Yesterday afternoon I joined a worldwide conference call about social networks and Web 2.0, sponsored by CPsquare. I didn't enter the call with a conscious agenda, but by the end I realized that I had championed a consistent message from beginning to end through the wide-ranging hour-plus conversation.
In a nutshell, my realization is that the Internet is empowering increasingly efficient exchange of trusted information, through extremely focused contexts that define specific kinds of trust. (Note that this relates closely to "glocalization," and I highly recommend this essay on the topic by Danah Boyd. See also this Web 2.0 primer by Bill Ives.)
Normally, we receive trusted information either from somone we have developed a personal relationship with, or from a "name we can trust" that has invested a huge amount of time and energy into its reputation. But in the "Web 2.0" world of Amazon and eBay, I buy products I know nothing about from anonymous merchants I will never meet. All I know is that people "like me" have recommended the item I am purchasing, and that other people "like me" have found the merchant reputable. Who are those other people "like me"? That is an increasingly specific calculation done behind the scenes by Amazon, eBay, and countless other web service providers.
At one point in the CPsquare conference call, someone lamented the issue of trust management in online social networks. Many members of LinkedIn will likely agree with that assessment as they delete spam from their requests for referrals. But when the context is specific (much more specific than on LinkedIn), trust management is significantly less of a concern. Shopping on eBay is a good example of a very narrow context (merchant reliability for widget X) that successfully engenders a specific kind of trust (buying widget X sight unseen).
Later in the CPsquare conference call, someone else noted that people can only handle so many interpersonal connections, so where are we going with all this social network technology? Again, most LinkedIn users I know would agree with that sentiment. But the eBay shoppers of the world share trusted information with each other without even knowing of each other's existence, much less having interpersonal connections.
I ended the call with a clearer notion than ever that Web 2.0 is helping us save our interpersonal energy for the big stuff (friends, family, business partners), by relieving us of the burden of establishing interpersonal trust for the small stuff (widget merchants).
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