Trust is contextual

As healthcare reform passes, I’m having a strong but respectful disagreement with a friend over twitter on the nature and impact of this change. I know him through professional circles and I’d recommend him for jobs; and I’d trust him to pick me up on the highway if I was stuck in his town. But I wouldn’t trust him for advice in political matters. There are friends whose political judgement I trust and seek out, but whom I wouldn’t trust to take me to a concert or a movie I’d like. There are people who’s advice I’d take personally but not economically, and vice versa. Trust is faceted. Trust is contextual.

Craig Newmark, who combats untrustworthy behavior every day on Craigs list, believes that distributed trust is the next big problem for the internet to solve. If Google, Facebook, and Amazon got together, they might be able to address this problem of untrustworthiness online. Jay Rosen, who I trust and think is wise about many issues, agrees a distributed trust network is needed.

I am a huge fan of distributed solutions to many problems, but not this one. Trust is contextual. Even trust within a specific online service can’t be generalized. The other week I was scouring the music recommendations of a prolific Amazon reviewer with deep musical taste in areas I like. That same reviewer’s opinions about religion and politics are 180 degrees away from mine. He could buy me a recording sight unseen and I’d probably love it, but I couldn’t read most of his book recommendations without throwing them.

Bruce McVarish believes that the trusted circle will start with people we trust in real life. But even in a close personal circle, trust is contextual. Even among my family and closest friends, there are different people I would trust for different things.

Trust can be extended along specific and faceted lines. In the important area of transactional trustworthiness, ebay-style ratings are critical. A distributed solution for transactional trustworthiness could be quite useful. It would be handy to have distributed trust metrics that could be extended across services in a given domain – I’d love to follow the Amazon music recommender across his various music services on and Spotify and so on. But trust in any one domain doesn’t extend to other domains. Someone might be a meticulously reliable seller of used books and electronics, but they might be a horrible filter for news, which is the area that Jay Rosen cares about; or they might be personally unkind, so wouldn’t make personal trust list.

There is no general distributed trust solution to be had. Trust is always contextual.


Update 1: a few more thoughts, in response to some questions on Twitter and in comments

Trust, here, is the inverse of reputation.

For the facets of trust where there might be some tractable technology help, the facets need to be addressed with different kinds of technology augmentation.

* In the area of transactional trust – do I trust you to deliver this used book on time in the condition you promised – trust may be represented as a number. If your trust score is 99/100 I’ll buy the book. If your trust score is 62/100 I won’t buy the book from you.
* But in the context of opinions and tastes – would I like your movie recommendations – the number is not so useful by itself, but only as an indicator about similarity of opinion. So, if an algorithm says that our tastes are 75% similar, then I may want to subscribe to your movie recommendations.

So, for transactional trust, a distributed trust solution might aggregate a reputation score. For opinion trust, a distributed trust solution might calculate a score based on actions in multiple services, but then aggregate the actions (like movie recommendations) across services.’s music similarity scale works along these lines already, based on aggregating listening information. Last allows users to scrobble their listening across services, shows how similar your taste is to others, and then allows you to explore the listening of these others.

Also, to anticipate another question, in social media, recommendations and other such trust-building actions are social gestures, not just quantitative ones. I recommend a movie to show off my own taste, to be generous to friends, to amuse, to give a gift, to express my similarity or difference with a public, and so on. And within this social dynamic, it would be helpful to be able to identify people who have enough similarity to want to share these gestures; to aggregate the identification across services, and to aggregate the recs across services.

Update 2 in response to comments from Thomas Vander Wal and Charles Green.

It’s important to consider that the set of circumstances where technology help with trust problems is really constrained. Both Vander Wal and Green spend much of their time helping with people to communicate better in groups – in these situations, the responses are largely about people, customs, culture, values, leadership, facilitation, tummeling. Tools are small part of the response, compared to the human aspects. Charles Green summarizes well: “The things that can be scaled up through numbers on the internet are important, but limited.”

From the perspective of technologists, numbers and tools are hammers, and social concerns may look like nails. Technologists tend to overestimate the set of problems that can be addressed by technology. Part of the job of those of us working in social software and social media is to be analytical enough, and humble enough, to identify the things that are tractable with metrics and tools, and those things that need to be handled by people regardless of tools.

Even the frame of “problems to solve” that technologists bring is part of the problem, sometimes. Even with good will, people are always different, with different perspectives and interests. Buber, Levinas (and other purveyors of wisdom) remind us that people being different is a fundamental condition of life and an opportunity, not a problem. Sometimes there is no “solution” because problem is often the wrong frame.

68 thoughts on “Trust is contextual”

  1. Fair point!

    I’m left with the obvious question though: why can’t the distributed trust network be contextualized?

