’. The day provided a good mix of speakers, and for me one in particular stood out, Geoff Bilder from CrossRef. His talk was intriguingly entitled ‘Sausages, coffee, chickens and the web: Establishing new trust metrics for scholarly communication’.

Whilst writing this blog I visited Geoff’s blog Louche Cannon (very entertaining it is too) and there he refers to his feelings about the thorny issue of trust:

“It may sound incredibly un-hip and reactionary, but to hell with the wisdom of crowds. Watching the crowd might be entertaining, but when I need to work, I can get far better results if I constrain that crowd to a few people whose opinions I have reason to respect.”

Geoff’s main point was that we are really continuing to underestimate the importance of trust. It is often implicit but rarely explicit. He referred to what he called the ‘Internet Trust Anti-Pattern’ whereby a system is set up by a core of self-selecting high-trust technologists. Then the masses, for want of a better expression, start to use the system and as it becomes more successful the risk grows that a strain will be placed on it by untrustworthy users. Think of spam, viruses, phishing, and generally dodgy content – we are all well aware of these things and find them a real nuisance on a daily basis. There is undoubtedly a trust problem and users are often uneasy, though generally we have not reached the point where systems are widely declared to be ‘untrustworthy’.

When we think about how we establish trust, it may be through personal acquaintance, perhaps we trust someone because someone we know trusts them. It may alternatively be through a proxy, where trust is effectively extended to strangers. Looking at trust from a different perspective, we can think in terms of trust among equals, where coercion cannot really be applied, as opposed to trust where coercion can enforce behaviour. The traditional scholarly publishing domain works largely through personal trust and there is the possibility of the use of coercion. The internet works largely in the sphere of strangers and there are few means to know whether something is trustworthy or to enforce behaviour.

Geoff argued that the success of eBay, Amazon and Google is partly about their understanding of the importance of trust. Right from the outset eBay thought about how to ensure that people would trust the mechanisms that they had for buying items online – they built in a trust metric. Amazon implemented uncensored reviews, lowering the risks of buying something online. Within Google the page rank is an implicit trust metric that works extremely well.

Web 2.0 is very much about trust. We can pretty much subscribe to someone else