26 Aug 2004
In this excellent post on Progressive Trust, Christopher Allen describes how trust develops between humans and how this meshes with technological notions of trust. When choosing how to divide our attention, we make use of numerous conventional credentials: are you at a professional conference I attend? Are you well spoken and polite? As we continue to interact, and develop a greater body of shared experience and understanding, we refine our trust in each other.
I'm a little surprised, though, that Christopher didn't mention blogs. What makes blogs (and the RSS-powered subscription mechanism) so powerful for getting you information you care about is trust. Specifically, you can think of a blog subscription as an indication of trust that some feed will contain items of interest. It is a rather coarse-grained indication of trust, but is quite effective. Especially when I the reader have my own blog, and participate in the common practice of linking and excerpting the especially interesting content from my subscribed feeds. When I do that, I am delegating trust—the trust placed in me by my readers can connect to Christopher because of the trust I have for him.
This is exactly what happens in social situations. Suppose you're at a party and meet someone new. What's the first thing you ask them? "So, how do you know Bob?" Now suppose you know Bob has despicable taste in music, but he makes the world's best cheesecake. You'll spend a lot less time talking with someone who answers "I played in a grunge band with Bob in 1992" than someone who answers "I'm a pastry chef instructor at the local culinary institute where Bob took night classes." This example, ubiquitous in our social lives, illustrates how powerful and adaptable trust is. Even without being consciously considered.
The amazing thing about blogs is that they can reflect this kind of nuance. Almost every blogger has a variety of interests, sometimes spread among multiple blogs, a blog and a livejournal, or categories within a blog. Furthermore, blogs cluster into communities based on shared interests, such that if you subscribe to any of the blogs in the community you are unlikely to miss any major news within the community. This redundancy permits individual bloggers to specialize in the details, and offers readers a chance to adjust who they trust, over time, as they learn more about their options. Just like if you're first interested in an academic field, you can work with any professor who's involved and learn a lot from them; but if you want to do a PhD thesis you'd better find someone who not only is interested in something you want to study, but is also easy for you to get along with.
Frassle, my blogging platform, is an attempt to emphasize and scale up the trust mechanisms already informally used throughout blogs. Another smart take on this situation is Robin Good's discussion of the NewsMaster.