The Trust Ecology

NPR’s On The Media recently had a series of interesting segments on the future of the internet:

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A theme that ran through was how the security and utility of the internet is threatened by the complete lack of built-in trust mechanisms.  How do you know you can trust who you are dealing with online?  How do you know what information to believe that you read online?  How do you know your online accounts are not completely compromised by hackers right now, and that your bank account isn’t being drained as you read this?

Many people rightly fear that legislating or enforcing new internet protocols to address these issues would lead us down a slippery slope, trample our basic rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, and would ultimately toss us out of the frying pan, into the fire.  I agree.

But that’s not to say that we are doomed to having a virus-infested, yellow journalism-promoting, predator-harboring wild west (if you will allow that we’re not quite there yet already).  Rather, the solution is an organically expanding and heterogeneous set of discretionary (as in opt-in) technologies that sits on top of the existing infrastructure and gives us assurances that we can trust people and sources of information.   Once all well-intending individuals rely upon these for most of their online interactions, the nefarious remainder will stick out like so many sore thumbs and can easily be avoided.

What am I talking about?  Consider for example what happens when someone wants to connect with you on Facebook.  First you must accept their request which says that you trust them to a certain degree already (whether you know them or not).  If you don’t know them, Facebook provides you with various clues as to their trustworthiness, such as telling them how many Friends you have in common and who exactly those people are.  If you have any doubts about someone you can ask your Mutual Friends to vouch for them before you let them into your circle of trust.  One of the main reasons (I would argue) that Facebook trounced MySpace was that they required users to list their real name instead of a screen name.  While it is possible to lie about your real name just as easily as with a screen name, the fact that a real name should correspond to an offline identity — a known or at least knowable quantity — leads people to lie very infrequently; they know that once they are found out for a fraud they will be ostracized and have to start over to build any sort of trust with the cohort they are trying to engage.

Facebook is just one minor example of the technologies that sit on top of the “naked” internet that help bring us out of the wild west scenario.  It’s discretionary in that you don’t have to be on Facebook.  But at this point wouldn’t you be suspicious of someone who told you they weren’t on Facebook?  Maybe they don’t intend you any harm, but if not then at the very least you know they are a complete n00b, not to be trusted with your email address.  (If you don’t believe me, see how long it takes before they send you a Snopes-debunked urban legend while revealing the identities and emails of all 150 of their online acquaintances in the CC: field).

One of the NPR segments addressed the issue that everyone depends on Google to locate information but that Google does nothing to help you discern the trustworthiness of the information contained on the pages it returns in its searches.  This leads to a situation where it’s fairly easy to destroy someone’s hard-earned reputation with whole-cloth fiction and half-truths, but impossible to defend yourself it it happens to you.

I have proposed one type of technological addition to the “trust ecology” called Truth Markets.  Basically it’s a financial market where instead of trading shares of a company or commodities like gold,  you trade in the “truthiness” of public statements (such as web pages) and trustworthiness of the people who make them.  One could imagine a set of Truth Markets for every website (or at least ones that get a threshold amount of traffic), and a trustworthiness rating for every individual that contributes to the site in some way.

But Google could in fact obviate the need for such heavy lifting if it wanted to.  The key is their all-powerful algorithm, PageRank, which is what allows them to serve up such relevant results in response to the keywords you type in.  PageRank was designed to suss out relevance, but this is simply a variable that can be swapped out for other values, such as humor, aesthetics, and yes, truthiness.  So imagine that when you type in a job candidate’s name into Google to do some research on them you not only get all of the web pages that match sorted by relevance, but you also have the option to sort by truth value.  Then, just because a salacious piece of gossip pops up on the front page of a search result doesn’t mean that it will show up on the front page if you sort by truth.

And imagine if Google were to decide to change their default search results so that they are based on a blend of RageRank and “TruthRank”.  Wouldn’t this be better than learning that Ann Coulter’s puppy mills actually supplied Michael Vick with his best fighting dogs?  (It’s true, I swear!)

  • Tiltmom

    You and I make very different assumptions about people not on Facebook. I know several people who are net-savvy, but choose to avoid Facebook for personal bandwidth purposes, or because they object to some of FB’s privacy policies.

    When someone tells me they aren’t on Facebook, I assume they prefer something other than the wholesale intimacy that FB provides. At one end of the spectrum, you have the people who abandoned FB for Twitter ages ago; on the other end, you have people who check their email only once or twice a day, and prefer to keep their engagements in the offline world.

    As for the people who send me urban legends? As of three months ago, they’re all on Facebook. [And they’re all hidden from me.]

    • rafefurst

      Ah, Kim, you are picking the wrong fight on this post. Forget the particular example of Facebook… “you know what I mean” :-)

  • Tiltmom

    It was 4:30 in the morning and I saw an opportunity to use the phrase “wholesale intimacy” — sue me.

    So how do Truth Markets compare to the Slashdot model of moderating posts by Karma?

    • rafefurst

      nice usage. not familiar with Karma since Slashdot doesn’t interest me, but I totally love the merit-based, not-strictly-chronological ordering of user generated content. there are many ways this is done, including the way that the Obama campaign used on

  • rafefurst

    Know anything about Motivist?

    Daniel, what do you think?

    • danielhorowitz

      Looks really good. Suspiciously good. How do you know about this? Did one of your cronies make this?

      • rafefurst

        just noticed an old comment on i had previously overlooked pointing to it. however it seems really sparse so i don’t think they’ve gotten any traction. might be worth an overture to see what’s going on and if we could help them ramp it up somehow…

        • danielhorowitz

          I see. Interesting. Done.

  • ace

    E-Bay’s seller rankings are another good example of a layer on top of the naked internet. I would like to think that E-bay would have ferreted out 1000 sham transactions for the purpose of building a reputation that will later dupe me.