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Trust Online, Trust Offline


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Commercial Web sites have been making concerted efforts to reassure their customers that their transactions and personal information are safe. This site won't violate your privacy, we are told. This is all to the good, but Web site designers must also be concerned with something over which they have no control: Are people generally trusting? If not, they may steer away from risky activities, including Web commerce.

Over a recent lunch with a survey researcher who works at a nonprofit institution in Washington, D.C., we discussed my work on trust. I had just finished a talk at his organization where I distinguished between strategic trust, or the kind of trust that reflects our experience with particular people doing particular things, and moralistic (or generalized) trust, or a more general value we learn early in life. Strategic trust can help us decide whether a specific Web site is safe: Is our information secure there? Will it install spyware on our computers? Will it redirect us to places we don't want to go on the Internet? And if it's a commercial Web site, will it deliver what it promises? We can learn about these sites by reading about them or by our own direct experience.

Moralistic trust is not based upon everyday experience but instead on an optimistic world view we learn at an early age: The world is a good place; it is going to get better; I can make it better; and it is thus not so great a risk to agree that most people can be trusted. Moralistic trust won't tell us anything about a particular Web site or personalities on the Web. However, moralistic trust will give us sufficient faith to take risks on the Web in the first place. Mistrusters will simply stay away altogether.

My colleague asked: You say trust is not based upon experience, but what about the Internet? All sorts of danger lurks there; just to get online one must establish a firewall, because people are constantly trying to hack into your system. He runs a virus checker constantly and at least once a week uses a spyware search utility to see which companies are trying to track his every move. His email has a spam filter to isolate the dozens of daily invitations to pornographic Web sites and other attempts to sell him stuff he doesn't want. Then there is the teenager haven of instant messaging, which, we now learn, is a major source of identity theft online. So how can we expect people to suffer through all of this insecurity and still believe that most people can be trusted?

My colleague thinks the Internet is a source of trust and mistrust. But the Internet really depends upon trust rather than creates trust. People who trust each other are more likely to be comfortable with new technology, even if they don't trust particular Web sites. Most online retailers go to great lengths to demonstrate their trustworthiness. EBay's "Safe Harbor" promises a (limited) guarantee against online fraud, giving each seller a rating for integrity. Online merchants trade in strategic trust, the good reputation of sellers, and the company itself. The company that claims to ensure privacy online calls itself Truste. This is all to the good, but moralistic trust plays a more important role in shaping whether people view the Internet as a great new opportunity or as a threat.

Consider the optimists first: Michael and Ronda Hauben in their 1997 book Netizens called the Internet "a grand intellectual and social commune in the spirit of the collective nature present at the origins of human society." Others view new Web sites (such as friendster.com) as great hopes for getting people together in pursuit of common goals or just simple love. Meetup.com brought 150,000 Americans together to support Howard Dean, who set records for raising campaign funds on the Internet in 2003. Everett Ehrlich, a former U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce, wrote in The Washington Post that the days of political parties are over; citizens can now take politics away from the professionals and put it into their own hands.

Alex Salcedo, a 13-year-old boy from Kensington, MD, was hit by a car near his home in 1999. He was rushed to a local hospital and put into an induced coma; the prognosis was not good. His father created a Web page so the family could keep apprised of his medical condition; eventually Alex died. The Web site received 66,000 hits, with 2,000 messages posted.

Mistrusters bring us back to reality. Kaycee Nicole Swenson, a 19-year-old girl from Kansas suffering from leukemia, created a blog of her illness and remissions called Living Colours; thousands of people visited her site for almost a year. Many sent her gifts, and all were sad when the site announced her death May 15, 2003. It was all a hoax; there never was a Kaycee. The blogger was really a 40-year-old woman with two healthy children.

Back to reality again. Friendster has almost four million registered users, but nobody knows how many of them are real people. The New York Times (Nov. 27, 2003) reported 2,619 "pretendsters" have been terminated by the site, but it is still pretty easy to go on a cyberdate with someone who isn't really there.

Mistrusters would argue that Kaycee Swenson illustrates you can't be too careful dealing with people. It might do little harm to read her story, but don't send her gifts, and be very wary of sending anyone money on the Internet. Trusters would say miscreants are everywhere, and a handful of bad experiences should not cause us to withdraw from social connections, especially with people we don't know.


Moralistic trust plays an important role in shaping whether people view the Internet as a great new opportunity or as a threat.


The Internet can seem a trusting or a mistrusting place. But it is largely a reflection, perhaps in bas relief, of the larger society. All around us we see both nice people and scoundrels. The Internet can scare away someone who already doesn't trust other people, as I showed in the 2000 Trust and Privacy Survey of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Mistrusters overestimate the amount of risk in their worlds. Hackers might steal their credit card number; businesses can get their personal information; their Web dealings might not be private; others will know where they have been on the Web; they might download viruses; and others will learn private things about their lives. Mistrusters are less likely to use their real names on the Web and more likely to use fake identifications and email addresses.

People who trust others underestimate the risks of daily life and are more likely to go online and give out personal information. They adapt more quickly to new technologies and dismiss the chance that their computers will be infected by viruses when they're online.

Before deciding whether to buy from an online retailer, we must first be comfortable with new technology. Moralistic trusters are risk takers and don't feel threatened by online transactions. Online retailers should pay as much attention to this type of trust as they do to their own trustworthiness. At a site like eBay, you can fall prey to sellers who manipulate their ratings or to people with no history at all but who offer deals too good to be true; I was taken in by both.

Strategic trust may lead people away from online commerce after bad experiences. Moralistic trusters look at a negative experience as just that and discount bad news. A new technology like the Internet needs more than just the strategic trust a retailer can provide. Its future may depend upon a more general faith in humanity, not just in machines.

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Author

Eric M. Uslaner (euslaner@gvpt.umd.edu) is a professor of government and politics in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of MarylandCollege Park.


©2004 ACM  0002-0782/04/0400  $5.00

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