How trust builds and then declines through online reviews

Two sociologists explain how trust develops and then changes over time in the online sharing economy:

For their research, Parigi and Cook examined Couchsurfing, a website that supports international travel and cultural exchange. Its members both host visitors and surf the site to find sympathetic lodging as they travel the world, all without exchanging money. Profile pages of members list Couchsurfing friends and other personal information.

The findings revealed, the researchers wrote, an interesting mechanism at the root of interpersonal trust: “The accumulation of ratings about users (whether guests or hosts) had a double-edged effect on trust and relationships: it made relationships easier to establish initially but it also weakened them after a certain threshold.”

In other words, technology boosted interpersonal trust among users at first, but it also made it more difficult to build stronger ties as users acquired more and more reviews…

Parigi and Cook explain that in an online community, interactions between people are more normalized, less open to chance. “This is because trustworthiness is promoted not by interpersonal ties, but by the monitoring of one another in a network in which reputations are posted,” they wrote…
As a result, he said, an interesting conundrum seems to be emerging: technology makes it possible for people to trust complete strangers, while at the same time it may be weakening the bonds that unite individuals.

Trust is a necessary component of human relationships; people need to have some confidence that the other person is not going to take advantage of them or let them down and deeper connections can form when mutual trust develops. Yet, trust can develop in different ways. In this particular case, it sounds like the trust is built on crowd-sourced data – posted online reviews – that contribute to confidence but don’t necessarily lead to deeper relationships.

Maybe this is all okay. We don’t expect to form deep relationships with everyone we interact with, particularly when it comes to economic transactions. (Think of interactions with cashiers or waiters or others at the lower status jobs in the service economy.) The larger issue may be when most or all of online interactions develop these qualities. This is the same sort of question that worried Georg Simmel in his piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel made a similar argument: when humans enter a new social space (the big city) that is built around interdependence and specialization, humans can’t hope to get to know everyone. Similar situation today: humans enter a new social space (the Internet, social media) that prioritizes individual action and choosing what connections to make.

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