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Hypergene MediaBlog » Trust in Transition: An Interview with Karen Stephenson
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Trust in Transition: An Interview with Karen Stephenson


Karen Stephenson is the kind of woman who can put you both at ease and at the edge of your seat at the same moment. What she studies is something deeply fundamental to the human experience - trust.

Trust is vital not just in our close relationships but in our numerous encounters with strangers (Think about it the next time you pass an oncoming car along a dark, divided highway).

For all of its importance, trust itself is an inherently insecure thing. It implies a deep faith and certainty but is often based, at best, on inconclusive evidence. It is a contradiction that is critical to understand as media becomes a product of greater collaboration in online communities.

Karen’s observations about this transition are unique, given her background as both anthropologist and physicist.

Karen’s latest book is “Quantum Theory of Trust: The Secret of Mapping and Managing Human Relationships.”

Last March, she graciously spent a few moments with us after the Whose News? Media, Technology and the Common Good Conference at Harvard. Here’s the transcript of that conversation and several follow-up emails:

Q: What is your new book about?
The Quantum Theory of Trust

"The Quantum Theory of Trust is about the ‘engine’ behind human networks - aka - trust. It is the fuel that drives the networks for good or for bad. 

I talk about networks in a way that competitors can’t or haven’t - competitors are simply connecting the dots with technology without a lot of measurement or theoretical understanding behind what they are measuring.  Even the competitors I have taught or transferred this to are more in the ‘sound-bite’ arena."

Q: Why did you write the book?

"I hope to teach people to think about how they invest their resources of time and personal knowledge in the networks they keep.  It’s important to store knowledge in your networks but no one person can control them and that is why the unexpected or disastrous can happen."

Q: What have you found in the new information economy and the open source movement that fits well with your ideas?

Once people find themselves in that space, they will collaborate.

But, here’s the dilemma: They call economics the dismal science for a reason and that’s because the pie is only so big. So, not only do I want to hold on to my piece, I want take yours away from you because I get bigger.

So there’s this whole notion that I can benefit at your demise, which can lead to zero sum games that can be really nasty and lot of people out there, no matter what they say, behave that way.

The new economy person says the pie gets bigger - it’s not fixed. It gets bigger and there’s more pieces for everyone. So, if you have a new economy person in the same room with an old economy person, the new economy person is going to loose their shirt. Because they’re going to give it all away and the old economy person is going to run off and say, “Sucker!”

To me the dilemma is everyone needs to be in the same room with the same mindset. Because otherwise you are going to have betrayal, which is the breaking of trust. And you can’t come back from betrayal.

Once the relationship is broken, it’s very hard to come back. It takes you 20 years to build a reputation, it takes 2 seconds to have it destroyed.

There are ways in which you can build it back. Reputation is one thing, relationships are another. I think you can build back reputations. But when there is real betrayal, that’s it. People won’t come back.

Q: What do journalists need to understand to engage and build trust with their online audience?

There are two issues: Trustworthiness is different from trust, and trust is different from (transactional) traffic.

Just because you have a lot of transactions on the Internet does not mean that people necessarily trust you. It just means that they’re transacting – taking information and wandering off. They’re being nomadic on the information super highway.

Trustworthiness - I like the eBay idea about building reputation and building criteria around the professionalization and the quality control on information or on evidence.

Evidenced-based reputation is fine. It’s a great mantra, it’s a great value, but (in a journalistic sense) how are you going to measure it?

There are protocols for information. When you look at banking transactions going back and forth from the ATM and the bank there’s all these protocols around how to measure the trustworthiness of the information.

You can do the same thing when it comes to human capital, which is me as an individual.

How do people learn to trust me? Well, because I write about things, I behave, I transact in certain ways that show I have integrity that I’m honorable, and I don’t take cheap shots, you know.

Things like that build a reputation. We can identify those criteria and institutionalize them - that would establish whether I’m trustworthy.

Then we could look at the way I conduct myself with my established colleagues and peer-to-peer communications - my trust-based relationships.

You need to be trustworthy to participate. But, the trust that exits between you and me is very different from whether or not either of us is trustworthy.

There is a thing that is connecting us and that is a relationship that’s based in our trust. And the metric around measuring that is new to people’s minds.

Everyone wants to feel all warm and fuzzy about trust. When you try monetizing trust or let it run amok, it can lead to a perverse outcome.

