The Vocabulary of Trust on Twitter

iStock Texting in meetingTrying to define the word “trust” is a bit like defining obscenity. As former Chief Justice Potter Stewart said about the latter, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

My favorite example of this is, “I trust my dog with my life—but not with my ham sandwich.” It’s a joke we all get; but it does wreak havoc with a straightforward definition of the word.

To put it another way, the meaning of the word is contextual.  A dictionary is not a book of symbolic logic; it is an anthropological document. It tracks how real people in the real world use real words.  And the more contextual the word’s meaning, the more we have to rely on straightforward anthropology.

One of the real worlds of today is Twitter land. For about two months now, I have been tracking the use of the word "trust" as it is used in various conversations on twitter. It is interesting to see how the language used by real people and unconscious conversation tracks very neatly with the usages of "trust" identified previously in articles and blog posts on this website.

The Several Meanings of "Trust"

I have suggested elsewhere that we sometimes talk about trusting, and other times we talk about being trusted, or trustworthy. There are other times when we talk about trust per se, meaning the state that exists on both trusting and being trusted are present. Following are some examples of each (typos left in for authenticity).

Examples of trust meaning "trusting"

  • what i learn from @utterperfect : Never trust anyone a 100%. You’ll never know what the people around you are capable off.
  • Posted my favorite butternut squash ravioli recipe. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.
  • Better of with just friends with benefits. Bc I don’t trust no1 anymore!
  • @Antoniogreen Yeah I trust in God & I’m not scared to die, I’m just scared to die in pain you know.
  • damn. people suck. no wonder its hard for me to trust people. Now i can’t tell if there telling the truth or not.
  • i have trust issues
  • Preview: Luke 17:3-4; When I have forgiven I will trust ..
  • Have Rules But Trust People you can’t have a rule for every situation.

Examples of trust meaning “trustworthiness”

  • RT @amlibraries: Top 100 health websites you can trust
  • @craigbutcher @paulums never trust french hosting
  • @NICELOOKNINA girl never trust annnyone who’s nice to everyone.
  • @sydsouthworth The externals work great for storage just don’t trust it only. Use other media as well like DVDs
  • Some trust in silver and some in gold some in chariots and horses but ill put my trust in the LORD for in HIM is safety and security.
  • @Mister_Magister Did I or did I not make you tofu you actually liked? Always trust a foodie 😀
  • Never trust anybody who says ‘trust me.’ Except just this once, of course. – from Steel Beach
  • @BillyTheBrime Trust me, I’m an expert ma’am.
  • And it backs up my view that you should never trust the moral right;)
  • Ok, we’ve had booby-trapped shoes and undies. Which piece of clothing will imperil lives next? I don’t trust cufflinks.
  • "Man made alcohol, God mad marijuana, who do you trust?"

Examples of trust meaning “a state of trust”

  • Talk it out. Come to a compromise. Don’t just keep someone around and then cheat on them. You risk your reputation as a person. No trust.
  • RT @DIJONES82: In my world trust is more important than love.
  • Another thing lacking in the Black American relationship is communication which breeds trust
  • Sugar Mtns 7 brand tenets: Trust, Clarity, Experimental, Intelligent, Remarkable, Consistently Good, Full Flavored.
  • It takes years to earn trust, and just moments to break it.
  • Is trust as important as commitment in marriage? After all, marriage is a covenant, right?

What Meaning do Trust Measures Assume?

When you think about trust patterns or read statistics about trust, ask yourself: what meaning is being measured?

• Is it the trustworthiness of someone or some institution? (Typical question: how much do you trust banks to do the right thing?)
• Is it the ability of someone to trust? (Typical question: do you think people are generally trustworthy?)
• Is it the state of trust in general? (Typical question: Is this a high-trust environment around here?)

Are you measuring changes over time (longitudinal)? Or are you thinking of contrasting levels (used car dealers vs. lawyers vs. nurses)?

Patterns of Trust on Twitter

I have not yet systematically analyzed the data, but I can make a couple of generalizations.

  • The word "trust" gets used very frequently; at 11PM (US EST) on a weeknight, about 100 tweets every 7 minutes employ the English word “trust.”
  • On Twitter, as compared to business, the meaning “trusting” is probably more common, and the meaning “trustworthiness” is probably less common.
  • The most common usage is probably the imperative “trust me,” closely followed by the imperative “don’t trust ___.”
  • There is an emerging meaning: the word by itself, as in “it’ll all work out: trust,” or “keep the faith, baby: trust.” It has a combined sense of “trust me” and “don’t worry.”