The Internet as the real world

How do you ensure trust on the Internet? In the communities of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, it's hard to know who is who and what is true? These issues are tackled in "eTrust: Forming Relationships in the Online World," published by the Russell Sage Foundation in September. Edited by Karen Cook, Chris Snijders, Vincent Buskens, and Coye Cheshire, the book explores a range of questions from how to assess a reputation online to the limits of Internet trust.

GUEST BLOGGER: Coye Cheshire

In popular discourse, the online world is often treated as a fundamentally different place than the offline world.

Discussions about risks and uncertainties on the Internet tend to lean toward one of two extremes. At one end are optimistic utopians who point out that the Internet provides unlimited opportunities to interact in large-scale conversations and e-commerce transactions without geographic restrictions. Many hoped that the Internet might redeem us from our own social blights: stereotyping, discrimination, and inequality might dissolve in an anonymous, egalitarian digital world.

At the opposite extreme, others fear that the Internet will become a virtual Sodom, rampant with threats to security, privacy, and morality. After the widespread adoption of online communication in the 1990's, it did not take long before the dangers of sexually explicit material, hate speech and personal indiscretion became the ideological bogeymen of the Internet.

Such polar extremes are not especially useful because they tend to conflate information technologies with their social uses. The telephone can be used to reach a loved one, or to call in a bomb threat. The pen can write poetry or a death sentence.

The utopian/dystopian dichotomy seems appallingly inane once we drop social behaviors and contexts of interaction from the picture. As Daniel Schorr observed in a recent NPR commentary, the Internet that was championed by President Obama as a powerful force of democracy is the same Internet that allowed the suspected Fort Hood shooter to freely engage in email conversations with a like-minded individual. Information technology does not care how we use it.

Of course, the Internet is an extraordinary tool for social interaction -- it combines the uses of many different information technologies (including the aforementioned pen and telephone) with a global communication network.

Despite the advantages for communication breadth and efficiency, there are legitimate concerns about how we use the Internet. For example, the social cues we rely on to detect risk and uncertainty in the physical world are often unreliable when we do not know who is behind the digital curtain of anonymity.

Some argue that online communication is an inferior form of interaction compared to face-to-face contact. However, empirical evidence does not cleanly support this claim -- human beings are quite adept at processing and organizing limited information with mental shortcuts (psychologists call them schemas), even when we are not cognizant that we are doing so. We comprehend incomplete information by filling in the gaps with what we think we know from prior risky or uncertain experiences.

Like the offline world, uncertainties in online environments are related to real monetary, social and legal risks. Should you open that email attachment? Can you trust that seller? Is this blogger trustworthy?

A thoughtful answer to any of these questions requires an understanding of human behavior in both offline and online social environments. And, this is really the point. There is much to learn about managing risks and uncertainties in the real world, and the Internet is the real world.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 25, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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It is nice to think that the new technologies are breaking down the old isolation problems across the world. Still one ethnographic study shows disappointingly (at least to me) that 80% of the contacts are made to the same four or five people.

Stefana Broadbent had an interesting talk on "How the Internet Enables Intimacy" at TEDGlobal (Oxford, England) this past July. It is available on the internet.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | November 25, 2009 10:21 AM

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