“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you” – Freidrich Nietzsche

Trust is one of the most fragile things in life. Traditionally, it’s built on a huge range of subtle, intangible factors – it can take years to gain, seconds to lose, and once it’s gone, it might never return. Our trust is being asked for by more and more organisations, and has become fundamental to the day-to-day functionality of many of the services we use online. So how does this trust – one of the most intimate, complex characteristics of our being – combine with our increasingly digital lives, and where’s it all leading?

Digital trust is an issue that’s as old as most of our experiences of the internet, and amongst the clearest examples stems from something that over 50% of adults in the UK will have done at some point in their lives to date – shopped online. That little box in the top left of your screen when you go to the Paypal website (pictured) is a simple embodiment of digital trust that many of us now take for granted: the idea that when you pay for something, HTTPS means that you can trust that your card details aren’t going to go walkabout on their way to the retailer – you’re protected from outside interference, and the boogieman in the shadows isn’t going to steal your monetary soul. Many people won’t know – or frankly, give a damn – about how HTTPS works, but attach trust to those five little letters and a padlock icon all the same.

But this isn’t really trust in the same manner as one person trusting another. At the moment, working out how to trust someone online is an absolute mess, and doesn’t really reflect how we behave in day-to-day life at all. Your reputation online can best be imagined as a collection of books on a shelf – each by a different author, varying in the quality of writing, the depth of research, and ultimately, relevance. They do all point to the type of person you are, but without pulling them all off the shelf at once, nobody’s getting an overall picture. And of course, this is all assuming that you can even find the required reading you want – the simplicity of an online name change makes a mockery of the idea of a consistent web identity, and in the end, there is no equivalent of that little padlock symbol that you get when buying from a shop.

However, the social web is pulling together our digital identities, and pulling together some semblance of a broader online reputation – it’s getting harder than ever to split yourself online, and keep apart the many channels of who you are, whether you like it or not. Take this blog for example – whereas before you’d be most likely to register an account to comment on what I’ve written, now you can just use your Facebook identity, or your Twitter username instead. Your comments become tied to another account that would traditionally have nothing to do with this website, and as a result, they’re tied to something a lot less disposable than a casually-created WordPress account.

On a commercial level, think about that in relation to valuable goods and services, and it begins to make more sense. I’ve used a great service in the past called LensesForHire – they don’t take a deposit for the camera equipment they hire out. This might seem slightly dull at first, but when you consider that they’re renting kit that’s worth north of £5,000, it starts to seem like a wild risk on their part. Instead, they ask you to provide details of your membership to any photography forums, photographic clubs and a link to your photos. They then use this – your existing digital personality – to decide whether they can trust you with what’s theirs. That’s a £5,000 charge that doesn’t have to go on a credit card, but more than that, the feeling of someone telling you they trust you is moderately fantastic.

This model of trust is much closer to the way we earn it naturally, but realistically, it’s not practical on scale. In July, room-letting site Airbnb faced horrific press in the wake of a customer’s house getting turned over by the people that had booked to stay there, and the incident going viral online – trust in the whole principal of the service was utterly shaken. Clearly, it’s not feasible for the company to individually vet thousands of members, so Airbnb have responded with what can best be described as one of the most comprehensive online trust structures on the internet, providing a vast range of tools aimed at developing trust between users, and ultimately in the service itself. Several of these focus on linking to existing profiles – including LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as creating your own Airbnb profile. We’re at the point where that social link isn’t just putting an online profile on the line – it’s you, and it’s the same you that your employers see, and your friends talk to.

Frankly, our digital model of trust is out of date, and at odds with the growth of our involvement with social media. If we’re going to commit to the idea of a real ‘digital self’, as opposed to the current series of half-finished profiles, user accounts and digital shadows that we cast across various social sites, then we need to start embracing the idea of linked online reputation, as well as the benefits it can bring to our entire online experience and those we interact with online.

  1. Great post – genuinely enjoyed reading, particularly when am at the beginning stage of establishing an online brand/identity and thinking about the wise and not so wise steps to take. Thx for sharing.

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