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Can We Build Trust In Online Communities?

46% of Americans say their most important group is online. Clearly, online meaningful relationships are possible, but we have to support the group leaders who are setting the culture and tone.

When faith in God goes away, a church collapses. When faith in each other goes away, a nation collapses. Over the last decades many nations, and especially the United States, have experienced devastating declines of social trust. Without trust, people feel existentially unsafe. They hive off into warring tribes. They look at each other with suspicion and hostility. Societies spiral into a distrust doom loop.

How do you build trust? Trust is built when people are enmeshed in trustworthy communitiesβ€”communities in which people reliably show up for each other. A century ago, most people were enmeshed in religious congregations, small towns, tribal networks, veterans organizations, local chapters of community groups. Those kinds of communities have withered all around the world as we have urbanized and, in many places, become less religious. The $100 trillion questions are: Can we create new forms of trustworthy communities? Can we form these communities where people are spending their time, online?

If you had asked me these questions five years ago, I would have said absolutely not. Online communities, I believed then, foster shallow communication and scattered, atomized, ephemeral and unreliable relationships. Especially in the U.S. the rise in social media has been accompanied by a rise in depression, suicide and political polarization.

Since then my views have shifted. Social scientists have now had the chance to study the effects of social media and, in general, they find surprisingly little or no correlation between social media uses and these social maladies. In the U.S., suicide and polarization are on the increase, but in many other countries with high social media penetration, suicide and polarization are on the way down. My takeaway from all this research is that it’s not social media that’s the problem, it’s the ideas and behavior of the people who use it. Character is destiny, online or offline.

Three years ago, I helped form Weave: The Social Fabric Project. We lift up and support hyperlocal community builders. These local community leaders organize to solve neighborhood problems, whether it’s hunger, homelessness, isolation or just children who need mentors and support. They heavily rely on social media sites like Facebook to communicate with their communities, to deepen relationships, to do their work. I would say they are suspicious of Facebook the corporation, but I’m struck by how often they are glowing about what they can do on Facebook with their neighbors.

Facebook Groups has 1.8 billion users, and more than half of them are in five or more groups. Clearly people have come to value the communities they are building online.

A new research report from The Governance Lab makes me more optimistic still. If you want to know what people value, just ask them. Here’s a startling and important finding from it: In 11 out of the 15 nations surveyed, the largest proportion of people said the most important group in their lives is primarily online. Forty-six percent of Americans say their most important group is online, while 30 percent say it’s in person. In Brazil, among those with access to the internet, it’s 50 percent online and 13 percent in person. Facebook Groups has 1.8 billion users, and more than half of them are in five or more groups. Clearly people have come to value the communities they are building online.

These groups have a tendency to subvert social hierarchies. I was struck by how many of the groups described in this report were started by people who feel they don’t quite fit inβ€”African women living in Germany, Asians living in white-majority societies. Online seems to create opportunities especially for non-dominant groups, people who might feel uncomfortable walking into an in-person meeting place.

Many of these online communities have a tendency to deepen. People may initially gather because they like tropical fish, but, humans being humans, they eventually start sharing vulnerable stories, they eventually want to meet face-to-face. The report suggests the most successful groups are surprisingly small, fewer than 100 people. The report also suggests the most successful groups tend to have ties to a local community. They don’t replace geographic presence, but rely upon it. This suggests that while technology has changed, people still like meeting in small groups, they still like groups that are tied to place.

These groups have created a new social roleβ€”the online community leader.  There are 70 million admins in the world today. That’s 70 million community leaders, practicing their leadership in new and novel ways. Surely we should be focusing a lot of attention on these people, on helping them perform their role well.

Right now, the training and nurturing of the admins looks nascent to me. Many of them have, without planning, stumbled into complex, nearly full-time jobs with no pay and no training. Eighty-six percent say that they had to teach themselves the skills they need to do their jobs, and yet here they are dealing with people thinking about suicide, and contentious conversations.

This doesn’t seem sustainable. There has to be a better training system. I should think we have to do a better job connecting these people to the many leadership training curricula that there are in the world. I’d also say these people need financial support. Asking people to take on a high intensity job without compensation is asking for burnout.

Facebook has begun to address these issues. It’s creating certification processes to help leaders build skills. It’s connecting leaders with potentially revenue generating brands. Much more can be done, especially in helping leaders understand how to build deep and trusting relationships online.

Online communities are in their early years, and it’s natural everything is a little haphazard. But I’m hopeful that we can build systems around these communities, to make them stronger, deeper and the engines of trust we need to build healthy societies.

View a panel, including David, discussing the new research and social trust.

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Comments (3)

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We get along and trust others on the roads. We can use safe driving as an action plan to inspire understanding and respect in society. Teach everyone to listen (yield), check biases (blind spots), and reject ideological rage (road rage).

The key is effective training (listening, empathy, diversity, etc.) If it doesn't change hearts and minds, people will just ignore it, or even point out its flaws and actively resist it.

My approach is to start with our closest relationships, and to use non-controversial everyday experiences as examples. If we can't even help people better understand their loved ones, then how can we bridge differences with strangers? The truth is we don't always understand our loved ones (because we spend too little time listening to them and deliberately learning about them). Fortunately we have rich common experiences that can help us see ourselves in others, and see the best in others.

Just as it's important to provide links to accurate COVID information on the front pages of online platforms, it's important to inspire understanding and respect on the front pages of online platforms, and wherever it's needed. We've made it so much easier to hate and argue online. We must do much more to inspire understanding and respect.
Marc Wong
Forgive this long comment, but building online communities is an area where I've had a fair amount of experience. In 2005 I co-founded a non-profit called Global Mindshift, which brought small groups of people -- often international -- into asynchronous, facilitated dialogues to explore the knowledge and skills we need to learn to live in global community. Results were mixed. Sometimes it went great, sometimes not. When it did not go great was when conflicts among participants arose and there was no clear process or commitment to resolve. It was too easy to just stop showing up.

In 2010 I joined the leadership team of another non-profit that engaged college students in a program where they learned to run a business (a grilled cheese deli), the purpose of which was to raise money and awareness for the end of global hunger. We had chapters on about 30 college campuses, and noticed that each chapter had a strong sense of community, but there was little connection and information sharing between the chapters. So we created a custom online platform designed to connect the chapters to share learning and to facilitate their training as social entrepreneurs. Adoption was low ("not another platform!") until we started having annual retreats that included staff, the leadership teams of each chapter, and representatives of the international organizations their delis were supporting. Every year, three and a half days of relationship building, leadership training, education on the issue of global hunger, and training on how to run a social enterprise. Importantly it, was also an opportunity to establish the culture and values of the organization, which was conveyed in the content and structure of the retreat, and importantly in how the staff interacted with the students and with each other. By the end of the second annual retreat, online participation had skyrocketed. So did the amount of money the students raised at their delis.

In the end we came to see the strength of the organization as the result of building community at three levels: Locally by connecting as a chapter, nationally by connecting to other chapters, and globally by connecting to their international partners working on the front lines of poverty and hunger. For the students, it was incredibly empowering.

Perhaps there is something useful in all that as we continue to find our way forward.
Kern Beare
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