Trust is a Funny Thing

Last time, we discussed briefly that Erving Goffman’s social theory gives us an interactional perspective on privacy as a social relationship of trust and discretion. But trust, like love and life, is a funny thing. Trust is sometimes confused with naivete (Marshall 1976) or hallowed by optimism (Millman 2001), but trust, and its corollary, discretion, are what makes social interaction possible. I would like us to think about privacy this way: trust and discretion are what online best practices should encourage; trust and discretion, not an individual right, are what society should actively protect.

This is not a common denominator approach (Solove 2001). I am not arguing that everything we traditionally think of as “private” is trust and discretion. Nor is this a pure social network approach (Strahilevitz 2005). I am not arguing that we should protect privacy based on the suggestion from social science research that individuals tend to share or disclose otherwise private facts about themselves when they assume that the disclosed facts will not jump from one social network to another. Professors Solove and Strahilevitz are correct in their warnings and recommendations. But I believe that protecting disclosures where trust and discretion exist add value to both of their important contributions in the following ways:

First, intimate sharing among strangers is a fact we cannot — and the law should not — ignore. Professor Strahilevitz’s masterful work, A Social Network Theory of Privacy, does a good job surveying some of the social network research about sharing. But that research is in its relative infancy, as we all acknowledge. What is missing is a detailed understanding of the type of information shared with different groups of friends, particularly bare acquaintances and strangers. I hope to contribute to this understanding with the quantitative and empirical portions of my dissertation. The beta version of my surveys seem to suggest that highly intimate — determined on a subjective scale — information is often shared with veritable strangers. If sharing with strangers exists, it seems like tilting at windmills for the law to try to erect barriers that we know will fall, at best, or create perverse incentives for social sharers and private industry, at worse.

Second, trust can exist among strangers (Macy and Skvoretz 1998) and further research into the social determinants of that trust can give us the tools we need to determine when it is reasonable for judge or jury to protect the privacy interests of certain actors. Much of the social science literature about trust among strangers is in the game theory context (Macy and Skvoretz 1998, Buchan 2002, Croson 2002, Grabner-Kraeuter 2002, etc.). The quantitative studies in my dissertation have the potential to help us understand privacy among strangers outside the decision-making and consumer context, but inside the friend/social sharing context. It is, for example, too simple to say that people “sext” because they don’t believe in or understand or think about or care about privacy. Nor is it enough to say that we engage with strangers in the physical world and online because we think our social networks are separate. I would like to prove that trust and discretion exist among strangers online when sufficient information exists to act as social cues for trustworthiness, with the most important cue being embeddedness, or connections to other individuals for whom the trustworthiness decision has already been made. That decision may, at times, be related to the target’s position in your social network. But more likely, embeddedness is an overarching factor for which social network position is a proxy, or social network position is but one in a series of cues for embeddedness. In either case, the social science evidence does not require us to stop at social network position. We need to take another step.

Much of this work is decidedly in the work-in-progress stage. I have appreciated the comments so far and look forward to any comments, questions from the CoOp community.

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1 Response

  1. Emma D. says:

    What a great perspective on the nuances of privacy. This discussion really made me think about my personal views of the connections between trust, discretion, and privacy. I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomena of voluntarily sharing personal or typically private information with strangers and what types of situations make this possible or appealing. One example that came to mind while I read your post was the anonymous chat website Omegle. You aren’t required to register or create an account with this website so there’s not much of a commitment involved and it allows you to chat with strangers. While this site has its trolls, like any other, I believe that because there is a general understanding that you can never tell when your chat partner is actually telling the truth people are much more likely to be honest or include personal details amidst made up information. Also, because people will never know for sure if they will meet their chat partner because of the anonymity involved I think that that aspect of the site makes people more comfortable with being honest. I think this is true of interactions people have with strangers in person as well. If we think we will never interact with someone again we may be less inhibited in what we choose to share. I think a big part of this comfort with strangers comes from the idea that we won’t have to deal with the repercussions of what we choose to share. For example, if a stranger with whom we share no connection chooses to judge us based upon what we share we can easily remove ourselves from the situation with little lasting negative impact.