I don't trust any of you people

Tara wrote a post about trust yesterday that struck me.   I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about what social means and should mean in terms of technology, especially as our social technology starts to make its way into the more private areas of our lives, like our finances.  Do Web 2.0 philosophies hold up in the design of social software for the most important parts of our mainstream lives?  I am sensing from my non-techy friends a kind of Web 2.0 backlash against all the openness and sharing, and while I still believe that open is better, I believe that when, where, and how are key questions that Web 2.0 has yet to flush out in order to start moving away from the bleeding edge.

So, back to Tara's post.  She wrote the following statement:

"The Open Source world needs to make the assumption that people are, basically, good in order to succeed."

I disagree and don't think that's how it actually works.  People aren't actually good.  They're self interested. 

However, it is generally in your own self interest to be a good person most of the time, because then other people will be good back to you and then you also don't have to deal with the penalties for being an asshole (poor reputation, retaliation from others, alienation, prison, perhaps...).   

That's a key difference, especially when it comes to the design of social software.  Take seller ratings, for example.  I bought some nice pieces from Bethany Cooper the other day.  Do I trust her?  Not particularly.  I don't know her.  Although, if I had to make a bet, unless she's an idiot, if she's interested in succeeding in such a public platform, she's probably not in the business of screwing people over on a regular basis.  So, she's probably good, but since I don't have any reason to trust her, I'll make my judgment based on the 1200 positive experiences that people have had with her according to her seller rating... which amounts to 100%.  In this case, while people are likely to be good, technology doesn't force us to depend on trust.

She could still, however, steal candy from babies in her spare time, so there's also context around trust.  I may not trust her to drive my car, but I trust her to send me some beautiful handmade stuff on time.   

Open source works the same way.  Are people involved in the open source community generally good people?  Maybe, but not always.  Are they contributing to the open source community out of selflessness or some interest in the greater good of humanity?  Maybe, but not necessarily.  In fact, many open source contributors are writing code that solves their own problems.  At that point, giving that code back, so that others might improve on it and also share code with them in the future is of greater value to them than hoarding code and not sharing.  Sounds "good" but what's really going on is that they've recognized that they're simply better off, from a utility standpoint, sharing.

It's the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Two prisoners are being interrogated separately and if they squeal on
each other, they have a better outcome than if only one of them
squeals.  However, if they both keep their mouth's shut, they both get
off easy.  Without communication and information on what the other
person has done before, it isn't likely that these two will cooperate,
but if you repeat the experiment a number of times, eventually, they'll
learn that the better outcome is to work together.  Is that trust, or
just two people maximizing utility in a world of free communication and
discoverable information?

Trust has nothing to do with it.  It's about incentive, reputation, and access to information.  Don't ask me to trust you... give me the tools for you to figure out whether I'm trustworthy... or tell me some friends we have in common.

That's why, for example, when social applications like Facebook and Vox were built, they focused on privacy... making sure that the right people saw the right information about you.  Privacy is going to be a huge factor in the mainstreamification of Web 2.0, especially in the current culture of fear that's being spread.

Trust me.