The 2 “Oh Shit!s”

Jerry Michalski

On experiencing Design from Trust

Something predictable happens when people first encounter systems that are designed from trust, such as Wikipedia, traffic calming or microfinance.

To recap: Design from Trust is an approach to design that assumes that most (not all) people have good intent. From books left in a Little Free Library on the sidewalk to the design of the Internet, systems designed to release genius are more useful and effective than those designed to stop bad actors from acting badly. Plenty more on this topic here.

Caveat: I use Wikipedia often as an example of Design from Trust, mostly because it’s familiar to almost everyone, and because it is easy to tease the DfT lessons from Wikipedia. That said, Wikipedia is far from perfect, especially in its gender bias: it seems mostly written by white men about white men. Projects like Women in Red are working to correct this, but bias remains, as do other flaws. If these flaws have turned you off Wikipedia, first my apologies, and second, could you set the flaws aside momentarily so I might explain the positive lessons?

The first reaction

People’s predictable first reaction to systems designed from trust runs something like this:

Oh shit! This is impossible. There’s no way this can work.

It’s a very reasonable response. Let’s play it out.

In the case of Wikipedia, it’s just dawned on you that any idiot could come and edit the world’s encyclopedia. They could replace the portrait of George Washington with a photo of their nether parts. They could scrub out that divorce they wish weren’t part of their life’s public record. They could alter the record the rest of us are using (with occasional trepidation) as a reference work. And Wikipedia is huge!

How could that possibly work?

Can you remember that moment? That moment in your life, some time after you discovered Wikipedia, when you learned about the mechanism that gives it life? Did it take seconds? days? years?

The coin might have dropped right away, your arched eyebrow causing you to read up on this “crowdsourced” work, to discover what makes it tick. Wikipedia is linky enough that you could find a lot of information pretty quickly. (If you are curious, I’ve curated links to how Wikipedia works here. Here’s more on its dark side.)

Or you might have used Wikipedia as a simple encyclopedia for some time, not really wondering how it came about, until someone or something made you think more deeply about how it works.

Or maybe you hadn’t noticed Wikipedia’s open, collaborative editing process until now.

When you did tackle this mystery, chances are your thought process included some of these:

  • So anyone can put any page in Wikipedia, and say anything?
  • But they’re not experts! How can anyone trust it!
  • Who’s ultimately responsible for the facts that get published?
  • What if someone relies on bad information published in it?
  • Why is every episode of [Buffy the Vampire Slayer] in Wikipedia?
  • Can I create a page for my dog?
  • Don’t different groups want to put their own spin on it?
  • How do people agree something should be in it?
  • How does Wikipedia stay afloat?

It does seem impossible, especially if your perspective is up close: that of a publisher of reference materials, a curriculum developer or a teacher.

Yet there it stands.

I remember going to see Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s spark, speak in 2005, when Wikipedia was four years old. I remember it was 2005, because that’s the year Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, and the story Jimmy opened with was of the email congratulations he received from members of the press and others, all impressed by how quickly Wikipedia had a thorough bio of the new Pope up on the site.

His wry comment stuck with me, to the effect of: “well, we had pages on all the major cardinals already. Someone added the updated info, renamed the page, and bingo!”

That story, amid many others, helped me realize that Wikipedia might be emulating an encyclopedia, but its dynamics were very different. Its dynamics would be counterintuitive to anyone approaching it as a “normal” startup or enterprise.

A wry joke for those who appreciate Wikipedia is that it works well in practice, just not in theory.

I’ve long been a fan, despite the rough spots. Here’s a bit of a tribute I posted in 2011.

Were I to post an epilogue to that video today, I would point out that Wikipedia’s popularity has unfortunately made it a key battleground, with a small industry of service providers happy to try to sneak changes into Wikipedia pages to suit your purposes. Revenge and personal vendettas rage there, too, as well as raging battles — “revert wars” — over controversial subjects like abortion, climate change and orange-haired populist autocrats. None of these has destroyed Wikipedia yet; all of them need attention. They are symptoms of the broader anguish in our culture.

Many more domains

Thank goodness, Design from Trust isn’t just about Wikipedia. Other systems that use trust well include:

And many more. I will visit them, more systematically, in future posts.

All designed from trust: animal gentling, Linux, unschooling, B corps, traffic calming, community currencies…
All designed from trust: animal gentling, Linux, unschooling, B corps, traffic calming, community currencies…
All designed from trust: animal gentling, Linux, unschooling, B corps, traffic calming, community currencies…

The second reaction

Understandably, that first Oh Shit! reaction drives some people away. “Impossible!” is a high hurdle to clear. Those people bounce off Wikipedia, worried about reliability, danger, chaos, anarchy — dragons lurking at the edges of their world. They don’t step in.

The same happens with other systems that are designed from trust, which I will articulate in a moment.

But most people suspend disbelief and dip in. They read one Wikipedia entry, then another. They test a topic they know well. After all, the cost of experimentation is low here, and typically the cost of being wrong is low, too.

