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Research: Trust Diminishes with Sharing Site Growth

"The better to know you" could end up being, "The less to trust you," at least in certain kinds of online interactions. Two researchers from Stanford University's Department of Sociology recently published a freely available article about the "sharing economy," which suggests that easy trust forged between strangers diminishes with time as a Web site that brings people together grows. The sharing economy is an online activity where members share their goods or services with strangers. Sites that set up couch surfing, ride sharing and tool sharing fall into this category.

Researchers Paolo Parigi and Karen Cook specifically examined CouchSurfing, a site that opened in 2003 and encourages users to "stay with locals instead of at hotels." It boasts a "global network of 10 million" in 200,000 cities around the world.

Early users of the site would recount how "social ties originated through a process of mutual discovery." Those interactions would occur, the researchers wrote, "in the context of an early rating system, which provided little accumulated information about users."

As the site grew, however, users became "more calculating" about the people they hoped to meet. The rating system may have allayed some safety concerns, but "it also made relationships more predictable."

What's happening here? According to the researchers, technology only works so far in facilitating interpersonal trust among users. Then it serves the opposite role. "What our research suggests is that Internet-mediated interactions tend to become less open-ended and unexpected the more information the community accumulates about its members," they wrote.

They haven't determined yet whether the same findings will be true for other organizations making up the sharing economy.

"We have some preliminary results that confirm the idea that people's levels of trust toward others can be modified through the experience of participating in this relatively new form of collective action. If confirmed in subsequent research, and this is a big 'if,' the main implication is that trust can be engineered and that technology can play a crucial role in the process," said Parigi in a statement.

Their research continues.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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