Trust Networks vs. Search Engines

Those who understand the technical aspects of current hot themes like social networking (think Facebook ), are all a-twitter over a post last weekend by Robert Scoble, a (deservedly) influential tech blogger.

Nominally about whether Google will be dethroned by some upstarts , his post has generated many over-heated comments of the “Yankees suck” variety. (A notable exception is “Turbo” Todd Watson’s posting on the subject).

But commenters aside, Scoble is pouring some very good old wine into some very promising new bottles. The issue is: who do you trust?

Do you trust:

a. A compilation of information (encyclopedia, Blue Book, Google, classified ads, Yellow Pages), or

b. Your friends?

The best known net-based version of the former, of course, is search engines.

The net-based terminology du jour for the latter is trust networks—think Old Boys’ network, bowling leagues (going way back), and more recently Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn and Plaxo, and—todays’ hot item—Facebook.

The right answer is—as it always is in these cases—it depends. In this case, it depends on what problem you are trying to solve.

If you’re trying to buy a used car, you probably value masses of information over your friends’ recommendations, no matter how smart your friends are—because you’re trying to assess a market. The bigger and more liquid the market you seek to tap, the more you’ll value objective, massive information. Score one for the compilation model of the world.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not you should talk to your daughter about how she’s making the mistake of her life by going out with that no-good idiot, you don’t care about markets—you care about wisdom from people who know you and your life. Score one for a network of friends; the trust network.

In the real world (I mean outside the blogosphere), there is no shortage of either kind of problem, and it will always be so. These are merely chapters in the ongoing book about how we come to trust, and to make use of new technologies to do so.