The Nature of Trust in the Virtual World
Just finished speaking at the CIO 100 conference, smoothly run by Maryfran Johnson and her team of pros, and I was struck by a question I received near the end of the talk. The audience and I had been discussing how to keep communication strong even among the young technorati, who are used to having their heads down in laptops, Blackberries, iPhones, and so on. My answer to that was to use the power of personal space. When you come within 4 feet (to a foot and a half) of someone, you have his undivided attention – that’s evolution. And thanks to mirror neurons, the whole audience will feel close to the speaker at the same time. I’ve blogged in more depth about this brain research, and written about it in Trust Me.
The next question focused in on those young technical wizards being used to long distance virtual relationships. Was something basic changing about the way we form relationships, what were the nature of those relationships, and was the younger set able to invest in these connections the same way that everyone else invests in “real” face-to-face relationships?
My answer addressed on the nature of trust in the virtual world. And it seems to me that the short answer is that as trust is different, so these relationships are different, and it’s precisely because of the ways in which we are hard-wired to form connections with people. Trust in the virtual world is much more fragile, though perhaps easier to establish initially. But the big difference comes when something threatens the trust.
In face-to-face relationships where there is trust, one party may do something to screw up, causing friction, anger, and even a bit of mistrust to creep in. But if the connection is strong enough, the issue will get thrashed out, the perpetrator will apologize, and trust will be restored. Indeed, once restored, the trust may be stronger than ever.
How different it is in the virtual world! Once trust is threatened, it’s instantly broken, and it’s virtually impossible to re-establish it. People simply move on. Since trust was more fragile in the first place, it shatters with very little provocation.
I would say that the bigger worry about communications amongst the young technorati is that if most of their relationships are virtual, the fragility of those relationships may make them less able to get through the bumps and shocks that every (face-to-face) relationship naturally endures. If you take the pattern of commitment from the virtual world, your understanding of the meaning of relationship will be attenuated and weak.
What do you think about communications and trust in the virtual world?