Then, often, the second realization sinks in:

Oh shit! This thing works. It’s a little crazy, but it works.

The range of reactions this second time is broad. The simplest version is likely, “well, that was good enough. I’ll come back to this Wikipedia thing next time I need to look something up.”

The deepest reaction might sound like, “whoa, a bunch of volunteers spent waaaay too much time evolving a culture and a set of practices that created this monster collaborative work that serves humanity while holding vandals, spinners and advertisers mostly at bay. This is so cool! Can I help make it better?”

To some, Wikipedia just exists

Some people don’t have these two reactions. For them, Wikipedia is just the world’s encyclopedia. A fact in cyberspace. A resource they use and don’t question.

This might be the case for very different reasons:

  • Wikipedia has always existed. Created in 2001, Wikipedia has been around your whole life if you’re a teen (see item 3). It’s a given.
  • Asleep at the wheel. Many people don’t question what they see. If Wikipedia solves an immediate problem, great. No need to be curious.
  • Already think this way. Some people intuitively understand Design from Trust, and recognize its value. They’re not surprised that Wikipedia exists, or that it works. They’re on board.

This 2-Oh-Shit! dynamic is fun to observe and even more fun to take part in. If you’re lucky, you can practically hear the coin drop. Sometimes you can help tip it in. And sometimes you can see people bounce away.

On a Lyft ride to San Francisco’s airport some years ago, my driver was describing how he and his wife had started unschooling their two daughters, and how he had shifted from skeptic to supporter.

Then I asked: “So how are your parents taking it?” He laughed and said his parents were fine with the unschooling, but his wife’s were giving them a rough time. They were worried that the couple were risking their daughters’ future by taking them outside the accepted school system. This was a completely predictable response, which is what motivated me to ask the question.

One of the challenges for systems designed from trust is that they are usually social systems, and these alternative methods interrupt existing systems as well as social networks. That’s a lot of Oh-Shit!s to get through.


Your own Oh Shit! reactions are likely a sign that you’ve spotted a system that’s designed from trust. Many such systems exist, in very different domains of human activity. I listed a few earlier. Here is what a skeptic’s inner dialogue might sound like on hitting each of them:

The Internet: Wait. Anyone can publish on the Internet? Anyone can invent new protocols? It has no president? Who funds it? Man, this won’t last.

Open Space meetings: What do you mean, there’s no famous keynote speaker? How will we attract participants? And no panels? Are you sure someone is going to step in and suggest a topic for a breakout conversation? I’m nervous. What if nobody participates?

The Sharing Economy: You’re going to let a stranger occupy your house while you’re away? You’re nuts! They’ll take everything of value. This can’t work.

Unschooling: Kids’ll be on their own to learn? They’ll play Nintendo all year! It’ll be Lord of the Flies! You’ve got to be kidding. They need to be told what to learn, and when.

Housing First policies for homelessness: You would give a homeless person a permanent place to live? People need the threat of starvation or they won’t do anything! What a terrible idea.

Traffic calming: All the signs, signals and electronics on our roadways are there for our safety, aren’t they? Taking those away has to be dangerous. This may work in Holland, but it won’t work here.

Animal gentling: We break horses, don’t we? How is it possible we “join up” with them? What? The horse is just following around now? No way. Its will has to be broken so it can serve us.

The Peel Principles of policing: Our police have up-armored because criminals are now well armed. The stakes have gone up. Police need tactical superiority! Going in unarmed would be crazy.

Fun, no?

And yet…

All these systems designed from trust exist today, and are doing pretty well.

Some of them have been around for a while, like Bobby Peel’s principles of policing, which date back to the founding of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829; animal gentling, which may be ancient; and the Sharing Economy, which is how we used to live together all around the globe, before everything had a price.

A major reason for the first “Oh Shit!” reaction is that systems designed from trust usually fly against tradition, dogma, social norms, rules, established practice, and many beliefs we hold dear. When we break these norms and rules, we feel a shot of cortisol and adrenaline course through our veins. It feels dangerous.

“We’ve always done it that way!” is potent cover for counterproductive practices. Traditions leave deep grooves in our mental roads. Once you start spotting Design from Mistrust, today’s default, you will run into this objection over and over. The key, then, is what will tip you out of those grooves and interest you in trying something new and risky sounding.

My suggestion here is that some visceral experience of the new thing, as both a surprise and a solution, is a very powerful tipping agent. When dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) replaces cortisol, the game’s on.

Of course, sometimes an “Oh Shit!” reaction is just your good intuition warning you not to take part in what is actually a stupid system.

I’m not suggesting you turn off that warning system and blithely, blindly march into any counterintuitive setting. I am suggesting you notice such moments of discomfort and engage your curiosity, in case you’re experiencing one of these systems designed from trust, and might just be on the cusp of holding a new belief dear.

Jerry Michalski

#DesignEthics #DesignfromTrust #DesignfromMistrust #Trust #Vulnerability #Risk #PersonalChange

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Thanks to April Rinne

Jerry Michalski

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