Together Institute
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Together Institute

Communities = human search engines?

How proxy trust allows us to search across strangers

Photo by Emily Morter

I sometimes think about communities as human search engines. Groups with trusted relationships and a healthy sense of belonging are a great way for people to answer questions in their lives. And in fact, that’s what many people use communities for. We regularly work with communities of change-makers and most activities in the online forums are search queries: People are looking for advice, connections, feedback.

Some of these questions people could just type into Google. But the answers are more meaningful when they come from a trusted circle. And many inquiries aren’t about information: they are about sharing resources. When there is underlying trust, people become willing to offer up information that’s valuable, relational and risky: for example introductions to people in their network or honest reflections on a challenge. Offering up introductions or honest opinions is risky. Asking for help and looking vulnerable is risky. It needs an environment of trust to enable that.

Proxy trust — when strangers start helping each other

Friends helping friends is natural. What’s powerful is when strangers help you, because you’re part of the same community. When two otherwise unconnected people treat each other with generosity, that’s the true power of community.

For example, in Sandbox I have always been amazed by traveling members looking for places to stay and being hosted by members in different cities. Again and again, people invited strangers into their homes, simply because they were part of the same community. That’s a really valuable, risky (and beautiful) thing to do.

At Sandbox we started calling this proxy trust. In the inner circle are the people I have met and built relationships with. There is mutual trust. These are strong ties in network theory lingo. In the outer circle are people who I haven’t met or haven’t built relationships with, but who happen to be part of the same community. Weak ties. Proxy trust works like this: because I trust some people in the group a lot, I extend a bit of trust to most people in the group, even then ones I have never met. Because I believe in the values of the overall group, I trust that people I don’t know will live up to similar values.

Proxy trust allows for better search results with the human search engine.

Let’s say you’re part of a group of 500, in which you have 20 real, trusted relationships. Instead of searching across 20 people, with proxy trust your questions will now be considered by 200, maybe 300 people. That leads to better outcomes and it further strengthens the trust in the group overall.

What tech will allow for better match-making?

Today’s technology to allow people to search across communities is very basic. Most search inquiries still happen as posts in community forums, which haven’t changed that much since the early days of the internet. I see huge potential for better match-making in the future, for example with the support of AI that can understand suggest potential matches. One tool I’m excited about is SuperHive, both because it is email-based and because it focuses on the match-making of needs and offers.

How does this resonate with you?

Have you come across the human search engine effect? How do you make sense of it? I’d be grateful to read your reflections, thank you for leaving a comment.

More about proxy trust: The magic of communities: scaling trust through the Community Proxy Effect

Thank you — this insight came from a collective journey

Over the past 2.5 years we have been running virtual learning journeys for community weavers in the social impact space. Now we are capturing and documenting some of the key learnings. This post is part of it. The learning journeys were co-developed by Michel Bachmann and Fabian Pfortmüller and guided with the support of Erin Dixon and Sita Magnusson. Thank you to everyone who helped shape these conversations and insights!

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller


Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, |