Building Trust on the Internet: A Study of Confidence-Building Mechanisms using the Example of Couch-Surfing

Thorsten Anthes, Annette Fischer, Inga Freud, Lars Grau, Ben Gronert, Christina Seitz, Phillip Winter

The most common catch-phrase concerning the internet at least since the movement towards the social Web - is the swarm intelligence. The collaborative development of knowledge, or rather the gathering of experiences, is the base, or at least part of all Internet platforms and services, such as Bildblog, Arabic Spring, or advertising systems: The anonymous crowd is made the alleged corrective to the informal manipulation which is driven by the interests of few and is equipped with individual force. That way the crowd is supposed to regain its freedom. Especially for young, well-educated digital natives, this mechanism leads to a fundamental confidence in the Net and its opportunities.

This idea of freedom is, however, in certain cases flawed. The Net is still vulnerable to abuse of power and manipulation. For example, because of the unequally distributed technical skill, which establishes new power symmetries.

Above all, the principle of anonymity is a mixed blessing, because the attention span of the masses is limited. So not every product will be commented on and evaluated. This is why a distributor can manipulate a product assessment with very little effort. In fact, a study has shown that every fourth product assessment in the internet is falsified. For a majority an online evaluation is the main criteria for purchase. Therefore manipulation in this area is not only highly attractive but also exposes the trust to be very naive. Which confirms all those who distrust the new media.

While the consequences of falsified assessments are merely material, the risks are higher in other scenarios. As soon as the advanced trust is transferred from online trade and service into the establishment of future face-to-face interactions, which is the case with dating-sites and car-sharing-sites, the physical and mental integrity is jeopardized.

But nevertheless, the number of users participating in these areas increases steadily. That is also true for the online-community CouchSurfing, a place to negotiate free overnight stays. The bond of trust is built on user evaluations, self-description and identity verification. It has to be a resilient bond, since it brings the guest directly into your home or yourself into the home of your host, invariably exposing yourself and/or your private sphere to people you have not met in person before.

But what sort of people participate in CouchSurfing and how uniform are they? How is trust being built between CouchSurfing members and what role takes technology? Do good experiences with these sites show in general trust towards people and is there a difference to Non-CouchSurfing people?

We will pursue these and many more questions, by applying well-known sociological categories of trust in an internet-backed network like CouchSurfing and inspect its capability with a data collection. The key aspect of our undertaking is the examination of the fragile process of generating trust in social relationships.

Sponsered by: Prime Research