Q: You went to the University of Utah, which is deep in Mormon country. The Mormons cherish community and tight neighborhood relationships and yet it’s not uncommon for con artists to scam people there. Why is that?

Trustworthiness is objective. Behaviors can be measured.

People get into trouble when they start to trust because, “you think like me, you look like me, you walk and talk like I do.”

If I decide I’m going to trust you, I’ll do it the old way. And the old, primordial way of developing trust was based on a principle of similarity.

So that means that all you have to do to feign trust is be a wolf in sheep’s clothing - to walk and talk and dress and adopt the behaviors of the community or of the person you intend to scam.

For instance, if you look at professors in universities, you’ll notice their protegés will look a lot like they do.

I couldn’t believe it. When I went out to the University of California and Chuck Young was this, sort of, long, leathery, white guy who was chancellor of UCLA. And then I went to all of the other campuses to speak and they were all long, leathery, white guys.

And, I thought, “He’s been cloned! That’s what’s been going on here.”

Well, no, he wasn’t cloned. What he did was work very hard to find people that were like him. It wasn’t even conscious. I’m walking in, I’m seeing this with new eyes, I’m not of that tribe and I’m thinking, “My, God, they all look alike.”

And so, it’s so subconscious. It’s in our DNA, literally, because it goes right back to when we lived by cheek and jowl around the campfire.

So what we’ve got to watch against is that comfort zone of entering in to trust based on that familiarity.

I think that you need to distrust the familiarity and seek new criteria for why you are going to trust someone.

The trouble is that it’s so subconscious and it’s so subtle that you almost have to take people through training so that they learn to suspend belief.

Q: That’s similar to what Gladwell writes in ‘Blink.’

Malcom Gladwell wrote a feature on my work for The New Yorker called “Designs for Working”. It was such a lovely story. He told a beautiful story. I got to the end and it made me want to go to work. (Laughs)

Q: Is journalistic bias inevitable?

It is impossible not to have bias. Like it’s impossible to be independent. Who ever said that?

We are all interconnected. We are not an island. There is nobody who is an island unless you want to go buy yourself and island and live on it for a while.

Q: Why are we wired to be attracted to those similar to us?

When people were first organized they were formed around lineages and clans, coming out of a biological notion. That’s how they survived. But it’s also deceptive.

When the first anthropologists in the 1800s went to go interview native tribes, they thought they were all interconnected through biology.

But, of course, that’s the great myth. Yes, that’s probably how it all began at one point, but what happens if you get enough of these groups and clans, they switch loyalties.

Just like I would go from one division of a company to another. I can say that I’m making a job change but what they would do is say:

“Oh, well really my ancestor Aunt June over here was really related more to Joey.”

So people would switch and take a new ancestor. So people that weren’t born into the clan became a part of it.

And so, it was really confusing to anthropologists. They were getting it all wrong because they were trying to figure out the actual genealogy based on reproductive strategies when it had nothing - well, it had something to do with reproductive strategies – but half was reproductive strategies and half was just social lying.

People were just creating the rationale for why they wanted to join this group as opposed that group - or they were being stupid, being ostracized or involved in betrayal.

So in the early days, (Alfred) Radcliffe-Brown was famous for this, he was deceived. (W.H.R.) Rivers actually came up with this, “Look this is social calculation as well as biological reproductive strategy.”

The same thing goes on today. Look at the wealthy and the clans. They like to marry within the clans to hold the wealth inside. Hello?! We’re talking about the same thing.

We haven’t really descended too far. We have not moved to far off that trajectory. (Laughs)

Q: Can you describe the challenges of trust and blind collaboration such as Wikipedia? What factors help make them succeed?

This is one of my favorite topics. Actually IBM asked me to look into this for them when I was a business scholar for them for about a decade.

For three million years humans have really been doing things face-to-face. But, there’s a problem:

The greatest source of error in hiring is when people rely on the job interview. They feel most comfortable with it – but it’s still the greatest source of deception.

So fast forward to the present day:

We are now on a trajectory of human evolution that we did not have before. The earliest form of virtual communication was the smoke signal.

That goes back a long time, but there’s no comparison between the smoke signal and the Internet.

So we’re really on the cusp of something that, in my view, humans have never experienced before.

So consequently, when they are trying to create trust with one another they’re doing it with frequency of transactional exchanges - sharing lots of information.

