The Evolution of Trust in the Digital Age

Trust is the axis around which the Internet revolves. A deep level of trust prompted the invention of the Internet. A base level of trust is what popularized the Internet. Shifts, trends and developments around trust shape online tools and behaviors. And trust is at the center of today’s crises over the Internet.

In the 1960’s, when engineers at the US government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) laid the groundwork for what would later become the Internet, all of the major players trusted each other deeply: computer scientists at the Pentagon needed to share high-level information with colleagues spread all over the US, and merged early computers into a single network to interact in real time.[i]

Fast forward 40 years, and the Internet has gone from a government-academic project to a ubiquitous resource that a large portion of the global population has in their home or even in their pocket.

As Clay Shirky examines in his book, Here Comes Everybody, the Internet became a broadcast tool for the average human to share even the most trivial details of their personal lives. The simple act of globally publishing unfiltered personal information is an act of trust, because it means total strangers can learn your name, home town, habits, and perhaps even the names of your family and friends.

In 2008, when Shirky published Here Comes Everybody, personal blogging tools like LiveJournal were exploding with popularity, and new sites like Wikipedia were capitalizing on “radical trust,” as it is called some experts,[ii] to incite collaborative production.

These two examples teach us about the 2 sides of trust when it coms to online activity. The Wikipedia example illustrates how humans can flourish when trust and freedom are imparted: Wikipedia’s success relies on a “spontaneous division of labor”[iii] and giving “as much freedom as possible to the average user.”[iv] Shirky also argues that Wikipedia’s success reveals our basic human desires to do good, which accounts for the unpaid time so many users put into their contributions to Wikipedia.[v]

The evolution of LiveJournal teaches us a slightly more serious, but equally important lesson about online trust. In the years since the publication of Shirky’s book, the content of material online has changed dramatically. Much “amateurism,” as Shirky calls it, has been professionalized. And while there is still a possibility to publish first and filter later, users are much more cognizant (and cautious) of the ramifications of publishing things online. 2014, compared to 2008, demonstrates a rise in privacy concerns, and a decline in popularity of personal broadcast tools like LiveJournal.[vi] Today’s Internet users are extremely concerned about online identity theft, the protection of financial information online, and other aspects of online privacy.[vii]

Shirky tells us that “Communications tools don’t get socially integrated until they get technologically boring…It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen…”[viii] According to Shirky, we are quickly approaching that tipping point. And as a result, battles are heating up over control of the Internet, and who can be trusted to control what.

In May 2012, Vanity Fair published “World War 3.0,” analyzing the “four fronts” of the Internet crisis: piracy, privacy, security and sovereignty. [ix] All if these issues center around trust: between nations, corporations, users, and citizens. It remains to be seen how these controversies will shake out, but we can be sure that trust will continue to be a guiding factor in the future of the Internet.

[i] Keenan Mayo and Peter Newcomb, “How the Web Was Won,” Vanity Fair, 2008.

[ii] Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0?,” 2005.

[iii] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, 2008. Page 118.

[iv] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, 2008. Page 122.

[v] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, 2008. Page 133.

[vi] Aja Romano, “The Demise of a Social Media Platform: Tracking LiveJournal’s Decline.”

[vii] Consumers of All Ages More Concerned About Online Data Privacy, 2014. http://www.emarketer.com/Article/Consumers-of-All-Ages-More-Concerned-About-Online-Data-Privacy/1010815

[viii] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, 2008. Page 105.

[ix] Michael Joseph Gross, “World War 3.0,” Vanity Fair, 2012.

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