Trusting virtual trust

Ethics and Information Technology 7 (3):167-180 (2005)
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Can trust evolve on the Internet between virtual strangers? Recently, Pettit answered this question in the negative. Focusing on trust in the sense of ‘dynamic, interactive, and trusting’ reliance on other people, he distinguishes between two forms of trust: primary trust rests on the belief that the other is trustworthy, while the more subtle secondary kind of trust is premised on the belief that the other cherishes one’s esteem, and will, therefore, reply to an act of trust in kind (‘trust-responsiveness’). Based on this theory Pettit argues that trust between virtual strangers is impossible: they lack all evidence about one another, which prevents the imputation of trustworthiness and renders the reliance on trust-responsiveness ridiculous. I argue that this argument is flawed, both empirically and theoretically. In several virtual communities amazing acts of trust between pure virtuals have been observed. I propose that these can be explained as follows. On the one hand, social cues, reputation, reliance on third parties, and participation in (quasi-) institutions allow imputing trustworthiness to varying degrees. On the other, precisely trust-responsiveness is also relied upon, as a necessary supplement to primary trust. In virtual markets, esteem as a fair trader is coveted while it contributes to building up one’s reputation. In task groups, a hyperactive style of action may be adopted which amounts to assuming (not: inferring) trust. Trustors expect that their virtual co-workers will reply in kind while such an approach is to be considered the most appropriate in cyberspace. In non-task groups, finally, members often display intimacies while they are confident someone else ‘out there’ will return them. This is facilitated by the one-to-many, asynchronous mode of communication within mailing lists.
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