“We forget that trust is like liquid gold, or social glue – it’s the thing that has enabled human beings to cooperate and collaborate since the beginning of time,” says Rachel Botsman, a world-renowned trust expert, lecturer at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.  But according to popular opinion, today’s world is fresh out of it. With the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer marking the largest-ever drop in trust across institutions, word of a global ‘trust implosion’ has people fearing that the social glue that holds society together is no longer sticky, and the world as we know it could come apart at the seams. 
Over the years, the parameters of trust have adapted to that of society. Shifting from intimate, pre-industrial society to the interconnectedness of our globalised world, trust that once depended on face-to-face interactions grew to scale, filtering itself through institutions rather than individuals.  Now, trust has undergone another paradigm shift in a networked age. Technology has fundamentally altered where people place their faith, posing a threat to any institution that hasn’t mastered it – and an opportunity to those who have. It’s this newest incarnation of trust that Rachel Botsman takes on in her book, Who Can You Trust?
“If you think about it in terms of history, the dominant form of trust was for a long time institutional trust. It was very hierarchical; it was held in the hands of the powerful and privileged few – CEOs, corporate brands, politicians, experts,” says Botsman.  Now, Botsman notes that those privileged few have been knocked off their pedestal, and global research backs this up. Edelman’s Trust Barometer found that the majority of people in two-thirds of the countries surveyed distrust institutions. 
Among government, businesses, the media, and NGOs, trust dropped across the board, with only 29% of people trusting government officials, while people were dubious of the media in 82% of countries.  Edelman’s research shows that it’s not individuals alone who have been demonised; it’s the concept of authority itself; people now consider ‘a person like me’ to be more trustworthy than an expert.  This scepticism of authority is undermining trust in institutions that wield power. Pew Research Center found that just 3% of Americans trust the government in Washington to do what’s right ‘just about always’, marking a near-historic low. 
History attests that dips in trust aren’t new. It’s a climate that “bobs and dips with scandals, recessions, wars, and changes in government,” says Botsman. “Unprecedented, however, is the extent and rate of the breakdown of trust we are now witnessing between citizens and institutions.”  A number of factors have converged to undermine trust in institutions. “There are three, somewhat overlapping, reasons: inequality of accountability (certain people are being punished for wrongdoing, while others get a leave pass); twilight of elites and authority (the digital age is flattening hierarchies and eroding faith in experts and the rich and powerful); and segregated echo chambres (living in our cultural ghettos and being deaf to other voices).” 
Now, faith in these institutions is in short supply, but for Botsman mourning the death of trust wouldn’t be quite right. In her view, there isn’t less trust. Trust operates by the same rules as all matter; it can’t be created or destroyed, but it can shapeshift. “Think of trust like energy. What happens is that – rather than just being in crisis – it’s changing form. That’s what’s happening right now; it’s changing from an institutional form of trust to a form of trust that is distributed between individuals.” 
The loss in trust of institutions encourages people to place their trust in alternative places
Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, Creative Commons (2017) ©
The shift to distributed trust
“We’re seeing an inversion of the old structures,” says Botsman. “We’re seeing that trust, which used to flow upwards, now is flowing sideways. Often this is enabled through technology, through network systems.”  Unlike the former societies, in which large, well-known institutions were the safest place to put one’s faith, networks have rendered that type of faith not only inefficient, but also exposed it as naive. Why take a leap of faith in the Hoover brand to deliver an excellent vacuum cleaner when a few thousand Amazon reviews can confirm its quality right off the bat?  The new sideways current of trust of trust has become so strong that people who read positive reviews are increasingly likely to skip a business’s website entirely: in 2017, just 37% of people clicked through after reading a good review, compared to 54% in 2016.  In this sense, the network’s opinion supersedes the institution’s own self-presentation.
With information flowing laterally between communities of (supposedly objective) users, the shift online has allowed for openness, transparency, and a sheer amount of knowledge that was unprecedented in the era of institutionalised trust. But to many established brands, this sort of openness enabled by distributed trust is tricky to adapt to – and this only serves to reinforce barriers to trust. “Many organisations are still struggling to adapt to the fact that they’re no longer in an age where they can hide behind closed walls, where they can control what happens, and where they can behave with a lack of accountability when things go wrong. They’re not recognising that this type of institutional trust – and the behaviour that goes along with it – wasn’t built for the digital age.” 
Trust is now distributed among institutions, as well as independent individuals
Re:publica, Creative Commons (2016) ©
In the digital age, the collapse of faith in institutions has left a trust vacuum, and new systems – largely led by technological innovations – have rushed to fill it. “Technology is enabling trust across huge networks of people, organisations and intelligent machines in ways that are unbundling traditional trust hierarchies,” writes Botsman.  These new trust norms are apparent in both the companies that are rising to the top, and the technologies that are taking centre stage. Botsman points to Airbnb and Uber, both of which have become household names, but depend on trust between strangers for their livelihood. Kickstarter, Massive Open Online Courses, and Wikipedia all rely on person-to-person agreements that skirt the institutions and middlemen that once had clout. 
