Trust Networks (part 1)

I have been following the #iranelection hashtag on Twitter for the past two days, and I’ve been noticing a few things about online trust.

Two users in particular have surfaced out of the din of that particular stream (not sure whether naming them will expose them to further harm, so I will call them Pyramus and Thisbe) and watching their posts throughout the past 48 hours, and the true power of asymmetrical following proved itself as they told their stories in real time to me through my own Twitter screens (private through relative obscurity), and simultaneously to the rest of the world. If you didn’t know whom to trust, or didn’t choose to, they would be just another pair of green faces in the crowd.

But how did I come to trust these two voices in the midst of this utter chaos? (This question was posed to me by Ted on Facebook.) Trust is built out of so many intangible things, online and off, and many people trust and distrust for different reasons. I am a very trusting person to begin with. I used to say that everyone I meet starts with 100 points and over time, with each questionable or untrustworthy interaction I will deduct points. For me, it’s easy to lose points and hard to gain them back. Other people have an opposite philosophy in that they distrust everyone from the beginning, and over time, people will do things to earn trust points over time. Same mechanism, different directions.

The first and most critical step in determining trust online is establishing identity. But this particular case demonstrates how easy (and difficult) it is to determine if someone is who they say they are. Pyramus’ Twitter profile says she is an “Iranian Student”. That is an unverifiable piece of data, but coupled with the content of her posts over time, I believe her. Identity is who you say you are, and the way you say things. And when.

If you have ever seriously tried to date online, you will know this to be true. On the other hand, you will also know that another’s identity can be completely constructed in your own mind out of the same tiny clues, inflated by what you want to see.

But again, how did I come to trust Pyramus and Thisbe, out of all others, and decide to follow them as trusted sources reporting from ground zero? Not sure, but it was some combination of Farsi name-dropping, citation of landmarks that were later verified (IRIB for one), quality of reportage, and the underlying tone of posts. Oh, and not to be overlooked, sometimes misspellings and alternate translations of place names (“Valli Asr” for “Vali-e-Asr”). There are myriad other incalculable hints that I’m not even conscious of, but after listening to this person’s voice through these little messages long enough, you just begin to trust that they are genuinely who you think they are, they don’t have to ask you to trust them (they don’t have time for that), there is an urgency that comes through both the breathiness of Twitter and the odd little mis-typings that signal a human touch.

I can almost see them as night falls over Tehran, preparing for the ensuing battle, ready for the Baseej to come breaking through the glass and the doors, typing out messages to the rest of the world and posting them before the censors block their connections to the internet, making every single 140 character payload worth more than life itself…

Be safe, Pyramus and Thisbe.

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