Who Do You Trust? A Snapshot in Time

That’s the title of a recent blogpost  by Barry Ritholz, in his delightfully eclectic blog The Big Picture: Macro Perspective on the Capital Markets.  (Though, as one of his commentators snarkily reminds us, it should be “whom” do you trust).

Together with forty-odd literate comments, this post provides a perfect snapshot—a social Rorschach test—of the application of trust, the nature of trust, and the state of trust in business today. (Plus, it’s a fun read).

The application of trust.  As Barry points out, we apply concepts of trust to personal and business relationships alike. He implicates trust in the decline of mainstream media readership. “Trust” in the comments gets applied to products (ETFs over mutual funds), broadcasters (Kudlow, Kramer), directors (Spielberg), institutions (the IRS more than the Fed), and even “humanity” or “myself.”

Much of his post—and the comments—focus on the notion of trusting companies—as in, “I trust Amazon and USAA,” or “I don’t trust Microsoft.”

In turn, reasons for trusting (or not trusting) companies include:

• concerns about data security leading to identity theft
• customer service
• attention to customer experience, e.g. spam prevention
• reputation, e.g. linkage to one’s past.

Barry neatly sums up the range of trust applications in a series of questions:

Who do I trust? Who can I rely on, confide in, bank on, have faith in?
Who do you read? Who do you let get inside your head? Who do you believe? Who are you sure about?
What companies do you entrust with your personal files and passwords? Your social security number, bank account data, personal financial info, data?
Who do you trust?

The nature and state of trust. A blogpost is the furthest thing from a statistical study; then again, we’ve just seen the feet of clay of polling statistics.

The post and comments are more like a focus group; they have the ability to state a particular insight "just so." 

Barry says, “I am naturally sceptical. I see too much bullshit everywhere,” and his commenters continue the tone. One says, “People are, by nature, liars, thieves, and fast buck con artists.”

In other words, truth-telling is an indicium of trust—and the general view is bearish on truth-telling these days.

Barry says, “Yahoo (YHOO) still has some residual trust — but its waning fast. I still use Yahoo as a home page, but their inattentiveness to some of their properties is shameful.”

In other words, trust is about taking responsibility.  And how Yahoo isn’t doing it, nor is Dell, nor AIM. 

He also doesn’t trust social networking sites, because they abuse data—in turn, either because of sloppiness, and/or venality.  Trust is about motives, and about focus on something other than oneself.

One commenter says he trusts someone through their blog. Another says it amounts to risk management. One talks about trusting a very small circle of friends and family. Another talks about the essential role of trust in capitalism.

And many have hilarious lists of who and what they trust and don’t trust.

All in all, a rich real-world sample of the meaning of the word trust; not in a dictionary sense, but in an active, anthropological, here-now on-the-street sense.

It’s a great snapshot of trust in America circa January 2008. Thanks to Barry for posting.

Greed in the Social Networking Space

It took the advertising industry about 150 years to get to the point of putting ads on the inside of bathroom doors. It took considerably less for the commercial vultures to zero in on the social network phenomenon. Except this time, it’s an inside job.

First, MySpace. In July of this year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought MySpace, making a few more mega-zillionaires out of kids who were in it for kicks.  Murdoch knew better, and immediately set about “monetizing” his investment.

How’s it going for his target audience?

In the words of a college freshman, Marshall Green:

MySpace is going to end up just like Friendster.  Except for bands, some high school kids I know still use it but the trend has shifted to Facebook.

I think the main reason is the site design. MySpace just has a terrible interface that continues to deteriorate as the developers tack on extra features that Facebook integrates better.

The thing that Facebook does well, finding other people you know and connecting with them, are more of an afterthought on MySpace.

Instead of using AJAX and web 2.0 technology to update the page without reloading the whole thing or taking you to a new page, MySpace makes you jump through a bunch of screens to do simple things like leave comments. This is basic stuff that MySpace has neglected to do because they are lazy!

What’s worse is the amount of ads. Most ads on MySpace are sketchy, and in the past have linked to adware and spammers. Half the time when you visit their front page, the entire background is a giant ad for a Fox TV show or movie. It’s obtrusive and detracts from the experience.

