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.


A stranger in a strange land.

I am humbly borrowing that title from Robert A. Heinlein, one of my fav scifi authors of all time, but it captured my state of mind one afternoon as I was “working Facebook”.

You see, FB is not my social network of choice. I’m a hard core LinkedIn girl. LI is clear – business networking for business folks. Got it.

FB on the other hand is a weird mix of personal and business and trolls. Next to my niece’s picture of her (adorable) 3 year old is an important business announcement for a business luncheon that I wanted to attend. I click on what I think is a link for the luncheon information and I land on the home page of “someone” – not sure who and their niece’s pictures. At this point, I have no idea where I am.

I am a stranger in a strange land.

The strange land I speak of is where, unlike my real world, our social networks are morphing into a communications hub that has jumbled my life into a digital tangle of personal, business and many combinations in between.

I am a stranger in a stranger land.

In the real world, our social networks are well organized across “functional lines” – the parents in my kids school is one network, my business contacts is another or my relatives yet another etc etc. We keep these networks distinct unless during a crisis or some trigger event, e.g. your child is trying to get into a particular school, you create a temporary real time network of people from all your networks who can help you with this task. But once the need is gone, this “impromptu network” dissipates.

But in this strange new world, the networks intermix in a way that I find unproductive. In  this strange new world “on the fly” associations I create for a specific task become hardened in stone well beyond their usefulness.  

In the real world, my social networks are under my control – in this brave, new world – it seems – not so much.

I guess I find it strange. So does “Judy Consumer”.

Judy Shapiro

What might Twitter and Facebook teach Google Wave about market success?

It’s not what you think but you’ll have to “pull” the answer out of me.

Recently, I have become fascinated with the new academic work around the paradigm shift to the “pull” form of corporate management from the more established “push” business models. This notion, which has been kicking around for a few years as far as I know, has recently become quite popular, probably helped along by recent work on the subject. One excellent white paper entitled; “From Push to Pull; emerging models for mobilizing resources” from Deloitte, authored by Hagel and Brown provides a solid conceptual basis for the clear differences in these two principles.

Here’s a brief excerpt (but I encourage a read of the whole 23 pages):

The signs are around us. We are on the cusp of a shift to a new … model that will re-shape many facets of our life, including how we identify ourselves, participate with others, connect with others, mobilize resources and learn.

Over the past century, we have been perfecting highly efficient approaches to mobilizing resources. These approaches … share a common foundation. They are all designed to “push” resources in advance to areas of highest anticipated need.

This new approach, {however} focuses on “pull” – creating platforms that help people to mobilize appropriate resources when the need arises

The white paper goes onto to describe how when resources are tight, corporate “push” models dominate because they can control and optimize precious resource consumption. But with abundant resources, comes a different model – a “pull” model where users drive the rate of consumption of resources. I’ll also point your attention to the fact that this model is grounded in our very human need for “connectivity” as I will return to this theme shortly.

Now this is heady stuff because a pull model is nothing less than a 180 degree turn on how we think about the way to run businesses today. But what’s that to do with Twitter, Facebook and Google Wave? And what in heaven’s name has that got to do with corporate management theory?

Ah – not so fast – I said you would have to pull it out of me. In fact, I may stretch your patience even further by suggesting we go on a treasure hunt and the treasure we seek is nothing less than understanding why certain technologies succeed while others fail.

Our treasure hunt begins as most do with orienting ourselves on our treasure map. In this case, our orientation lies in having a compass to help us understand that technology breakthroughs rarely happen to the company with the best idea or the smartest technology or even the most deserving goals. Nope. Most often it happens in one definable moment – when the technologically breakthrough is symbiotically coupled to fulfilling a fundamental dimension of our humanity. Technology by itself is sterile.

Ok, now that we have our bearings, let’s follow our map to uncover our buried treasure.

If we follow the Internet’s evolution in the past 10 years, no one doubts that the Internet has become a highly dependent technology for people and business world over. It enables powerful communications and connectivity capabilities, but in its current iteration, the Internet lacks the basic building blocks for meaningful connectivity — like the technological ability to establish trust. (Tangentially, the issues of trust on the Internet are complex and well articulated by  Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall in their September 2008 paper;  “Trust on the Web: Some Web Science Research Challenges”; (http://www.uoc.edu/uocpapers/7/dt/eng/ohara_hall.pdf.)

So users started to “pull” trust into their Internet experiences partly through the creation of trusted communities like forums, blogs, review sites and the like. That trusted community concept was quickly embraced by the public so that now almost all of us engage in some digital social community or other (see Pew Institute research on the subject). The initial pull, to create trust in online interactions, spawned the great social networking revolution we are experiencing right now. I bet some future historian will pinpoint this moment as perhaps the tipping point moment propelling other “pull” corporate models.

Returning to our treasure hunt, though, let’s see where our map has led us so far. The Internet grew so fast because it expanded personal connectivity, which then created the need for trust within this new level of connectedness which then resulted in all forms (and variations) of “trusted” communities that were only possible because the new “pull” tech platforms let people utilize technology when they need it.

Still with me?

Ok – good and now your patience will be rewarded because here is where “X” marks the spot. The treasure we have been seeking is revealed in appreciating  that when technology truly serves humanity by fulfilling some basic human need or desire (like wanting to connect), it can become a powerful force that can move fast within the ecosystem, helped along by the emerging “pull” mechanism discussed above.

This is what Twitter and Facebook can teach Google Wave. They understood how to use “technology” to satisfy our very human need to be connected within a “trusted” community. In the case of Twitter, they innovated so anyone can have a “feed” to “their” network (a.k.a. community) and in the case of Facebook, they created a way for people to create their own trusted community. In both cases, (and many others too), we see that when technology is intrinsically woven in with satisfying a fundamental human need, like the deep need to be part of a trusted community,  with an effective dispersion model like our “pull” model, you have the ingredients for success.

Now I think Google Wave has the potential to be a technological milestone because it merges unified collaboration and communications (not new) within the fertile soil of a trusted community (this is new). “Pull” models coming online now enable this combination of dynamics to “gel” into a platform that can be vibrant and paradigm shifting. From anyone I talked to who has actually used the product, (I have not received an invitation yet, but I am a patient woman) there is an expectant hope for it – much like the expectation one might have at a party hyped to be cool but that just got started.

I hope Google Wave recognizes that people want to technology to power their trusted digital communities – and not so much their “communications and collaboration” (sounds pretty sterile doesn’t it?). I can see how this technology has the potential to truly expand our comprehension of what a trusted community can become.

The power of these converging trends – Internet, “pull’ models, trust and community – is the treasure any tech business can capture for themselves. I suspect that if anyone will know how to use this treasure it will be Google. I am rooting for them.

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

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