Trust, authenticity and transparency in the online world.

Why definitions matter.

A few minutes a day, I indulge in a Tweet treat where I scan my relatively small network (I only follow about 75 people) to see what’s going on. In barely five minutes I can get a clear snapshot of the topics both broad and specific to my work.

Yesterday (March 7), during my mid-day Twitter snack, I catch this tweet from Klout’s PhilipHotchkiss -“@Scobleizer unleashes on Steve Cheney in strong defense that FB Comments promotes authenticity http://scoble.it/fkicaJ

Kinda of provocative since I’ve never heard Robert Scoble (well respected tech blogger) “unleashing” on anyone. He will disagree with folks – but “unleash!”  Well that’s another kettle of fish so I checked it out. The more I read, the more I wanted to respond thoughtfully – not just scream and shout.

The “unleashing” it seems was prompted by a blog posting from Steve Cheney  entitled; How Facebook is Killing Your Authenticity. It provocatively opens: “Facebook’s sheer scale is pushing it in a new direction, one that encroaches on your authenticity.” He explains that since more and more sites are using Facebook’s commenting platform it is likely to blunt people’s authenticity because they will naturally censor themselves given the broad audience. “The problem with tying internet-wide identity to a broadcast network like Facebook is that people don’t want one normalized identity, either in real life, or virtually.”

So far – I was agreeing with Mr Cheney.

But then he states: “A uniform identity defies us.” And this is where I must jump off the bandwagon because that’s just not the case. In the real world, we have one identity with all the attributes in there which we naturally adjust to the situation. Some attributes we apply to our legal ID, other attributes for social situations and so on. One identity – just different expressions of it.

The trouble is, in fact, we have few technologies to achieve this layered equivalent in the binary, digital world where we can only have one identity. It’s not that Facebook is bad for looking to be the singular identity but it is a mismatch between how we want to live and what technology can let us do – especially given Facebook’s reach.

IMHO Cheney confuses “authenticity” (as in a “real and unbiased POV”) with a verified identity which is an entirely a different point.

Scoble then disagreed utterly with Cheney with his opening salvo: “Steve Cheney has never written something that so pissed me off than the blog he wrote today stating that Techcrunch’s switch to Facebook comments has killed authenticity.” Tough words indeed (hence Hotchkiss’ “unleashing” reference).

He goes on to explain that today “authenticity” means being identifiable and having the courage to go public with your opinions – no matter the cost. I found myself agreeing with Scoble here especially when he highlighted the idea that the medium and the message are merging in the social/ digital space. He explains quite correctly that the exact same message can be uttered by two different people which makes all the difference as to its “authenticity.” This is very true and a point many marketers continue to miss.

But despite the fact that, generally speaking, I agree with Scoble’s mandate to have the courage to be “authentic,” IMHO he seems to argue the wrong point. “Being truly anonymous and untrackable on the Web is very difficult.” is one reason why he argues everyone should be authentic.  Also true but that argument speaks to the notion of transparency not authenticity which was Cheney’s point.  Scoble’s heartfelt lengthy explanation about how people should be “authentic” by using their real name is really important but frankly not really about authenticity.  You can be “authentic” and still not be transparent.

Then, as read ALL the comments and the cross comments, I could see this general confusion around terms like trust, authenticity, transparency. Everyone seemed to toss these terms around as though they were synonyms – they are not. And with so much unleashing going on largely because everyone was cross talking – there little possibility of understanding.

So, let’s try and nail down some basic, common definitions of key terms (these definitions are grounded in my years spent in security software at AT&T, Bell Labs, Lucent, Computer Associates and Comodo. You may quibble with my terms – so feel free to suggest alternatives):

Transparency – Typically, this is used to describe a lack of “cloaking” where we hide behind a fake persona. When we let people see our identity, we say our identity is “transparent.” The rub here though is that there is no “standard” identity that we can use to simultaneously enable transparency, allow us to adapt our identity to the situation and do it safely while balancing desire/ need for privacy. Just ask Facebook. This is easy to say –but hard to achieve technologically.

One approach is around creating a “transparency layer” where a single signon (SSO) platform could apply. Lots of people are in this space actually (FB notwithstanding) but I would argue that Twitter has emerged as the most effective version of SSO today. I can control (sorta) what Twitter has about me and thus manage what percolates out there about me. Not ideal by a long shot but the other contenders are still quite early in their development (e.g. Diaspora).

Authenticity – Ah this is a tar pit of interpretation, a mucky business altogether. It usually means that a person can be vetted or an opinion is real and unbiased. Well, that is certainly riddled with subjective interpretation further complicated by time and context. Within this bucket, we encounter challenges of author disclosures, planted “customer” feedback and the trolls who are hired by competitors to disrupt user forums.

The technologies to address this are diverse and fragmented and include encryption, digital authentication, e.g. digital signatures, SSL security and  two factor authentication typically used in banking security. Common to this “authenticity layer” is that it would be activated when interactions “on the edge” have a high transactional or information risk factor. Given its relative high infrastructure cost, these technologies are reserved for relatively high requirements authentication requirements as would be needed in ecommerce.

Trust - This is the hardest to achieve in the online world because many of the cues we instinctively use in the real world are gone. If we see a store in a mall versus a stand on the side of the road – it utterly shapes how much we are willing to risk in the transaction. That’s what makes trust so hard to duplicate in the online world since the online world is very “flat” – just a bunch of pixels on a screen – little context or other reference points we normally use.

Here is where we can create a “Trust layer” to fill the context void – a middleware layer (Cloud based or not) that delivers trust indicators – digital identity management, content verification, real time feedback and social connectivity vetting at the precise moment of need. This is a sophisticated level of interaction that has a way to go before we can create this type of online trust.

At this point, you may be tempted to dismiss this whole post as a semantic exercise. But that would be a mistake because with proper framing of the problem – we can begin to see solutions.  We also can see how our gaps are impacting how all this connectivity technology is evolving today.

So what’s the real prize here beyond the English lesson?

For me the end goal is something I call The Trust Web.  Trust is the foundation of any productive civilization and this concept must apply meaningfully in our digital world too. Today we do not approach this topic systematically nor do we consider carefully how can we confer trust – in all its rich meanings and nuances – to the digital world, in some measure, because we do not frame the questions clearly (this whole unleashing makes my point).

If there is any “unleashing” to be done – let’s unleash the technologists to crack the code on transparency, trust and authenticity.  How do we coordinate all the fragmented pieces of the trust puzzle being worked on by many companies … from content verification technologies to rich, semantic based technology to deliver more trusted content. From intelligent agents who will scour the internet for verified, trusted ecommerce sites to new approaches to digital identities.

I wish it were as simple as throwing a single powerhouse company to push a single solution through. I almost wish I could wave a magic wand and Facebook could drive this question forward. But that is daydreaming especially since TBH Facebook has not yet demonstrated the business maturity to go down this road. In fact, most moves lately have been antithetical toward helping shape a Trust Web.

I’ll end by hoping I’ve made one clear point – language matters, definitions matter because without clarify we can’t imagine another vision.

And then we have to hear a lot of unleashing without a lot of traction.

Judy Shapiro

Author’s disclosure: I have been tracking Facebook’s evolution from communications platform to an uber social hub in Ad Age for just over a year now. My latest article in Ad Age “Has Facebook Jumped the Shark?” is the basis for an upcoming panel discussion at SXSWi.


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