I think that will produce a very thin strain of trust because people will want to seek to make it stronger. And the natural thing, the thing that’s in their DNA - even in the Gen Xers and Gen Yers - is that they will try to get together.

So, they’ll send pictures. They’ll want to see a face. They’ll try to meet. And they’ll pick up the phone and to talk to each other and hear the voice.

There is so much communication that comes through the voice that has nothing at all to do with the information exchange. It has something to do with the person.

So communication can be blind, but it better have sound - a step up from total blindness.

By the way, there are protocols where you can look at the number of transactions and gauge whether a person is going to be trustworthy or not. But they’re not well understood because we’re just developing this new kind of knowledge.

We have some prior experience. I think eBay is one of the most successful things going on when it comes to understanding reputation. The same thing is going on with Amazon.

But it’s really around reputation, they are not monitoring relationships - the collective network of the relationships. And if you’re talking about peer-to-peer community of practice amongst journalists, there’s nobody out there that’s doing that.

Let me give you an example, people are now entering in to these social networks like LinkedIn.

I can’t tell you how many invitations I get everyday. Now, I’m writing about trust but that is the last place I’d go to put my relationships and share them. I don’t know who to trust.

You might say, “Karen, you write about trust, therefore you are the most paranoid about it.” You might be right.

But, if I’m thinking this way there must be lots of other people thinking this way. Is it just my generation? I don’t think so. I’ve talked to some young kids who say the same thing, too.

Q: We talked to Reid Hoffman, shortly after LinkedIn was launched and told him we were fascinated by it. But we were not sure how to use it. Networking with people in the real world we have experience with. Making meaningful connections through LinkedIn seemed less clear.

It is a social networking tool. (Pause) As an anthropologist, you’re always on the outside looking in. If I got LinkedIn, I wouldn’t be on the outside anymore.

Q: You said our first form of virtual communication might have been the smoke signal. So have we evolved in any way to deal with issues of blind trust?

I don’t think we have. This is new territory for us this is new ground. We are on really new ground. We are on the Savannahs in a new way. I’m not saying it can’t be done - just that it’s not well understood.

But, I do know that the earliest forms for feeling more comfortable with it are to bring some of the older forms such as voice. Because, we first got knowledge through storytelling - not through writing. Humans have a finely developed sense of hearing, and they interpret through that sound.

The next is obviously meeting face-to-face.

But having said all that, it can be quite deceptive. Like I said, despite all the interviews for jobs, the interview, again, is the least predictive measure.

It’s the tasks that are actually more predictive than the interview.

Q: How can we measure trust?

Frequency of transaction and reliability, the timeliness of it, the expectations of it builds up a credibility that can be quantified. And you can build that on every transaction.

Every thing that comes could be logged that way a fit to a criteria. And it can be automated so that people don’t have to be like accountants tracking all this for themselves. It can all be automated.

We need a Morningstar when it comes to these kind of things - a rating of a person’s intellectual property.

I, David Bowie, am a star. I could be publicly traded. We don’t think about it like that, but we do it all the time. Sometimes my stock is high, sometimes it’s low. I could screw up on something and do great on another. It varies over the lifetime of my career.

We could do that for everybody.

David Bowie didn’t have to take himself public. We can all do that. In essence, we already are. We haven’t done it consciously, but it’s there already in the Internet, and we can track that.

That actually is what the TIA (Total Information Awareness) project was about. But people, because it was central government, were disgusted. I know John Poindexter. He actually asked me to come on board. It was a great idea. But it was ill-fated because people don’t trust the government.

Q: Overall people’s trust in the media is low and has dropped over the past 10 years. Why is that?

It’s because of the shift to infotainment and because of recent betrayals in the news media. Journalists were lying.

I think there are two things going on. You’ve got individual perpetrators of crime, like the wolf in sheep’s clothing - going in to the community and lying. One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

Then you have this digression from evidence-based reporting to infotainment. I think that can be reversed.

Q: How can newspapers rebuild trust?

I would say these newspapers you need to form very strategic relationships, just like Hollywood did with the digital post-production houses because the post-digital production was going to be their undoing.

So what they did was create a partnership.

If I were traditional print media, I would be reaching out and embracing the blogs and saying:

“Thank you for being our quality control. Would you consider this to be your job because we love this. We want to make sure you check this out. Maybe we can’t hire you but we consider this to be so important.”

They need to recognize the validity of people who are trying to do something right.

