Quantifying Trust

How we see trust and reputation today

Most of us have been in at least one of these situations.

1. You plan to purchase a book, but before you buy it, you decide to look at the reviews other readers have posted about it on Goodreads.

2. You are planning a vacation and while looking for a place to stay, you decide to browse through some options on Airbnb and decide to stay at the house of a local in that area.

3. You are doing your college computer project and get stuck somewhere. You immediately visit Stack Overflow and search for the query and find the solution in one of the answers on the top half.

4. You decide to binge watch a new TV show on your upcoming weekend but can’t decide which one. So you search for a few series and check their IMDb ratings, even read a few reviews and finally make you your choice.

We have a come a long way in the last few years. From the rise of the internet to the rise of the app industry, we have witnessed a world that has become not only more connected, but also more convenient. We have transitioned from being hesitant to put our credit card details online to sharing rides with strangers using online applications. The digital age has changed the way we view and interpret numerous concepts, and one of them is the concept of trust. Trust, unlike Uber or Amazon has been here since the rise of man and just like the man himself, the interpretation of trust has evolved. In the beginning, our sphere of trust was local, only among people whom we were familiar with or had a close relation with. Later we started placing our trust in bodies and institutions, who in return pledged to take care of our needs and interests.Now, we live in a time where we don’t think twice to lend our money to strangers,run an errand for someone we haven’t met before or go on a date with someone who we swiped right. What makes this even more baffling is that our level of trust has been wavering, as the “2017 Edelman Trust Barometer” observed a dip in trust in all the 4 major institutions: NGO, the media, the government and the business sector for 2016. Yet year after year, the user base of the Uber, TaskRabbit, Lending club and other services based on these models has been on a steady rise.

Merriam Webster defines trust as:

“assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something.”

However, keeping the current trend in mind, we can tweak it to:

“assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something unknown.”
Number of registered members on Airbnb in the City of Paris

But how is it possible?

How is is that we trust people whom we haven't met before more that the people who swore to take care of our need? If I have to answer it with a single word, I’ll say “Accountability”. You see, the last few years have seen the reputation of these institutions slide. With one corruption scandal after another being unearthed and with the after effects of 2008 financial crisis leaving a sour taste, the level of confidence among the public has taken a nosedive.2008 is even more significant as the app market was on the rise. Both these factors resulted in two things. Firstly, it saw the introduction of applications based on the principles of collaborative consumption, where resources and the services could be exchanged on a permanent or temporary basis. These apps acted as bridges between the consumers and the providers. Uber did that between a driver and a rider, Airbnb between the lodgers and the lodges and The Lending club between the borrowers and the investors. Secondly, by using these apps, the users on both side of the table were made accountable. Both the consumer and provider could be rated based on certain factors. For instance, if a lodger was not satisfied with the hospitality of the place, he or she can give it a low rating. Similarly, if the owner thinks the customer did not behave properly during their stay, then they can grade the customer accordingly. The ratings we give or get as a result affect interactions in the future. This kind of rating system is prevalent in many other apps like Uber, the Lending Club, UrbanClap and TaskRabit to name a few, and this is not only restricted to the app spectrum. You can not only rate or review products on Amazon or a movie on IMDb, but other users who see your review can also decide if it was helpful or not, hence determining its position in the list of reviews. Similarly in Stack Overflow, if you give a concise and correct answer to a doubt, you will earn reputation points from. There are many ways to get reputation points and some people find this score so essential that they put on their CV when applying for jobs.

Even Tinder has a rating algorithm which is used to rank users. Every time you swipe right or left, you impact the rating of that person. Although this concept of digitized reputation is not new (credit rating, job rating, academic rating have been with us for quite some time name a few), it did not impact our daily lives like it does these days. Where ever we are, this reputation trail follows us and is a major determining factor of our nature of interaction with the services we need. This decentralized, bottom up approach has proved to be more transparent and more efficient than our institutions have ever been. We trust these applications more because they invariably put the trust back in our hands.

So where are we headed?

Is there a future where each of us have a trust dashboard where we can see each other’s rating like we see someone’s followers on Twitter or Instagram?

Are we heading towards an era where a number beside our names determines what kind of food we can have or what kind of house we can buy?

Maybe this sounds far fetched, but it may not. Last year an app named Peeple, a reputation application, created quite a stir when it was released. Users of the app can create and share profiles, let others review or comment on it and leave recommendations. An interesting aspect of the app in “The Truth License”, where in you can pay to see negative reviews about someone. As a result the founders faced quite a backlash and later watered down the application.A less controversial alternative is Credport, a berlin based start-up which uses information from various social media platform and online marketplaces about an individual to create a profile which can then be used to interact with people online. This is not only restricted to the private sector as China is pushing for the “Social Credit System”, where each and every citizen will be given a score based on government data regarding their economic and social status. This score will apparently change based on the individual’s daily activities and will affect what kind of services and freedoms will they be entitled to. A third party system is already in development by the Alibaba Group, named the “Sesame Credit”. If anyone wants to see how that kind of world will be like, they can have a look at episode “Nosedive” from Black Mirror (an amazing series by the way). It is probably one of the best interpretations of to what extent people can go to get a good social score.

Don’t Panic

All this may seem overwhelming and scary, but I believe we are still far away from that dystopian future where things like these can be incorporated in our social structure. I say this because this model is not perfect and the whole rating/reputation architecture has a weak link which as it turns out, is its biggest requirement to function,the people. Any model like this need humans to make evaluations and we humans are very volatile creatures, as most of us don’t know when we are using our IQ or EQ to do something, leading to two problems, influence and losing objectivity. Suppose you went for a movie and despite it being a good one, you realize that it wasn’t a masterpiece and decide to rate it an 8 on 10 on IMDb. However when you are about to rate it you see a few reviews and observe that most people have given it a 9 or a 10. Seeing this you rate it a 9 as well (Maybe this is why Shawshank Redemption is on top). The point being, sometimes our opinions are not our own but are the ones influenced. This adulteration of views and perspectives may sometimes impact how we come to conclusions. Now suppose you were having a miserable day and were feeling pretty pissed. On your way back you rate your Uber driver a 3 for a normal ride, when you usually rate them a 4. Why then did you do that? Because you didn't think straight or thought from your emotional side and thereby lost the sense of being objective. I am not saying that this is always bound to happen, but merely implying that things like this can happen to any of us any time.

So what I trying to conclude is that despite having benefited from the leaps in technologies and to some extent having been made more accountable or more transparent, we need to know when we have flown high enough that our wings don’t melt. We may be blurring the line between strangers and acquaintances, but at the same time we need to define one between convenience and nuisance.

“Never go full retard.” — Kirk Lazarus
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