Trust Us? Are You Really My Friend?

It may be the most overused, least appreciated, most haphazardly defined word in modern life. Yet, it makes online commerce possible, discussion groups debatable and eBay profitable.

Simultaneously, its abuse leads to urgent letters from Nigerian depositories, fuels goofball conspiracy theories, enables a menagerie of computer viruses, and funnels millions of hapless targets into the clutches of phishers and frauds.

“IT” is trust. We no longer know what it means. As we stumbled into a fully digital, fully connected age, we forgot to forge better ways to measure and describe how much we trust someone, and how much others should trust that person, too. Trust is the grease of our online and offline lives, yet we still haven’t figured out how to measure and dole it out. What is the value exchange and correct way to manage and communicate our intent?

Numerous ventures keep trying to create virtual approximations of the person-to-person trust we used to build through years of face-to-face interactions. But we still lack the updated and finely tuned vocabulary, taxonomy, and scoring system to make these worthy efforts successful. What we eventually come up with will be at the core of our social-media-enabled, always-on, everywhere-at-once lives.  In the meantime, we have some work to do.

Meeting Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus forever changed how I view concepts of trust. Yunus built the pioneering Grameen Bank by doing the opposite of the conventional: he loaned tiny amounts of money, to very poor people, virtually all of them women. Instead of attorneys, he wrapped a social support system around each micro borrower, building a dense web of trust and relationship to ensure loan repayments and borrower success. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that microfinance may outstrip India’s formal banking sector in the next few years. Will Citibank  and Bank of America follow suit?

This approach echoes how we once operated here in the West. We largely dealt with, and trusted, two main “buckets” of people: those we knew personally, and those with whom we had done some sort of transaction, “business” or otherwise. We bought from companies in our backyard. We worked with, drank with, married and joined bowling leagues with people we knew, or that people we knew had known, and had known for a while.

That’s not the case anymore. For many people in many kinds of situations, the transformation has been wonderfully, stupendously liberating. Now we can find like minds half a planet away that share our specific tiny niche of an interest and want to share that passion with us, even if only through a discussion board or email or YouTube video. In my own life there are people I have met or “know” and there are people who I have transacted with.  I am constantly editing my relationships with these two parties, creating an ever greater distance between the two.

“Only time buys trust” nicely encapsulates this approach. But if there’s anything our lives lack, it is time. We don’t have time to buy real trust with so many who routinely touch our lives. And we don’t yet have the tools to quickly learn from others how much to trust our newest “friends.”

For many people, the new world has been wonderfully, stupendously liberating. The buckets of people with whom we have meaningful interactions have expanded logarithmically, while the descriptive language to properly identify those connections languishes in a small Midwestern town in 1927.

Now people whom we “know” and trust tell us the best deal on headphones, hash through complex policy issues, or sell us a rare Pez dispenser. Social media sites let us claim thousands of “friends” or millions of “followers,” though many attained that once-lofty status through a couple of clicks of an email form letter.

And we still have that old-school subset of acquaintances, schoolmates, business colleagues, relatives and true friends who will give us a ride to the airport at 6 AM. At, possibly, a higher level of trust, there are those we’ve had sex with, dated, remain married to, or would bail us out of jail.

So how do you describe who you trust, and for what?

Eskimos are reputed to have 7 words for snow (or 50, or 100; see the entertaining Wikipedia debunking entry). Similarly, those in more temperate climes talk about brooks, streams and rivers, bays and gulfs, oceans, seas and lakes.  It’s all the same watery stuff, but each term suggests something different.

Well, we need similar nuance in our taxonomy of trust. We have no subtle and accepted vocabulary to define where in the hierarchy someone falls, as defined by personal history, the quality and type of previous interactions, and the type and context of the current interaction. But boy do we need it.

In the 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a Kalahari Desert native encounters modern technology in the unlikely form of an empty Coca-Cola bottle.

His fellow tribesmen find many uses for the bottle, and many reasons to fight over it. Eventually, he seeks to throw the bottle back over the edge of the world, to protect his people from civilization’s discontenting technologies.

It’s way too late to put the genie of technology back in its bottle as it pours into every corner of our life. But it’s not too late to think about how we can better manage the craziness that this particular Coke bottle has ushered into our sometimes too-trusting lives.

In creating this piece, my intent is to drive towards the solution. I urge each of you to distill and communicate your thoughts on the why and the ways to create new the taxonomy of trust as we usher in this new era of transparency and social volatility. My study of Arnold Patent, who quips “there are no accidents,” drives my universal truths and belief system. Life is changing as we know it and I want to be part of the change.

You’re up to bat.

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