Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Nature of Trust in Second Life

Trust is a funny thing. I have been doing a lot of thinking about what it means in Second Life. It's a tough thing in real life to begin with, and when you add the transient, virtual nature of Second Life to the equation, it becomes almost impossible to figure out. Nevertheless, trust and trustworthiness are an intricate part of being human, and recent events in my SLife have got me thinking more and more about it. I have realized that it's important to me to be seen as trustworthy and to see that people trust me, but in the Second Life context, it might not be a realistic goal... I apologize in advance if this sounds like a philosophical treatise – lol – I do tend to get on the soapbox sometimes.

When i think about the nature of trust in SL, it seems to me that there are three important things to consider: the object of trust; the person who trusts; and the environment we live in (i.e. SL). Let's imagine for a moment that the object of the trust is in this case beyond reproach (lmao – it's hypothetical, ok!). Let's assume that by words, deeds, and demeanour, this person is deserving of trust by any objective assessment. She is, in other words, trustworthy.

What about the person that is doing the trusting? This is more complicated. People are all different – some people are by nature “too trusting”, and find it easy to place their trust in others – it is just a part of who they are. Some people are by nature “suspicious”, perhaps based on betrayals in their lives, and find it difficult to place their trust in anyone. So, in some cases, no matter how trustworthy someone else is, some people simply can't take that leap of faith. Because, essentially that is what trust is – a leap of faith. There has to be some risk associated with trust – without it, there is no need to place your trust in someone at all. If, for example, I enter a business arrangement with someone, and we draw up an ironclad contract that covers every eventuality, with tangible consequences for a breach of the contract, then trust is not really necessary at all. I guess an example in RL of this is a prenuptial agreement – it avoids the issue of trust altogether (at least financial trust), by laying out the conditions before the marriage, so that the whole question of trust is avoided. And, of course, it is this very thing which makes people NOT do a prenup – they want to prove to their partner that they are trustworthy, and trust them, and so don't need a contract to back it up. I'm not saying this is smart, mind you, but it's true nonetheless. In the end, some people can trust others and some can't, everything else being equal.

Let's assume for the moment, that if this were RL, we have a completely trustworthy person, and another who has a natural inclination to place trust in others. In RL, this would be no problem – we'd have the “I'd trust them with my life/money/heart” situation. But that brings into play the third factor here – Second Life. The SL environment is a crucially important part of trust for all of us. And, I am sad to say, Second Life might simply have made trust impossible. The virtual nature of SL makes it by necessity less real – and the ethics that govern our behaviour in RL don't always cross over into SL. Most disturbingly, we have all seen people who seem to be able to turn their ethics (and trustworthiness) on and off – acting responsibly and ethically until it becomes too difficult, or painful to do so, and then seemingly “turning” at some point. I can only assume that the rationale in their mind is that SL is not “real”, and so they just bail on the whole thing. The lack of tangible consequences for people in SL makes this easy, at least practically speaking. And the human mind is capable of incredible gymnastics in rationalizing bad behaviour if there are no societal, legal, or real consequences. We all have an image of ourselves as a good person, and can often convince ourselves that we are justified in whatever actions we take. Since the ethical framework in Second Life is so loose and inconsistent, and we see people acting abhorrently on a daily basis, it seems to have almost become acceptable to act badly – to bail on commitments and promises – to betray people. And because it is so loose, there is no ethical framework we can use to judge our own actions.

In RL we have laws, religions, communities, cultures – and all of these provide a frameworks into which we fit our actions, so we know, essentially, what is right and what is wrong for us. It isn't the same for everyone – but it is there nonetheless. In SL, this just isn't the case – the ethical frameworks of RL have only partially been reconstructed, and the norms of behaviour are close to amoral and anarchistic.

So, where does that leave us? We have a trustworthy person and another who is willing to trust, but an environment that is not conducive to trust at all... I am not sure that I have the answer – but there have been at least two people in SL that I would have said “I trust them implicitly based on their actions and words”, that have eventually turned around and screwed me emotionally and/or financially. And the oddest thing is that I truly believe that both of these people, in a RL situation, would be worthy of that trust. But Second Life made it too tempting to take the easy way out, I guess. Behind a veil of anonymity and lack of consequences, they went against their own natures and bailed on SL commitments, perhaps thinking to themselves, that it isn't really “real”. Delicious is just an avatar, after all, not a real person, right? This is just a game – these are just fictional transactions, or whatever. And hey – it would be so easy just to.... leave... not deal... bail.

