I’m moderating a discussion on the subject of trust and social media at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco this week. This prompts me to inquire into the anatomy of trust in social media. Is social media making trust weaker or stronger?

Trust in other people is established on the basis of promises kept. Either explicitly or implicitly we judge that a particular person is reliable, based on our own experiences or those of others. We don’t trust everyone we encounter of course, but a small number of those people we trust and who we happen to like will become friends; especially if the trust and attraction is reciprocated.Trust in Other People

We have relationships with brands – companies, businesses, service providers and organisations. Today our concept of brand is very stretched, but we understand it to mean the reputation of an organisation (from Coca Cola to the local greengrocer) or person (from Barak Obama to the reliability of the local postman). We choose to use a select number of brands that we trust because they consistently deliver on their promises. I may even actively promote the brands I really like becoming a super-fan or brand-advocate.

Talking to my friends about the brands I like is the most powerful marketing tool that exists. We call this “word of mouth” (WOM) marketing when I tell the people who trust my judgement about the brands that I trust. This is the elixir of marketing and yet it is the one aspect of marketing that marketers have had least control over.

Word of Mouth

Social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google Buzz and so on, have fundamentally shifted our definition of “friend”. In the past most of us could manage a small handful of people we call a friend. Today each of us had literally hundreds of people we call friend, thanks to social media.

For brands this means that the power of word of mouth marketing is exponentially greater. The sphere of influence of the average customer is now much larger than it ever was. When I tell my friends online about a brand, not only are my views visible to them, but very often the conversations are filtered through to their friends, and so on.

Social Media Platforms

In this context however our notion of trust is much weaker. I cannot possibly form judgements on the trustworthiness of the hundreds of people I’m friends with online. How do I come to trust these people based purely on their often scant online personas? And yet, more and more I’m relying on them to influence my judgements on a wide range of things.

My trust in my online friends is further weakened as I find out that some of them are paid or rewarded for their positivity towards certain brands. As I realise that clever brand managers are increasingly manipulating the “independent” commentary I read online, I start to find it more difficult to trust what I read. In fact, I seek out the negative as the only thing that is trustworthy.

Now let’s add the social media organisations themselves into the mix. Let’s remind ourselves that these are for-profit businesses that are mediating human relationships. Their business depends on opening up our personal networks and gathering and revealing as much information about each of us as possible.

Do you trust them when they reveal more information to others than you remember giving them permission to do? Or when they are revealing information that you didn’t even realise that they had gathered about you? Do you find it just a bit intrusive when advertisers on their platforms serve you “relevant” and “targeted” ads based on your personal tastes, gender, ethnicity, orientation, date of birth or relationship status? Can you trust a site that allows brands to pay their way to the top of a search you expect to return the “best” results or to allow those brands to filter out the things they don’t want you to hear?

Social media is helping us grow our trusted networks beyond our close-knit circle of real-world friends. But how much is that trust worth?