The Assumption of "Trust" in Social Networks

I received an email today about Second Porch, a new startup that allows Facebook users to "trade and rent vacation homes among their trusted group of friends and networks". The concept is certainly intriguing as it marries up social networking with an oft-intimidating process: renting a vacation home. For many vacation-goers, they don't even consider the option of renting a vacation home for fear of the unknowns: will it stink? does it really look as nice as the pictures? is it safe for our kids? are the beds comfortable? will we feel like we're staying in our ol' Aunt Martha's basement? You get the idea.

After a disappointing experience with vacation rentals, Brent Hieggelke (founder of Second Porch) thought their must be a solution to the pain of blindly renting a vacation home. After all, you're renting from someone you don't know, have never met before, and have no intentions of interacting with in the future.

A few years ago, I looked into vacation rentals and came across the VRBO network. I found a small vacation rental on the island of Kauai and off we went to enjoy the aloha spirit. What we found when we arrived was indeed a very nice little cottage that was clean, bright, and cheery. This was a welcome relief since, in the months leading up to the vacation, my mind was plagued with the prospect of "what if it's not really like it is in the pictures?"

What Second Porch is banking on is that you are more likely to feel comfortable and more likely to rent a vacation home from someone you know...and trust. Unfortunately, most of us don't have close friends with homes in destination vacation spots around the world. If we're lucky, we have one friend, maybe two, who have access to such homes.

Enter Facebook and the social networking engine. Now, instead of having access to just one or two friends with vacation homes, your ever-expanding social network would provide you access to many, many more through Second Porch's embedded app.

I applaud this innovative concept and I wish Brent and his business well in this exciting time of launching and growing an unproven concept.

As I ponder this new business concept, I'm reminded of my dissertation topic: trust. The heart of all dyadic interactions is trust. When we trust, we are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. Risk-taking behavior is vitally important for societal progress and development. [aside: My students tire of hearing me say that "an entrepreneur's job is to be a trust-creator and trust-manager."]

So, trust is important. Got that. Risk is part of the trust equation. Got it. I'm more likely to trust people who are in my Facebook network? I'm not sure about that one. I get that I'm more likely to trust someone that I know and interact with, but I'm not sure that just because someone is affiliated (loosely, even?) with me on Facebook, I'm more likely to trust them. I'm not saying that the Second Porch concept doesn't work. It certainly does, as evidenced by the testimonials on their site. What I'm wondering about is to what extent do we extend trust to those in our social networks. Are some ties in our network stronger than others? I would say, of course so. If that's the case, how do we go about measuring or evaluating the trustworthiness of Person C (whom we don't know and have never interacted with in any way)? Are we to trust Person C because we know Person A who knows Person B who is "Facebook friends" with Person C? Is that enough?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how and why trust is assumed between persons unknown--but affiliated--to one another in social networks. Any thoughts?

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