It all gives you the sense that the company doesn’t care about delivering a good experience, they just want to make a lot of money with as little work as possible. The interface was never spectacular, but I noticed more ads and a slowdown in new features following the Fox takeover.

(Full disclosure: I am related to young Mr. Green by marriage; his mom’s to me).

That was several weeks ago. On November 6, the “good guys” in this space—Facebook—announced their new approach to incorporating advertising into that ostensibly wholesome society.

The gist of Facebook’s idea is to allow Big Advertisers in to make “friends” of existing users, and to build their reputation by demonstrating the “trust” that one’s “friends” have in the product being advertised.

As one wag put it, “so it’s like spamming your friends?”

You know you’re in for it when language gets reinvented, a la doubletalk like this from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and new gazillionaire:

Q: “Are you worried this will make Facebook too commercial?”
Z: “Actually I think this will make it less commercial because the ads now are [more generic].”

For a deliciously cynical take on this, see Nicholas Carr’s blog .

Marshall’s view?

If I start seeing notifications and friend requests everywhere from Coca Cola and Exxon Mobil, then Facebook will be on the way out for me. There are already some sneaky ads that masquerade as friend notifications. They trick you and I’ve nearly clicked on them several times before realizing they were ads.

If it gets as bad as MySpace people will find something better. There will obviously be another new trend in social networking sites in the future anyhow.

It’s been clear for centuries that you can always find success by going more down-market in taste than the last guy; more negative in political advertising than the other guy; and more overtly commercial than your competitor.

The question is: where’s the bottom?

When trust is just a tactic, “friends” are not what they seem, and social networks are flipped into cynical mouthpieces for corporate America, it feels like we’re pretty low.

Maybe Marshall’s right in thinking his generation will reject the hype.

But as H. L. Mencken said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

I wouldn’t short Murdoch and Zuckerberg just yet.

Social Network Mapping and Trust

John Rolander, one of the good people at Katzenbach Partners , pointed me to a fine piece in Fortune Magazine about their work in OQ—Organizational Quotient. (July 23, 2007).

Katzenbach is a leader in identifying and analyzing the “constellation of collaborations, relationships and networks” that are responsible for much of an organization’s real effectiveness, and which is quite distinct from the formal organizational chart.

“Jon Katzenbach [calls the] ability to toggle between both power structures ‘organizational quotient,’ or OQ.”

Katzenbach helped Bell Canada scour 50,000 employees to identify “14 low- and mid-level managers who embodied the mentality the company sought: committed, passionate, and competitive. Here’s what they found:

The subjects shared the ability to get people to trust them and to solve problems rather than complain about them. “These people have incredible influence. It’s like the Life Cereal commercial—Will Mikey eat it?”

You could say this is yawningly obvious; but only in the rear-view mirror. Which makes it worth emphasizing.

First, these are 14 massively influential people. Influence doesn’t happen by accident. These people attract others. To be proper, others are attracted to them.

What attracts others? Their perceived trustworthiness; and their propensity to solve rather than complain.

As Phil McGee (who I’m appointing as a business guru) puts it, “All business problems boil down to two: a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront.” That’s the negative way to put it.

The positive way to put it is, business works best when driven by people who take responsibility, and who are trusted by others.

There is an awful lot of stuff written about how to be trusted. Listening. Eye contact. Networks. And so on.

We tend to forget that true trust is only earned by being trustworthy—which means, literally, worthy of trust. All else is fakery. Ask someone why they trust so-and-so, and you’ll always get two things near the top of the list—"he has my best interests at heart," and "I can trust him to speak the truth."

"Blame" reeks of falsehood—the word has connotations of evading responsibilty, lying about accountability. Valid assignment of responsibilty is devoid of “blame,” and the true measure of validity is whether one is willing to take on responsibility oneself. Clear assignment of responsibility speaks to both putting principles ahead of self-interest, and to speaking truth rather than spinning it.

So the presence of blame is a sure-fire signal of the lack of trustworthiness. How can you trust someone who will not take responsibility?

All of which is to say, mapping of social networks reveals something very fundamental—trust nodes.

Well done.

[Footnote: I must add, there is also a small irony here. As Katzenbach says in the article, “the informal organization is most helpful when you’re trying to influence behaviors that are more emotional than they are rational.”

The irony lies in the need for most organizations to have rational proof of the power of emotions over rationality.

