On Trust and the Web

Or,  How I learned to stop worrying and trust the web.

…upon second thought, though, it’s not really the web I trust. It’s the people that make up the Web.

It may sound trite in this day and age, but it’s a distinction that many of us still need to make. Many of us have been raised with great mistrust of the computer; according to my class readings, previous generations view it as a disastrous result of the Industrial Revolution.  This mindset is evident in films like The Desk Set (1957) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The concept of Battlestar Galactica (1978) – still perpetuated today – is another anti-machine touchstone.  The message: machines are not to be trusted. They will steal our jobs. They will develop consciousness and they will inevitably turn against us.

When Tim O’Reilly coined the term Web 2.0, he wasn’t so much defining a new way of using machines as he was defining a whole world in human interaction. Even though we may think we’re interfacing with cold-hearted ones and zeros, what we’re dealing with is in fact a network of people. When we step back and view the web in this light, it becomes evident that the web is built on no small amount of trust.

I can think of no better personal experience to illustrate this point than my foray this week into the world of CouchSurfing.com*.  I am traveling to Pittsburgh in a few days to attend the ASIS&T Annual Meeting, a conference where the cost of lodging at a hotel would eclipse the cost of the attendance nearly threefold.

To successfully bring this trip into my student-sized budget, I would have to trust the network on CouchSurfing.com. I would have to trust that the people offering their couches for free were not total nut-jobs. (It is a sad thing that a handful of pedophiles and Craigslist trolls have spoiled the otherwise good nature of the web. These are the stories that make it to the 10 o’clock news, prompting people like my mom to say, “Are you sure its safe?”  My only response can be, “I have to trust something.”)

To make a long story short, I trusted, I participated, and I was rewarded.  I found a host, we talked on the phone, and now I have a place to stay, for free, in a strange city.

CouchSurfing is to me, the epitome of Web 2.0, embodying O’Reilly’s core competencies. CouchSurfing is a service.  It gets better the more people use it.  It harnesses the collective intelligence, and absolutely trusts the users as co-developers.  There’s no way that CouchSurfing.com could work without mass participation.

All of these criteria reflect the true guiding principles of Web 2.0, and they get to the heart of defining a social movement that goes beyond the Web.  To foster this level of trust, participatory culture requires personal responsibility just as much as it does new technology to support it.

Dr. Cocciolo, my Social Media teacher, quotes Tim Berners-Lee when he says that Web 2.0 is “what the Web was supposed to be all along.”  Perhaps the purpose of new web is to help people communicate in ways we were meant to communicate all along.  I know this may sound wildly optimistic and naive – especially coming from a cynical New Englander and avowed Jaron Lanier fan – but I do believe this whole internet thing could make us better people.  We just need to remember that Web 2.0 is all about the people who use it.

*For those unfamiliar with this service, CouchSurfing.com is a social network based around the simple service of helping travelers find places to crash, for free. With over 2 million users in 241 countries, it is the most visited hospitality service on the Web.  I decided to give it a try based on my roommate’s positive experience using it in Belgium, and with thanks to Denise Pasquinelli for reminding me to check it out.

(Kevin Pelrine, Secretary, ASIS&T @ Pratt)

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