Trust, disclosure and social media

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Two of the most frequent criticisms of social media hinge on the quality and quantity of information people disclosure through blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social tools:

  1. Why does s/he think anyone cares? Asked about people who blog their latest meal, tweet their random observations, check in on FourSquare, or share other pieces of information that would certainly fail to meet the New York Times standard of newsworthiness.
  2. Why would s/he share that? Asked about people who blog about their mental health challenges, tweet about their sex lives, Facebook pictures of themselves half-naked, or share other pieces of information online that many people would choose to keep secret or private offline.

Underlying both of these questions is a seldom examined but widely held understanding about the relationship between disclosure and trust.

In offline culture, disclosure is both a creator and a signifier of trust. If I tell you about a difficult childhood experience, a sexual predilection, or a professional insecurity, my decision to share that secret with you implies (usually accurately) that I trust you. It’s a statement of faith in you personally: I’m showing that I regard you as a person who is capable of discretion, and as someone with something to offer that makes the risk of disclosure worthwhile — for example, sage advice about a work dilemma, or kindness and empathy for a personal trauma. It’s also a statement of faith in our relationship: I believe our friendship (or collegial relationship) is strong enough, and valued enough by you, that in constitutes at least as semi-private space in which information or emotion can be shared with an expectation that it will not travel further.

If disclosure is thus an expression of trust, it is also a creator of trust. When I trust you with a secret or a confidence, you may be more likely to trust me — if only because we are now in a situation of shared vulnerability. When I tell you something I wouldn’t tell someone else, I put you in an inner circle and create a sense of intimacy that allow further trust and intimacy to develop. It is the very fact that others are excluded — that my act of disclosure is particular to you — that makes the disclosure meaningful, expressive of trust, and trust-building.

Offline, anyhow. Online, it becomes much more murky. If I place you in a Facebook lists that gives you privileged access to stories or images I share with only a dozen other people, you may not know it — in fact, you’re likely to think that I shared that picture of my kid or that complaint about my period with the entire world. Even Google+, which distinguishes itself by making it easy to share different kinds of content with different “circles”, doesn’t make it obvious which circle a given update has been shared with, let alone how big that circle might be. If I’ve read a post because my friend has shared it with her “Extended Circles”, I don’t know which circles that includes, or who was in them (and interestingly, most people I follow on Google+ seem to post most things publicly).

The opacity of online disclosure, in which it is frequently hard or impossible to see how widely a given piece of content is shared, seems to lead us to the assumption that anything we see online has been shared publicly, unless we specifically know otherwise.  As a result, the disclosures we see online have very limited capacity to reflect or create trust: if you’re showing this picture to everyone in the world, or sharing this comment with everyone in our school or office, your disclosure in no way expresses faith in me or in our relationship. At best, it expresses faith in your network’s privacy settings, or its capacity to offer you a permanent “delete” option.

There are a handful of networks and tools that do create a greater sense of selectiveness among and between users. Path is based around the idea of limiting your network to 50 people — what an expression of trust, to know that someone has put you in that 50. Private Twitter accounts, in which you have to be personally approved before someone lets you read their updates, again impose a clear trust test: do I trust you enough to let you read my updates? But in most networks, it’s easier to communicate a lack of trust than an extension of trust: if I fail to accept your Facebook friend request, TripIt connection request or LinkedIn connection request, you may infer it’s a lack of trust.

How can we share in a way that communicates a sense of trust? Well, one tech option comes from  Google+ points an interesting way forward: if you share a post with only one circle, people in that circle see it as “limited”, and can tell who else made the cut to see this particularly detail. Ooh! Aah! you can think, as you read the details of your BFF’s latest date. Aren’t I lucky she shared that with me?
Google Limited shows who can see a post
Or maybe not. After all, even a post shared with a limited circle of contacts is still shared with that all-seeing, all-knowing Eyes of Google. (Even more crucially, with the all-archiving database of Google.) How much could it mean for your friend to share a secret with you if she’s prepared to trust it to the Internets?

No wonder that we’re so deeply suspicious of online disclosure, then. All that rampant posting deprives us of a valued mechanisms for creating and expressing trust. In a world where people apparently share secrets freely, secrets lose their value as social glue.

3 Comments on this site

  1. Michael E. Rubin

    Excellent analysis, Alexandra. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought this morning.

    Even if disclosure is murky as you suggest, I do believe that there is value in at least making the attempt to fully disclose. It’s especially important for those of us working in corporate social media. There have been too many instances where brands (or the agencies working on their behalf) have failed to disclose their identity or affiliation. Every single one has rightfully been uncovered and publicly pilloried for their deception. 

    Disclosure is the right thing to do. It also isn’t hard. A one-liner in a signature (like mine below) or a link to a one-paragraph disclosure policy is sufficient. While a cynic would suggest that’s merely legal CYA, I believe that it’s good social media citizenship and helps engender trust.

    At your service,
    Michael E. Rubin
    Redbox Sr. Manager, Social Media
    Disclosure: I work for Redbox, and this is my opinion.

  2. Raul Pacheco

    I use disclosure statements all the time, in my tweets, in my blog posts (particularly my complimentary meals). I do see disclosure as a builder of trust, and non-disclosure as something that makes me distrust the person. 

    I am inherently trusting. Stupidly trusting, even. But when things get complicated is when I trust someone both online and offline, and their behavior online (AND offline) is such that is less than transparent and disclosing with me. Ironically, one of my brothers dislikes when I don’t tell him EVERYTHING about my life. And I think disclosure, transparency and privacy are all interlinked. But the fact that we don’t share everything with everyone doesn’t mean that when we do share, we do so with entire, full conscience.

    We geeks tend to think that civilians DO have privacy on top of their minds. Canadians do (when I moved here, I found out about the lovely privacy act that would NEVER let my parents know where I lived without my permission). Social platforms like Google Plus and Facebook are making it much easier to erode privacy. In that erosion, the creators of these tools are falsely building trust by making people more transparent and self-disclosing.

    Is that where we want to go? A world of unaware, reckless civilians who don’t know that in trying to make themselves trustworthy, they may be undermining any chance they may have at privacy?

    Food for thought for you in return for a really good post that makes me think too. And for the record, and in full disclosure, you and Rob are in my Family circle. You two are people I would share VERY intimate stuff with. 

  3. Brendan Cosgrove

    You’ve put nicely into words, the underpinnings of this new online social contract in terms of trust.  Ironically I think this is what drives the “consumerization” of so many things these days.  With people connecting directly even online, that implicit trust drives the user’s self-measured value in that arena.  Thus the power of online groups and social networks becomes perhaps distorted when tested but on the average day, is very powerful as a feeling of value and significance that fulfills some deep longings for many.  

    I don’t know if that made sense, but your post certainly stirred some good thinking.


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