Should we trust the (social) network?

In the wake of the Playstation Network debacle, what should we be thinking about trust?

Humans are inherently tribal, and the roots run deep. Benjamin Disraeli might have decided to be “on the side of the angels” rather than apes when faced with Darwin’s (r)evolutionary theories, but you don’t need to wade through the Origin of Species to see examples of humanity functioning at a more primitive level.

Adults, like babies, can become bad-tempered when they are hungry or tired; people parade themselves like birds for the continuation of the species; stressful circumstances cause the secretion of hormones prompting fight-or-flight behaviours that can be difficult to over-ride. Indeed, recent research such as that quoted in the New Scientist suggests that what we believe are conscious actions are registered in the brain shortly after they are enacted, undermining our very sense of free will.

The relevance to modern technology and how we use it for community building is that, however thickly we spread layers of social networking, collaboration and mobile sharing tools upon our daily lives, we are beholden to the the same drives and needs as we have always been.

To take one popular tool, the question is not, “What would primitive societies make of Facebook,” but, “What would Facebook achieve for primitive societies?” To some this may imply an interesting exercise handing out iPads to amazonian tribes, but primitive societies exist far closer to home – for all our plastics and silicon, we’re living in them.

Discussions around community building, collaboration and social networking tools frequently arrive at the topic of trust, like it is something that can be created. While it has long been recognised as a facet of well-formed societies, trust is not something that can be just willed into existence. Confucius is reputed to have said that rulers need three resources – weapons, food and trust – which implies the need for a fourth characteristic – that of a ruler.

In today’s theoretically flat-structured networks of relationships, there isn’t always going to be somebody in charge so trust needs to develop in other ways. People can be grouped around a common theme – storage managers, say, or fans of gregorian chants – who may be prepared to forsake a little uncertainty about their peers. Once a group exists, its very existence can imply trustworthiness – rightly or wrongly. In addition, trust begets trust, which is why peer referrals are so important. “Let me introduce you” assumes a level of pre-vetting on the part of the introducer.

Trust may be difficult to gain, but it can be quite straightforward to lose. Sony may well ride the storm following the hacking of the PlayStation Network, which was restored this week (which illustrates another trust factor, “The devil you know”). Other organisations such as the HMRC were dubiously comfortable in their governance-inept position, as UK tax payers have nobody else to work with. Outside of the public sector, smaller firms with less-well-established brands – and here I’m thinking about the large numbers of wannabe providers of community and social tools – may not be so lucky. Once bitten, twice shy.

Should we trust the (social) network?

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