The networks that technology has created are swapping in everyday people for the drivers, hoteliers, and journalists people once relied upon – a perfect fit, given that ‘a person like me’ is now held in such high regard, compared to businesspeople or the media.  It’s the same trust shift that’s made word of mouth – rather than expert opinion or friends and family – the core influence for female shoppers.  And while anything from the financial crisis to government scandals saw people burned by their faith in institutions, distributed trust, once tried, sticks. With Airbnb, for example, research has found that people who use peer-to-peer lodging don’t want to go back to traditional hotels. Among people who muster up the trust to try peer-to-peer lodging, those who prefer hotels drop by half. 
To back up this desire to engage with networks of ‘people like me’, new technological systems are allowing for trust to be less concentrated, and so less prone to corruption. Botsman takes this well beyond the idea of online reviews, highlighting blockchain technology as an example. “The blockchain offers a new trust model,” she says.  “One where trust doesn't need to be mediated by a centralised authority such as government or a bank but where people who might not otherwise trust each other can agree on a single truth or common record of events.”  While the banking industry continues to struggle with reputation, people trust the cryptocurrencies that run on blockchain – hence why the value of bitcoin surged from less than a cent in 2010 to over $16,000 in 2017, and the estimated number of people using digital currencies has tripled to over three million.  With an eye trained on the success stories from cryptocurrencies to the sharing economy, it’s clear that trust is still around. But in an era of distributed trust, it’s flowing to new places.
Tech innovators like bitcoin are rushing to fill the trust vacuum
Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, Creative Commons (2017) ©
Insights and opportunities
For all the developments of this new era of trust, Botsman acknowledges that people still need guidance on where to place their faith. “When trust is put in the hands of many people, of course it democratises who has a voice and who has power, but it also becomes harder to decipher who to trust.” 
The media marks a prime example of this, with filter bubbles and fake news highlighting the perils of scrapping the old establishment. “Lack of trust in institutions like the media creates a real feeling of anxiety and fear,” says Botsman.  In the absence of rational answers, emotions are escalating. “It’s into this trust vacuum where voices of people – whether Farage, Trump, or Le Pen – can slide in. They know how to speak to people’s feelings over facts.” 
While certain characters seize on this post-truth climate to falsely establish themselves as trustworthy, paying mind to people’s emotions doesn’t have to be diabolical. In emotional times, brands that can tap into public feeling can build deeper forms of trust. Botsman notes that “many organisations are starting to look at trust through an emotional, behavioural lens.”  Even once trust is broken, approaching the issue through an emotional lens outdoes cold rationality. “When trust is breached, after owning a mistake, the second stage is all about empathy. This is what companies often get wrong – they talk about it in a very practical, rational way rather than demonstrating an understanding of the human consequence of what’s happened.” 
When trust is put in the hands of many people, of course it democratises who has a voice and who has power, but it also becomes harder to decipher who to trustRachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust?
A new approach to emotion is only one aspect of rethinking one’s role in a new trust environment. In an era of distributed trust, people are more critical of experts, but they’re leaning on each other’s opinions more, as the emphasis on online reviews suggests. Formal decrees might be out, but informal communication and debates are more welcome than ever, as demonstrated by the shift from traditional media to social media. The opaque walls that border institutions are now reason for suspicion, but that also means there’s more opportunity for the radical transparency that people cite as their most desired quality in a brand.
The scepticism towards experts also makes space for brands to embrace openness about their flaws, rather than upholding an image of expertise. Psychologists have noted that admitting weaknesses makes both people and brands more likeable, which works well in a trust climate that values entities that are genuine and relatable, rather than institutions with gravitas. 
Lastly, as the conventions of trust are being broken down, it’s making room for more unorthodox forms of trust. Botsman points to the Dark Web as an example – “The darknet is peopled by hundreds of thousands of drug users and vendors who would commonly be stereotyped as untrustworthy, the worst of the worst, yet here they are creating highly efficient markets,” she writes. “Effectively, they are creating trust in a zero-trust environment.”  Her example – a market of criminals with no external regulators – is extreme, but the logic applies. Just as the former institutions are no longer entitled to trust as a given, neither are questionable ones automatically subject to mistrust. It’s why one in ten drug users have trusted vendors on the dark web to fulfill their part of an online transaction, while Airbnb hosts are willing to hand over their house keys to strangers.  The falling of former idols is a chance to build new ones. As Botsman envisions, there’s a finite amount of trust. With less reserved for old institutions, there’s more to go around.
Rachel Botsman is a world-renowned trust expert, lecturer at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. The author of Who Can You Trust, she specialises in writing and researching how technology is transforming trust and what this means for life, work and how we do business.
Mira Kopolovic is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. She has a Master’s degree that focused on visual culture and artist-brand collaborations, and spends her spare time poring over dystopian literature.
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