    If you trust Jimmy for Movies, and so do 100 other people, why can’t we assume that he’s trustworthy for you all? Further, isn’t he likely to be trustworthy for people like you?

  2. Hmmm, you have hit on one of my niggles that has increased into a much larger concern, that is the use of the term trust. I deeply agree with what you are saying, but using the term trust makes the whole thing messy. We have interests and place value in different facets of what people believe and share. Nobody has 100 percent affinity with any other person on interests and valued perspective and knowledge, it is something that has been horribly missing in all social tools that have to account for volume and velocity at some point.

    But, use of the term trust is horribly problematic in this discussion and always has been. If we are going to describe the affinity relationships between people (as well as between people and organizations, as well as between organization) along categorical or facets of understanding using the term trust is a really fuzzy and wobbly platform to do this upon. The term is very transitive and I often ask people who are using it to define what they mean by trust when they are using it so I have a better grasp, but after they do they most often shift their contextual use of the term in a few sentences and start using it as a proxy for something different.

    The term trust is used often as a proxy for the following: Respect, comfort, dependable, valued, honest, consistent, believable, loved, treasured, etc. But, the big problem is none of these terms are fungible with each other. Each of these descriptors when designing and developing social tools require very different design considerations, decisions, and solutions to provide. When mistaking one of the properties meant to be conveyed with the term trust for another often leads to solutions that really do not work well as they were designed and built for a different problem than the one intended.

    The only difficulty with substituting use for using the term trust is along the lines of somebody finding another trustworthy. Trustworthiness is a rather high barrier to cross, but find a good substitute term has been difficult.

    One reason trust often gets used is it is a high value term in our society. Trust is important, there by if we label things with trust they will be taken more seriously. All of these things above are very serious and need to be addressed in that manner so we can drastically improve the platforms and services through which people communicate and share information and valued resources.

    In your first paragraph you talk about trust in 2 different ways. One is the person provides value to you on certain subject matter and you have affinity with those views and perspectives, but you lack value and affinity on other subject matter. You also use trust as a proxy for that person being dependable, reliable, and having skills needed to perform a job you would recommend them for.

    Then in the next paragraph you get to Craig Newmark’s trust issues, many of which he is dealing with is dishonesty (which can be shaded as some as pranks to malicious in nature). These three uses of the term trust have very different characteristics and for clarity understanding a problem well enough to work through design and development of solutions they need to be distinctly labeled.

    Adina I really do not mean to pick on you, but this is a wonderful example of the clouded nature in which the term trust is used and can be a hindrance for moving forward to proper solutions that are needed for each of the different elements that are conveyed when using the proxy term of trust.

  3. Debates this intense almost always indicate a definitional issue at heart; pulling it apart is a valuable thing to do.

    In my own work (I’m co-author of The Trusted Advisor, and author of Trust-based Selling), I have developed and used the Trust Equation. It’s defined as:

    Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation

    One of those factors–reliability–lends itself very well to what Craig Newmark is hitting on. To a lesser extent, so does credibility. But the other two factors–intimacy and self-orientation–are almost entirely contextual.

    Amazon and eBay rely very much on quantified measures of trustworthiness–which almost entirely go to reliability.

    On the other hand, consider “I trust my dog with my life–but not with my ham sandwich,” which totally goes to context. (So does “I trust Bill Clinton with the economy–but not with my daughter”).

    When we talk about motives, or empathy, or sincerity–which a lot of trust is about–we are almost always talking contextual. The things that can be scaled up through numbers on the internet are important, but limited.

    For an example of blind metrics applied to measuring trust, look at TweetLevel; a serious statsitical effort to rank traits, including trustworthiness, of those who Tweet. Makes a lot of sense when you start looking into it: you’ll find that the New York Times out ranks CNN, or vice versa–but then you find out that Perez Hilton outranks all of them. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a joke.

    It totally depends on what you mean when you say ‘trust.’ It’s a lot like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: give up defining it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recognize it when you see it.

    On balance, I’d say both Adina and Newmark are both right, depending on context, but Adina’s definitions are such that she’s more often correct.

  4. Totally agree. It is a bit frightening to think that they are trying to make an app for trust as it is way too complicated with too many variables. It is true trust is contextual.

  5. Trust is most certainly and obviously contextual, and this really points out a contradiction between many social media experts and their politics.

    You (and many others less respectful) support my being forced to accept something as personal as my health care from people and organizations with whom I have no trust at all. After the massive railroading, bribery, and partisanship we have witnessed, I am supposed to trust these folks to take care of me and my family???

    For me the power of social media is about individuals making their choices and preferences heard. Its ground-up innovation, not the old and many-times failed ideas of top-down centralized planning, now in the form of Government-designed health insurance coverage.

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