Trust in online communities: people and machines

Two presentations at SXSW on trust and online communities could not have been more different.
At the panel Mary Hodder facilitated, on Social Software and Shades of Trust,, Ka-Ping Yee at Berkeley and Alex Russel of Informatica and described the perpetual alphabet soup of digital trust standards and projects, from the late lamented p3p, through Liberty, IDCommons, and others.
Trust was seen as a feature and a subsystem — an engineering problem that could be overcome, someday, with the right combination of usability design, standards, and architectural decomposition. There wasn’t a strong explanation for why the same technical conversation had been going on for a decade, with few signs of successful implementation in the real world.
The canonical examples of trust involved formal programs and features — Ebay’s reputation system, the formal privacy statements on web sites, the desire for single signon between community websites.
At the panel facilitated by Molly Steenson on How to Grow Online Community, Craig Newmark of Craig’s list and Matt Haughey of Metafilter both talked about trust as a social issue. Craig talked about the Craig’s list assumption that people are generally good, and about the processes they use when people stop being good, from unintentional misbehavior to criminal fraud and spam.
Matt talked about the social difficulties of introducing moderation for some discussions, and the challenge of determining the right lightness of touch. Both Craig and Matt noted that when a poster misbehaves, the first step is to speak with that person directly; reasoning solves the problem about half of the time.
Where the previous panel looked to Ebay’s formal reputation system as the trust model, Craig used the metaphor of a flea market, which is a combination of transaction marketplace and place to socialize.
Both Craig and Matt apologized about the lightweight, uncomplicated, “first-generation” nature of their systems, lacking the sophisticated design and features of later-developed social software. Yet Craig’s list is one of the most successful online ventures in the world, and MetaFilter has been a longstanding and highly successful online community, fostering 3d communities in different cities, friendships and marriages.
I can’t help thinking that the social-first approach to online community is the right primary approach.

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