Then again—whatever works ]

Web 2.0 vs. the BBC | Danah Boyd vs. Goliath

If you’re not familiar with Danah Boyd, thank me later. Read her bio , or her blog.

While grossly unfair to pigeonhole her, I’ll paraphrase Wes Neff, her agent at Leigh Bureau (full disclosure—he’s mine too):

Lots of people in academia are studying social networks; Danah is the first one who can easily hold her own in that crowd, but whose power comes from knowing that culture herself, personally,  intimately.

She’s hip, she’s smart, she’s well-spoken.  She totally knows her stuff.  She writes in a vividly personal, authentic voice.

And she has a knack for being controversial.  One gets the impression she’s a bit surprised, a bit bemused, and a bit saddened by that—but it shouldn’t be surprising.  She’s a revolution personified.  When it’s about Danah Boyd, it’s not just about Danah Boyd.

Case 1. Danah was asked to comment officially on Michael Gorman’ post that I blogged about yesterday. Read her (excellent) commentary, and the illuminating 27 comments following.  Result?  Advantage, Boyd.

But Britannica wasn’t enough.  Then the BBC tangled with her.

On June 24, Danah posted a brilliant little piece on her current research—how teens interact with social networks as part of their socialization process.  She talked about the relationship between Facebook and MySpace, and some implications for socioeconomic status.

Neat stuff, very nicely written, very provocative. She called it a “blog essay,” and wrote:

Hopefully, one day, I can get the words together to actually write an academic article about this topic, but I felt as though this is too important of an issue to sit on while I find the words. So I wrote it knowing that it would piss many off. The academic side of me feels extremely guilty about this; the activist side of me finds it too critical to go unacknowledged.

The next day, the BBC published an article titled “Social sites reveal class divide.” It talked about “a long-term research project…”, “the conclusions are based on interviews…”, “in a preliminary draft of the research…”, and “…suggests a study.”

So : an American writes about class, it’s published in Britain, in what sounds like an academic study—but, not completely so.  Instant controversy.  In days, Boyd got 100,000 hits on her posting.

This, from the (back home) EastBay Express on June 28:

Local Academic’s Blog Generates Premature Controversy

Berkeley PhD candidate Danah Boyd, has the web astir after she posted an informal essay on her blog about the class divisions associated with the popular social-networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Boyd, who is already among the most prominent of academics of the Internet’s social sphere, posted the essay on Sunday. On Monday morning, the BBC reported on Boyd’s “conclusions”, and by midday Monday, nearly 100,000 readers had flocked to Boyd’s original entry. Though many have written in support of the essay, others have taken major offense, calling the work “racist” and academically unsound. 
Boyd sees the negativity towards her essay as a product of its misrepresentation in the press—specifically in the BBC’s “hugely problematic” coverage of her essay—which she says referred to the essay as a final product of academic research, rather than the exploratory mid-process musing it was meant to be.

Danah Boyd is a lightning rod for the encounters between traditional, credentialist, individual-based academia, and the more free-wheeling, collabo, throw-up-the-beta-version ethos of the web.  Libraries vs. databases.  Wikipedia vs. encyclopedia.  It’s bound to rub a few people the wrong way.

Here’s from Green Tea Ice Cream, in a posting on Experts and Social media:

the fall-out from Danah Boyd’s (inadvertent) media bomb . The reaction to Danah’s essay in the newspapers suggests that mainstream media are still very fond of privileging expert, authoritative discourse – when it suits them (i.e. when it gives an opportunity to discuss/reinforce class divisions, say “Oooh, it’s bad this Noo Medjaa stuff, isn’t it?” and so on…).

Or this, from Deep Jive Interests:

Will the “Danah” report be the kiss of death to MySpace’s valuation? Why Rupert Murdoch is probably cursing Danah Boyd’s name.

Wow. Britannica. The BBC.  Influencing Murdoch’s market value.  What’s next, the Queen?  Where Dana goes, she can’t help but raise issues—she sits astride the intersection of old and new. 

Maybe she thought she’d become a mover of markets some day; though I bet she didn’t think it’d happen like this. (Wes, on the other hand, who knows how academic celebrities get made, may be unfazed).

The Adventures of Danah are like the coming attractions at the movies.   Arrive early to see what’s going to be playing in your own life soon.