Blogging has gotten a bad wrap because there are vindictive people out there that just rant and rave. But there are those people everywhere.

We cannot immunize ourselves against the crazy folks mouthing off.

But for the most part, bloggers are trying to do a very good job of fact-checking, reporting and catching things.

If I were a traditional news business, I would be partnering with these folks.
You know you could do a map of the major papers and the major bloggers and predict where the most strategic relationships should occur.

We’re living in the middle of this change. We’re right in the middle of the stream. The waters are rushing past us. We know we’re going to get to the other side, but we don’t know what it’s going to look like.

Q In We Media, we suggest that the trust the public has in the institution is very different than the trust the public has for given individuals within the institution?

I totally agree with you. In fact, does anybody trust an institution? It’s an inanimate object.

Q: So, should reporters and editors have the autonomy to develop their own “trusted” communities?

Yes. But the institutions have got to get “it.”

Today, I trust no institutions. But institutions are made up of wonderful people. But often times those wonderful people aren’t the decision makers.

So, if you want me to pay attention to the institution, you let me see inside. Let me see the men and women behind the curtain. Give me their blogs. I want to know who they are. I’ll form my relationships with them thank you very much.

Then if I like what I see. I might trust your institution.

Q: But that’s a cultural thing that Big Media won’t do anytime soon. They’re not willing to let go of control.

No. They can’t.

Their (media executives) whole career trajectory was predicated on the opposite thing. So even though they intellectually will talk with you in a room their gut, their emotional reaction is telling them “flight or fight.”

Let me tell you, the thing that got them to where they are is exactly opposite of what we’re talking about today.

I know their IQ is high but is their EQ high, too? Can they emotionally let go?

Update (21 March 2006)

Q: We forgot to ask you the Million Dollar Question: How can trust be distributed?

Great question! Trust can be measured, managed and monetized - but can it be distributed?

It can by “seeding”. Trust takes time to grow - so you can’t turn it on and off like a light switch.

Instead, you redistribute key hubs and pulse-takers to catalyze future relationships and, as they congeal and trust stabilizes, then the information will flow as easily as turning on that light switch!

Update (20 Aprl 2006): Business 2.0 has published a profile of Karen ("How to tap your company’s hidden network"). Some of the interesting things that you’ll learn about her:

  • She’s a force of nature packed into a slight 5-foot-2 frame.
  • She’s 54.
  • She calls herself a “corporate anthropologist."
  • She claims to be immune to jet lag.

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Posted on Mar 20, 2006 | 8:04 pm EST

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Great interview, very thought-provoking, with tons of implications for my favorite topic, conversational media

According to Amazon, Karen’s book “Quantum Theory of Trust” is out of print, and they have no used or new copies available. BestBookBuys can’t find it eitherm by title or ISBN. Do you have any information on how to get a copy?

- Amy Gahran

Posted by: Amy Gahran on Mar 22, 06 | 7:15 pm EST

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We’ve put the question to Karen and will update the post with any information.

Posted by: chris on Mar 22, 06 | 7:26 pm EST

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According to the Business 2.0 article, “Quantum Theory of Trust” is due out in May.

Posted by: chris on Apr 20, 06 | 5:28 pm EST

Q: “…the trust the public has in the institution is very different than the trust the public has for given individuals within the institution?”
A: …”does anybody trust an institution? It’s an inanimate object.”

People can distrust an institution (as a whole) but trust individuals within (components of) the institution.  I think that the question really asks, not whether the nature of trust is the same, but rather whether components of a thing (person/object) can be trusted separately from the whole.

In this interview, there are references to what I would call “brand” (the “stock” of David Bowie) and “faith” (“turning on and off a light switch”), and both of these things involve a trust that is shared between individuals and objects.

I would say that trust can be distilled to an expectation of a favorable outcome — favorable to the individual doing the trusting.  Outcomes (effects) are the results of behaviors (causes), which gives us part of what we refer to as a “personality”.  This part of the personality of an object (such as an institution or a light switch) is its brand.  Now apply this to flipping on/off a light switch — we fully expect the light to go on or off; and when it doesn’t we have to reflect on why.  We trusted (had faith) that our interaction with this object would behave as expected.

So, I would disagree with the implication that people can’t trust an institution (notwithstanding the fact that it is, really, more than an <i>inanimate</i> object).

Posted by: Ronaldo on Aug 03, 06 | 12:36 pm EST


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