The second point in Coleman’s definition has the corollary that the trustor’s past experiences with the trustee will influence the trustor’s future trust decisions with the trustee. This essentially constitutes a Bayesian decision tree in which each past experience influences the trustor’s expectation of the likelihood of success or failure resulting from trust. When the trustor does this mental equation as he assesses whether he should place his trust in the trustee, negative experiences more severely affect his decision. Put another way, once a trustee breaks trust, it is difficult to regain it.
The Essence of Online Trust Relationships
In what ways are online trust relationships distinctive? Unlike physical relationships, in which we can rely on cues such as body language and speech patterns to help us assess the credibility of another person, in online environments we lack many of these helpful indicators. We are also unable to observe and verify obvious characteristics such as age and gender, instead being reliant on the statements of the other person. We cannot readily determine whether other people are misrepresenting themselves.
Because we have fewer facts on which we can rely in judging the level of trust we should place in another person, our approach to the formation of an online trust relationship is more progressive than it might be in offline interpersonal relationships.
Why is it important to establish, build, and maintain trust relationships online? Trust lets a visitor feel comfortable interacting with our Web site. On the Web, which is global in scale and lets organizations operate 24 hours a day, the availability of alternate venues where visitors could spend their time and money and give their loyalty is vast and requires minimal effort to reach. Trust enables online interactions—and the lack of it seriously undermines online ventures.
Trust Relationships and Social Networks
Trust relationships develop in social networks as a direct consequence of building a network. Our connection and experiences with one person who links us to a social network confer some measure of trust on the other people who are connected to that person—initially, to the same extent trust exists in the primary relationship. In other words, mutual connections share a modicum of trust despite never having interacted directly with one another, because of that shared connection. This is one of the most powerful attributes of social networks.
Once we make our initial connection with people online, subsequent interactions with those people either increase or decrease their credibility and, consequently, our trust in them, based on the quality and level of satisfaction we derive from those interactions. For example, I am much more likely to view photos a shared connection on Flickr has uploaded than I am to view photos I find through some random search.
Social networks can also directly confer greater trust through recommendations from trusted intermediaries. If a direct contact, or friend, passes along information from another of his contacts, we treat his recommendation with less suspicion than we might if we received the same information directly from someone we didn’t know.