My inner conflict is this. Because of who I am, I NEED to be trusted. I pride myself on being trustworthy, and I get insulted when people don't want to take me at my word, and just simply TRUST ME! Lol. It's a big part of what makes me tick. But ironically, because of everything i have watched unfolding in SL, I am less and less willing to trust anyone else – no matter how honest and honorable they seem. I realize that this is inconsistent and unfair, and I guess that is why it has been on my mind so much recently. It is one of the reasons I have resisted getting into a lot of partnerships and business ventures with others – the reason I have always done almost everything myself in Second Life. I recognize that the rules of fair play and honor are not the same in SL as they are in RL – and I just don't need the heartache.

I am NOT saying that no-one in SL is worthy of our trust. We are human – we need to trust each other. Frankly, i would rather live a life where I get screwed by people I trusted, than one in which i was unable to trust anyone. So, I will continue to place my faith in others – in spite of the mounting evidence to the contrary. This might seem naïve in light of everything we have seen over the last year, but i don't mind being a bit naïve. I for one will continue to to try to earn the trust of the people i work with and work for in DDE and in everything I do in SL – there is no other way I know how to behave. However, I think that with this realization, I will be able to not take it personally when someone is unable to put their trust in me.

As i was writing this, I thought of a couple of my favorite quotes that might apply. Mahatma Ghandi once said, “You must become the change you want to see in the world.” Far from giving up on the ethics of Second Life, we must redouble our efforts to have a strong personal commitment to doing things right! Others will follow. And, some clever person once said, “Time may heal all wounds, but time also wounds all heels.” It's karma people – eventually you reap what you sow.

As I said once in a previous post, in the end, we are left alone with ourselves in those quiet moments, right? And I don't want to spend my quiet moments alone with an asshole...



Aeneas Whitfield said...

Virtual trust is an interesting concept. How often do you hear of people finding out that their sweet 20-something soul mate turns about to be some skeevy middle aged subterreanean dwelling pervert living in his underwear.

Many of those who get their emotions shredded are not stupid people or any more gullible than the next person. It's simply that the Internet has thrown up a whole class of chameleon-like predators who are very adept at deceit and very plausible.

At least when losing a few $ to a well concealed ponzi scheme you can shrug and consider it a lesson learned. There is also a clear motive - greed. There is nothing personal, your money is just as good as the next person's. A more intimate and personal betrayal is more difficult to understand, there is no obvious gain, it is targetted firmly at you.

Here is a consideration... within my RL circle there are a few people I know who are usffering from pretty serious medical conditions. They don't advertise the fact and are often reluctant to talk about it. Compare that to any group on the Internet where it seems 50% have a tragic illness which they can't wait to tell you about. There is even a well documented route which these "illnesses" take, beginning with the discovery, updates posted by a "close friend or relative" giving details of the brave fight while the poor victim is not able to access the Internet. Inevitably the day comes when the broken hearted friend/relative has to give the sad news that "X" has finally died. All the while, the "victim" is sitting alive and well, leeching off the messages of support and sympathy.

Now of course there are Internet users who are genuinely ill, but I would be willing to bet they are not rushing to tell thousands of complete strangers all about it.

So what is the motive here? The is no clear cut financial gain (although I have seen accompanying solicitations for help with "medical bills" and even for a memorial). There is no cheap sexual thrill.

It seem that there are an unhealthy number of people who live life so vicariously through their monitor, who are so detached from reality, so unaware or uncaring that they cynically toy with the finer feelings of others for their amusement.

These people belong firmly at the bottom of the food chain.

I should point out that I have no personal axe to grind, I met my current wife on-line in the early and innocent days of the Internet and years later we are still on honeymoon. I am not any more savvy than the next guy, I just have better luck.

ServMe said...

One of the reasons trust is so hard in SL is due to (the lack of) peer pressure. As things remain virtual and "a game" to some, if not most, there is no drive or need to take it seriously, or be affected by your peers and having those peers steer your own actions.

People shed their skin/avatar like a snake and reappear later without a hunch of guilt or past. In fact if they are able to do it once and realize how easy and no strings attached it is, they may very well turn from "someone who just happened to feel like starting" over to a intentional cheat and fraud.

Anyway, it seems very human to me to expect others to trust you right away, and to look for "proof" of trustworthiness in others before you stake that leap of faith yourself. After all, you do know what you're about, but can only judge others on what they show and do. Unfortunately, the same goes for everyone, making it only more complex.