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Newmark: Can New Trust and Reputation Systems Disrupt Power?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 6 2010

Our friend Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, has a longish (for him) post up on his blog discussing how trust and reputation systems may be redistributing power and influence. He writes:

People use social networking tools to figure out who they can trust and rely on for decision making. By the end of this decade, power and influence will shift largely to those people with the best reputations and trust networks, from people with money and nominal power. That is, peer networks will confer legitimacy on people emerging from the grassroots.

This shift is already happening, gradually creating a new power and influence equilibrium with new checks and balances. It will seem dramatic when its tipping point occurs, even though we're living through it now.

Everyone gets a chance to participate in large or small ways, giving a voice to what we once called "the silent majority."

I think Craig is definitely on to something (and you should read his whole post), but as I told him in an email, it's one thing to see this play out over issues like whether a bookseller on Amazon or eBay is trustworthy, or whether you should trust someone's restaurant review, and something else when it comes to relating to people or institutions with real power.

Back in college, I remember my anthropology professor Kay Warren talk about the problem of "muting"--that is, when people with less power don't speak up in the presence of people with more power. Historian Lawrence Goodwyn, who wrote the definitive histories of agrarian populism in America and of the Solidarity movement in Poland*, writes:

Historically, societies are not routinely afflicted with "movements." Things are usually "normal" and people behave in conventional ways. A relatively small number of citizens possessing high sanction move about in an authoritative manner and much larger number of people without such sanction move about more softly....Movements disrupt this normal order.

Craig's theory of open networked trust systems needs to address how power shapes what people will or won't say about other people.

Stating that you distrust someone who is a stranger and who ripped you off on eBay is a lot different than stating that you distrust the police chief of your town because he seems to play favorites with some locals and discriminates against others.

I don't know what the answer is to that question, by the way, but it's at the core of why some systems of authority last well beyond the trust they may actually have among people.

Can open systems humble the powerful, from time to time? Absolutely. But is the sea-change Craig is predicting really underway? Until we take seriously how power reinforces itself, and how hard it is to organize social movements that question and disrupt inherited power, I think not.

*I can't recommend highly enough Goodwyn's book "Breaking the Barrier," on Solidarity, and in particular his discussion of social movement organizing.

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