Distributed Trust: The Future of Crowds & Honesty

Matt Klein
On Advertising
Published in
5 min readNov 2, 2022

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Consumers are no longer blindly accepting messages from traditional sources of influence: brands, influencers or legacy media. Alternatively, they’re seeking intimate consultation from one another — the last bastions of radical honesty.

We’ve come a long way since being told not to get in a stranger’s car. Now, not only are we encouraged to strike up a conversation while doing so, but we’re also seeking strangers’ advice on which car to buy, which medication to take, or which product to wash our particular face with after sharing a hi-res pic of our pores.

As we debate informations’ credibility — from politics to public health — sources of truth and their messaging have become incredibly dubious, biased and polarizing… at best.

As a result, it’s trust in one another — strangers, no less — that’s flourishing as a substitute. This is most evident when it comes to which brands, products, and services we purchase next.

There’s been a shift:

From: One Source

To: One Another

According to Reddit primary research, 82% of people believe reviews, feedback, or discussions online are critical when researching a purchase. This figure is growing over time. 44% of people share they are more trustworthy of strangers online today compared to previous years.

We’re in the midst of an evolution of trust.

We started with Institutional Trust: big, powerful organizations broadcasting messages, one-to-many, all at once. But these entities weren’t always relevant nor honest. They were gatekeepers: centralized, opaque and often biased.

As a reaction, next came Influencer Trust: more familiar, local and “relatable” sources. Real faces. But we were wrong to wholly trust… #Sponsored. Capitalism seeped in. Questionable products were pushed as the influencer next door cashed in and sold themselves out. To save the day, next came Micro Influencers: personalities small enough that brands couldn’t get to. We were wrong again. Selling out was inevitable. Brands and agencies had a grip on all. Any one individual with a sizeable following was ready to be bought. #Ad is the modern social media American Dream, too sweet to pass up.

As a result, truth and honesty in this context was — and still is — endangered across the social landscape. Who do we turn to?

Distributed Trust is the latest evolution (Many-to-Many). Bygone are the days of listening to a single source. Now, people pool their collective intelligence together, creating a communal answer. Faceless no less. They rigorously cross-reference experiences, diligently research efficacy, and unpack claims en masse within vetted, supportive communities. All together now.

From: Top-Down Influence

To: Lateral Influence

Over time, we’ll witness Distributed Trust engulf many of our everyday lives’ questions. We’re already seeing more people amend Google searches with “+ Reddit” to see what the crowd thinks.

The future of advice is fulfilled from the hive-mind — spanning plant health to our own health. The crowd can even solve for more ambiguous and ethically dubious quandaries. Over the years, r/AmITheAsshole has been viewed by millions. Unsure? The crowd will determine unanimously.

As Rachel Botsman, the author of Who Can You Trust? and TED speaker on this topic, puts it,

“Trust is an elusive concept, and yet we depend on it for our lives to function.”

While Distributed Trust takes on many forms and is agnostic to any use-case, it’s particularly relevant for brands.

72% of consumers agree that it’s becoming harder to trust brands’ claims while 77% of consumers are thankful for strangers’ product and service recommendations.

Consumers have never been more fed up with false brand promises. Now, they’re taking matters into their own hands.

They’re doing the homework — from analyzing ingredients to fact-checking ads, and then sharing those results for all to see. Once live, more add on, further cementing the truth.

But why take on this labor?

There’s power and safety in numbers…

When truth is decentralized, no one voice can change anything until the community first confirms it’s true.

Ironically, anonymity was once thought to curb trust, but now it actually promotes it. Actors with an agenda are prevented from altering the narrative, as it’s impossible to buy out the hive mind or to sway the entire community with a false promise.

In community we trust.

When hierarchy and status are removed via anonymity, we’re at peace knowing the recommender has nothing to gain. As a result, participation is perceived as low-stakes, unbiased and selfless. There’s no ulterior motive. They have nothing to gain. And they answer honestly because when it’s their turn to ask for advice, they want an honest answer too. They reply openly because it’s an investment for them. When this happens at scale and the crowd collectively surfaces “the best”, incredible things happen.

For example, when a makeup brand claims to be cruelty free, but a vegan beauty community does the research to reveal that claim to be false… and then recommends which brands to actually purchase from instead… and then surfaces a discount referral code for all to use… that’s Distributed Trust in action.

Communities have each others’ back when brands don’t.

Holding onto legacy models of trust in new environments is proving to be detrimental. Adaptation is required.

If organizations are serious about trust, fandom and community building, they have to do the work… just like those already in that community. You don’t just show up expecting respect because you’re bigger. Call it initiation, or see it as earning respect — score entry by doing the same as the others.

The first rule is: To be initiated into a community, you must contribute. But to know how to contribute, you must first listen. You are equals.

Three strategies:

  1. Don’t Stress Perceptions. The more effort that goes into appearance (i.e. signals of hierarchy) the less trustworthy a brand becomes in a Distributed Trust landscape. Don’t over-posture with authority. It can stink.
  2. Give In & Back. Trust builds with an exchange of value. Provide answers and updates. Teach. But also ask questions, request feedback and learn. Experiment with how giving back can even manifest.
  3. Just Hang. Not having a motive feels paradoxical, but is what drives trust within a community. Don’t flex. Just show up and add. And again. And again. And again. Contributions compound. Trustworthiness is earned, not bought. Make your commitment unquestionable.

54% of consumers believe brands don’t actually want to hear their feedback. Consistently signaling absolute openness here is mandatory.

When it comes to engaging online, we throw around the phrase “Community Management.” It’s an antiquated term that must be thrown out. No one can manage an autonomous crowd. Thinking so will lead to failure.

Instead, in a future of Distributed Trust, “Community Participation” will bring success. Don’t control and sell. Participate. Ironically, this is actually much easier.

Just engage genuinely.

It’s sound advice for brands and humans alike.

Matt Klein is a cultural theorist and strategist analyzing the psychosocial implications of our technology to consult on business decisions.

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Matt Klein
On Advertising

Cultural Theorist + CyberPsychologist + Strategist. Foresight Lead at Reddit. Newsletter analyzing the overlooked: ZINE.KleinKleinKlein.com