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Do enterprise social networks harm collaboration?


Recently I wrote about the importance of trust to a culture of collaboration.  The study found that the more knowledge and transparency regarding ones reputation, the more likely we are to collaborate with them.

A recent study from Stanford academics found that whilst online social networks may help to promote trust between employees initially, they eventually contribute to an erosion of trust in the longer term.

The authors highlight how various online communities have enabled us to solicit feedback from a much wider range of people than we otherwise would be able to.  What’s more, this feedback is usually granted significant credibility.

“Remarkably, what appears to be a very difficult act in the offline world – creating interpersonal trust – is a routine activity for organizations operating within this segment of the economy,” they say.

Where trust comes from

The researchers analyzed data from the sharing economy travel website Couchsurfing, which allows people to shack down on the couch of hosts in their intended country.

The site operates free of charge, so trust and reputation are fundamental to its success.  The profile of each user on the site comes complete with their social network and various other personal information designed to prove their reliability.

The analysis revealed that the ratings about both guests and hosts had a doubled edged effect on trust.  Whilst the ratings initially made relationships easier to establish, after a while it had the adverse effect and weakened them.

So the technology was great at establishing an initial level of trust, but after a certain threshold had been reached, additional reviews did nothing to make ties any stronger.

As an example, one user revealed how trust was originally forged through a process of mutual discovery, but once reputations had been established, people became much more ‘discerning’ over who they engaged with.

“While they welcomed the rating system, in part because it allayed some safety concerns, it also made relationships more predictable,” the authors say.

The authors go on to explain that in most online communities the interactions between users are less open to chance than in real world encounters.

This is because trust and reputation is more transparent and therefore much easier to monitor.

“What our research suggests is that Internet-mediated interactions tend to become less open-ended and unexpected the more information the community accumulates about its members,” the authors state.

The researchers hope to further test their hypothesis throughout the various forms of online communities that exist on the web.

The technology has made building trust easier than ever before, with trust often pretty straightforward to establish in early engagements between users online.

This routine however poses a limit to the meaning we tend to attach to relationships that are mediated purely in the online world, which results in the strange conundrum of technology making trust easy to establish between strangers whilst at the same time weakening the bonds that unite us.

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