Circles, networks and the trust layer

The internet clearly has a trust problem. As with most things, it helps to start with the Grateful Dead.

After their incarnation as the Warlocks, they became more than a band. It was a family on the road. There were people who gave up their careers to follow them around, living on buses… they were seeing thirty or forty shows a year. You traded tickets, did favors, built relationships. People in the family knew that they’d be seeing each other again soon.

And then, in 1987, Touch of Grey went to #1 (their only top 40 hit) and it attracted a huge (and different) crowd to the shows. Reports were that the intimacy and trust disappeared.

Glen Weyl points out that the internet was started by three tribes, as different from each other as could be. The military was behind the original ARPA (and then DARPA) that built and funded it. Professors at universities around the world were among the early users. And in San Francisco, a group of ‘hippies’ were the builders of some of the first culture online.

Because each of these groups were high-trust communities, it was easy to conclude that the people they’d be engaging online would be too. And so, as the tools of the internet and then the web were built out, they forgot to build a trust layer. Plenty of ways to share files, search, browse, chat and talk, but no way to engage in the very complicated things that humans do around identity and trust.

Humans have been in tribal relationships since before recorded history began. The word “tribe” appears in the Bible more than 300 times. But the internet isn’t a community or a tribe. It’s simply a technology that amplifies some voices and some ideas. When we don’t know who these people are, or if they’re even people, trust erodes.

When a site decides to get big fast, they usually do it by creating a very easy way to join, and they create few barriers to a drive-by anonymous experience. And when they make a profit from this behavior, they do it more. In fact, they amplify it.

Which makes good business in the short run, but lousy public policy.

Twenty years ago, I wrote that if someone goes into a bank wearing a mask (current pandemic aside) we can assume that they’re not there to make a deposit.

And now we’re suffering from the very openness and ease of connection that the internet was built on. Because a collection of angry people talking past each other isn’t a community. Without persistence of presence, some sort of identity and a shared set of ideals, goals and consequences, humans aren’t particularly tempted to bring their best selves to the table.

The system is being architected against our best impulses. Humans understand that local leadership, sacrifice and generosity build community, and that fights and scandals simply create crowds. Countless people are showing up, leading and pushing back, but algorithms are powerful and resilient, and we need some of them to be rebuilt.

Until there’s a correlation between what’s popular or profitable and what’s useful, we’re all going to be paying the price.