Trust Among Strangers, Preliminary Data

Last time, I spoke about how having a stigmatizing secret may be a reason why trust develops among strangers and that the trust that develops is strong enough to permit people to disclose intimate details about themselves. If true, this sociological hypothesis has profound effects for law and policy. If trust can develop among strangers in contexts where sharers will feel secure that their disclosures will not be disseminated further — namely, not go outside the group — then there is reason for the law to protect the privacy of these sharers, even though they shared information with alleged “strangers.” This conclusion bears some similarity with Lior Strahilevitz’s theory on social network-based privacy. But his work appears to take for granted that disclosures to strangers could never retain privacy. I disagree.

I have spent some time devising a proxy for trust and for testing the social determinants of it. Facebook “friend” requests may be a good first step. I would like to ask Facebook users if they accept Friend Requests from strangers and, if so, why. The survey will take the form of two questions: Do you accept Fried Requests from strangers. If so, responders will answer a second question that will ask them if any of a series of factors make it more or less likely that the stranger’s Friend Request will be accepted. The factors will use a Likert Scale of “Much More Likely,” “Somewhat More Likely,” “Neither More Nor Less Likely,” “Somewhat Less Likely,” and “Much Less Likely.” The experiment is designed to test the hypothesis that social networkers will approximate feelings of trust based on any number of digital social cues, but that each profile will see an uptick in Friend Request acceptances after a critical mass of “mutual friends” is established or where minority identity is the same. I will call the first phenomenon the trustworthiness of embedded networks. I also hypothesize that when strangers share a minority or traditionally disadvantaged identity, users are more inclined to accept a Friend Request from a stranger.

It’s common for field researchers to put out beta versions of their surveys to see if the questions are well-written and to identify any unforeseen results. With just under a hundred responses (way too few for a full study), the only factors that appear to have a statistically significant relationship to a willingness to accept friend requests from strangers are sharing a racial or sexual minority identity and having large numbers of mutual friends.

I see pitfalls in this study. The sample may be biased. The friend request proxy is imperfect. Many people simply to not accept friend requests from strangers, so the data set could be limited. I am eager to hear your thoughts on the operation and implications of the study.

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