Have we reached a point where we trust virtual relationships more than face-to-face relationships?

A look at trust issues in the Internet Age

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Are we living in a period of heightened, optimistic social trust?  Or is this a time of wariness and mistrust?

I can argue it both ways. Obviously, there is no right answer, but the questions frame interesting issues about who we trust and why at a time of technological evolution, changing community life, saturation media and globalization.  It’s a complicated picture.

What got me thinking about this was a typically insightful column by David Brooks that challenged my own mistrustful inclinations. Brooks was musing about the unexpected (to him) success of peer-to-peer businesses such as Airbnb, the travel site where people rent out rooms in their homes to travelers.  The hosts and travelers expect each other to be respectful, safe and honest. There is no regulation. It is built on trust, Brooks says.

I would never use it.

But millions are, just like they are using Uber, Lyft and Sidecar instead of licensed taxis.  EBay started out as a wild frontier doing business with distant strangers. 

In a less commercial vein, people put tremendous amounts of personal information on public platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and probably a bunch of things I haven’t heard of yet.  For young people especially, the logistics of their social lives are arranged online.

All of this seems to entail a lot of trust in strangers. 

And you wouldn’t expect that at a time when social trust, as measured by the social scientists, is way down. Brooks thinks people have found new ways to navigate social and commercial life. “The result is a personalistic culture in which people have actively lost trust in big institutions,” he writes.  “’Strangers don’t seem especially risky by comparison. This is fertile ground for peer-to-peer commerce.”

Maybe.

Trust in big institutions has been declining since the 1970s. While it’s an old story, it keeps delivering bad news.  Trust in government, for example, keeps setting new record lows, led by Congress. The Pew Research Center has tracked the numbers back to the Eisenhower years:

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Pew Research Center

But it isn’t just institutions that we’ve lost faith in. It’s also each other.

The General Social Survey (GSS) is sort of the mother of all giant polls. Run by academics, it asks the same questions every year to a large sample of the population. One of the questions is, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?”  In 1972, which was the first year of the survey, 46.3 percent said you can generally trust people, 50 percent said you can’t.  The trusting percentage dipped a bit after Watergate but went back up to 48.9 percent in 1984. Since 2006, the trusting percentage has not gone above 32.3 percent. It’s a downright trust depression.

You might think that since it’s young people that power these new peer-to-peer business and social media that they are more trusting.  That doesn’t appear to be true in any broad sense.

Using the same GSS data, Pew looked at trust from a generational perspective. Millennials, ages 18-33, scored lower on the trust question than any other age group.

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Pew Research Center

Millennials also are much less connected to institutions than older people.

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Pew Research Center

So the young people who are using businesses and social technology (I just made that phrase up, it sounds repulsive, right?) that relies heavily on trust has less general social trust than the rest of the population and less trust in social institutions, and they’re less attached to them.

Maybe the big variable here is trust in technology. Or maybe it’s trust in the knowledge and recommendation networks technology enables. 

While Airbnb isn’t regulated, people who use it can check on potential hosts by seeing the feedback of other people. And hosts can check out guests.  “We provide a lot of tools that potential guests can use to build trust on the site,” the Airbnb site says.  Ebay works the same way.  User-generated recommendation sites such as Yelp for food, Trip Advisor for travel and Rotten Tomatoes for movies have just about replaced traditional guides, experts and critics.  It’s virtual trust and for some it’s more reliable than eye contact.

Reliance on these kinds of virtual networks is entirely rational, though some older folks might not trust them very much. The trust it takes to stay in a stranger’s apartment in New Orleans instead of a hotel isn’t so much a leap of faith as a reasonable trust that other visitors will be honest in their online assessments.

But the trust it takes to be really out there on social media is of a different order. We now know how much organizations ranging from Facebook to the National Security Agency mine our data and digital droppings for fun, profit and sinister activity. And never mind stalkers, snoops, creeps and enemies. 

But this doesn’t much bother millennials and increasingly the rest of us seem to be shrugging it off too.

Is that because of a greater trust of humanity? Is it naiveté? Is it a sense of “you can’t fight city hall” – you can’t escape using the stuff so why sweat it? Or are the issues of privacy too remote or abstract? I don’t think the answer is a newfound human kinship.

There is another arena where virtual trust comes into play – intimacy.  The Pew Research Center found only 1 in 10 Americans have used an online dating service, but a jumbo 38 percent who are “single and looking” have.

And many more people have what they consider to be important relationships and friendships with people they know only virtually whether through social media, chat rooms or special interest sites.

Does that take a new kind of trust?

In the end, I think the answer is no. E-commerce and peer-to-peer networks are just as rational as traditional business. Social media, social technology and intimacy technology (again, ick) fill needs created partly by the decline of more old-fashioned communities and engagement with institutions. They don’t require deep trust so much as the capacity to ignore fairly remote risks. But there is a kind of virtual trust out there.

Societies probably don’t have the capacity to intentionally rebuild trust in institutions, leaders and fellow citizens. But maybe something akin to the virtual trust that helps power social media and e-commerce can be harnessed to replace some of the social trust that has eroded over the last generation.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of CBSNews.com. Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics,  "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium"  (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).

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