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Who can you really trust in the digital age?

By Ian Webster, JD Meier, Xavier Pereira & Roy Sharples, Microsoft - a conversation with Rachel Botsman, Author and Speaker on October 27, 2017

Filed under IT Leader

Rachel Botsman, Author of

Who can you really trust in the digital age?

In the digital age, we’re actually giving away trust to more people, not less. We’re in the infancy of a new era which I call the age of ‘distributed trust’ – where trust flows horizontally, directly between people. That means we’re as likely to trust say, a stranger on the bus or a bot on the web, as we are an established authority or institution.

The trust that flows upwards to institutions – banks, governments, the media, charities and other businesses – is at an all time historic low. The public opinion surveys conducted by the likes of Ipsos, Pew, Gallup, and Edelman all sell the same sad story. It is reflective of the biggest trust shift of our generation that can help explain a lot of the complexity and disruption happening in our lives.

Over the course of history, I think trust has evolved through three distinct eras. The first was ‘local’ when we lived in small communities and everyone knew everybody else. The second was ‘institutional’ – when big brands, intermediaries such as regulators and brokers and institutions started to pull themselves into organizations serving the public. But this kind of institutional trust, invented at the start of the industrial revolution, was simply not designed for the digital age.

So we’re now moving into the third era – what I call distributed trust – where we’re opening our houses to strangers on Airbnb, transferring value through the blockchain and jumping into cars with strangers on the likes of Lyft and Uber. It’s opening up the world for us to trust in different ways, enabled by technology.

So this is far from the age of distrust. It just flows in different directions now.

Source: Who Can You Trust? Rachel Botsman

Why are we more likely to trust a complete stranger – or even a bot – than established authorities on travel, media, doing business, voting, buying things or making big decisions?

The problem with trust in the institutional age is that it was siphoned off in the hands of a few who called themselves authorities in their specific field – whether this was in news, travel, business or government. The fact is, these few authorities in their fields were invariably white, older, middle or upper class men.

The digital age has opened up the world and provided us with opportunities to trust different people – women, people of color, people from different classes backgrounds. I think the fact we’re more likely to trust a stranger now shows that there was an appetite to disrupt the status quo – to let others have their chance at being an authority, and offer us new perspectives.

As for bots, what makes us more likely to trust them is twofold: first, they speed things up and we therefore give out trust to them quite easily, with a swipe and a click. Second, they mimic familiar features or human behavior to increase our comfort with trusting them. We see this factored into the design of self-driving cars: they’re personified, given cute features and include functionally redundant features such as rear-view mirrors. It makes people trust them because they appear less like scary robots and more like they are familiar things and people we see every day.


What recommendations would you give to help address the acceleration of intimacy in the digital age, and is it about bringing it back to the basics of human nature?

My recommendations would be:

  1. Don’t give away your trust too easily. It’s society’s most precious asset, and studies show that we’ll sometimes outsource our trust to an algorithm or bot (or complete stranger) a little too quickly.
  2. Trust decisions aren’t just made in your head – they’re made in your stomach. A bot or a machine can’t have a gut feeling like you can – keep your intuition sharpened so you don’t lose the very human skill of discerning and analyzing.
  3. You control the technology, but don’t let it control you: if Alexa is advising you on outfit choices or dodgy Facebook links are presenting you with doubtable news, it may be time to log off for a bit and think about the power you’re outsourcing.
  4. Always question. In a world of fake news and lying politicians, it pays to be a skeptic.
  5. Go back to the facts. We live in a time when feelings are prioritized over facts; experts have less influence; truthiness trumps truth. Where are you getting your facts from and can you really trust this source as unbiased and objective? But please don’t become a conspiracy theorist: this is far from the age of distrust, so check your healthy skepticism when it verges into conspiracy territory. Trust has two enemies: Poor information and bad character. Once you overcome these with both facts and gut feeling, go ahead and make a trust leap! It’s what has kept society operating for millennia.


Source: Who Can You Trust? Rachel Botsman

Today trust per individual is per platform and not transferable – do you expect this to change in the future? Will it be necessary for platforms to incentivize trust, such as pay users, for views and reviews as YouTube does, or do you see this creating a problem of agency?

I’ve spoken to lots of tech start-ups, such as UrbanSitter – the online babysitting platform – and many have expressed interest in a cross-platform reputation check system to give people better trust indicators.

UrbanSitter persuades people to make a remarkable ‘trust leap’ – trusting a stranger with their children, sometimes within minutes of meeting them. They argue that someone who got a poor rating on Airbnb will be a helpful flag as a behavior predictor for potential babysitters on their platform.

However, I do worry about “instant trust ratings” that take into account context. I’d argue that this is an area we can’t fully outsource to an app or algorithm: Human judgment is required.


Source: Who Can You Trust? Rachel Botsman


If we see the trend continue – then could this point towards consolidation in any industry that didn’t yet have a dominant trust system, as there are clear benefits from scale and winners would be hard to catch?

At almost every panel event I attend, I get asked the same question by industry leaders and execs: How do we regain trust? And I give the same answer each time: you’re asking the wrong question.

Regaining trust as an institution is asking the customer to change their behavior, and trust them again. What they should be asking is how they can change themselves as a company, more suited to the digital age of distributed trust, and then how to win trust in the first place in this new era. 

So industries – both new and existing – will need to adapt, and adapt fast.


Traits of trustworthiness infographic
Source: Who Can You Trust? Rachel Botsman


In what specific ways can a brand execute to create trust and raving fans?

The companies that seem to get this point are those making use of their community of users through social proofing and peer to peer trust. Instead of saying “trust us!” they say “don’t take our word for it – take theirs!”

In the age of institutional trust, brands were created to give personalities to monolithic, juggernaut companies and persuade customers to trust them like they trusted local providers of goods and services in the age of localized trust. Brands personified companies because people trust people, not large organizations.

The age of distributed trust has more in common with the age of localized trust – in many ways it returns us to that time when we trusted individuals and our neighbors, rather than massive faceless conglomerates. The brands that get this and use that individualized trust authentically will be the ones who win raving fans (and then use those raving fans as brand ambassadors to win the trust of the next tier of raving fans!)


Rachel Botsman’s Latest Book Who Can You Trust? Is Now Available To Order:

"Who Can You trust?" by Rachel Botsman

Download the Infographic: “Who Can You Really Trust In The Digital Age”

All responses in the conversation and images by Rachel Botsman. 

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