For this month’s TNW iPad Magazine, we’ve focused on the sharing economy and the rise of collaborative consumption.

Whether you’re sharing your living space on Airbnb, your time on TaskRabbit, your car on Getaround, your dog on DogVacay or your status updates on Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, many will argue that the Internet’s identity layer, boosted by social network profiles has allowed us to more easily trust other human beings.

“If you told me two years ago that I would be letting complete strangers into my home, I would have laughed. Or, if you told me I could learn something valuable from someone I pass on the street. But, what you see today is a unique trust between complete strangers that didn’t exist before. I think that’s the most exciting thing about collaborative consumption – believing that people are inherently good,” says Mike Karnjanaprakorn, the founder of Skillshare, an education platform where users can earn money sharing their skills with others.

Many will argue that in an age of collaborative consumption, the Internet and social networks have encouraged greater transparency, and thus resulted in greater honesty and trust. But really, has the Internet made you more honest, less honest or had no effect? And why does it matter?

I realize “honesty” is a loaded concept. I’m referring to the quality of honesty defined by one’s integrity, sincerity and candor that inspires us to believe that people online and offline are worthy of our trust.

Sharing + Transparency

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In one sense, the Internet’s innate transparency requires us to be more honest. For example, I’m connected to so many people (friends, coworkers, lovers, family, etc.) across so many different social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Google+, etc.) so I’ve literally stopped telling little white lies because it’s much easier to be honest. Instead of cancelling a meeting with a PR rep and using the excuse “I’m not feeling well,” I say, “I’m exhausted and taking tomorrow off to go to the beach!” because I know I’ll likely take a picture of my beach trip on Instagram and wouldn’t want to get caught in a lie. And you know what? Most of the time they just say, “Have a great time!”

NYC-based philosopher Mattan Griffel enjoys the web’s transparency: “I like being radically transparent online in the sense that it keeps my offline life in check,” he says. “If I wouldn’t want pictures of something I’m doing to end up on my Facebook wall the next day, then I probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

Nettra Pan, a blogger at Future Challenges points out that “The Internet is giving companies, governments and public figures an amazing opportunity to be more honest. The information is out there and it becomes easier for the public to hold them accountable.”

What may be even more remarkable than increased honesty is that the omnipresence of Facebook and mobile phones is encouraging college students to behave more responsibly on spring break. According to a recent article in The New York Times, “today’s spring breakers — at least some of them — say they have been tamed, in part, not by parents or colleges or the fed-up cities they invade, but by the hand-held gizmos they hold dearest and the fear of being betrayed by an unsavory, unsanctioned photo or video popping up on Facebook or YouTube.”

In the article, Margaret Donnelly, a bartender in Key West described recent spring breakers as “very prudish” and said there “are far fewer wet T-shirt contests— a spring break mainstay — in town today”. She commented, “They are so afraid everyone is going to take their picture and put it online. Ten years ago people were doing filthy, filthy things, but it wasn’t posted on Facebook.”

“On the other hand, it’s a known fact that most people aren’t who they are online… just who they wish to be,” said Farid El Nasire, the Founder and CEO at Code Architects, which brings us to the issue of self-curation.

Self-curation

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While it’s easier to “be honest” across all these different networks, how much of my “honesty” is hindered by self-curation? ”As the number of platforms increase, we adapt to multiple networks. We connect with different audiences, through different voices. The Internet, then, is making us less honest because we are being “pieces” of ourselves, strategically embedded in different corners of the Web…” Ashley Brown, a marketing specialist for emerging technologies told me on Facebook.

Think of how you portray yourself on Facebook versus Path, Twitter, Instagram or Foursquare. We share certain aspects of our personalities depending on who we’re sharing with, but we also echo these practices in our real life. I act differently on Christmas Eve with my family versus New Years Eve with my friends, but does this sensibility make me any less honest of a person? No. Just because we’re curating our image on Facebook versus Path, we’re not being dishonest. We’re simply, and smartly, presenting the best versions of ourselves to the appropriate audience.

“[On the Internet] people think twice before engaging in activities that could be perceived negatively…I don’t think that these developments necessarily lead to more honesty, but certainly to a deeper consideration of what one (wants to) stand for, and how one can communicate this as open as possible,” says Christian Busch, the co-founder of Sandbox, who co-created the model of the Impact Organization.

In my experience, generations who grew up without Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter are less savvy at self-curation and the permanence of the Internet scares them from sharing. And they have every right to be skeptical and cautious; after all, whether you’re writing an email to someone or reviewing a home you stayed at on Airbnb, you’re no longer leaving a paper trail but a searchable, digital footprint. Let’s say you do screw up and get arrested or piss someone off who owns a popular blog. Suddenly your Google search results are tainted, scarred and permanently haunting. Considering this, Sandbox co-founder Christian Busch argues that since one’s ”digital footprint” is so visible, honesty might be the safest way forward, and therefore in the end the Internet might actually increase the degree of honesty online.

Rahaf Harfoush, a Digital Strategist and writer for The Next Web believes that curated online identities may be taking us towards a distorted reality in which we’ll see new VPN like services to cover our online tracks:

“I think honesty through forced transparency will eventually lead to a more curated online identity as our generation becomes more adept at navigating these digital landmines. We are moving towards a distorted reality where we can control the narrative better. While in some respects we will always have the threat of getting caught, we will adapt and take better care to cover unwanted behavior… As with the rise of VPN use, I think there will be a host of new services aimed specifically at helping us hide or cover our online tracks for potentially shady offline behavior.”

Degrees of Online Identity

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“The web’s visibility has made us more transparent and careful about what we share,” says Harry Mylonadis, the official Geek Writer for The Next Web. “On the other hand, the web’s anonymity allows for the true self and brutal honesty to come out. A new ‘identity’ is always a sign up away and can let someone speak their true mind while being hidden behind a persona or a random username.”

Sam Rosen, the co-founder of Scaffold, a New York City startup building a reputation system for the web points out the obvious– there is still a vast amount of corruption on the Internet due to people’s dishonesty. “If you look at eBay’s fraud ratings, which are typically .01%, you could assume that to be a decent sample size of all the assholes on the Internet. But at scale, that’s a lot of assholes.”

Rosen breaks down the issue of online identity into 3 concepts: Pure Anonymity, Pseudo Anonymity and Real Identity.

  • Pure Anonymity on a service like 4chan may not make us as honest because trolls can hide behind that veil. However, if you are a journalist in China writing about digital rights, then anonymity can lead to more honesty. Adding to this, Tereza Nemessanyi, the founder of Honestly Now, a Quora-like forum for personal questions says she found the questions “got better” once users were able to ask anonymously.
  • Pseudo Anonymity, the kind we have on services such as reddit and Twitter is where a handle or user ID doesn’t necessarily need to be your confirmed name. We often use these services as check points to verify a person’s identity but we shouldn’t rely on them solely.
  • Today, Real Identity is often confirmed with a Facebook profile or Gmail account. But going forward, companies like Scaffold and Tru.ly are working to connect our online personas with our offline identities to create something more valuable and certifiable than that floppy ID card with the faded photo in your wallet.

Reputation in The Sharing Economy

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In an interview at the Airbnb offices last week, Joe Gebbia, the company’s co-founder told me he has seen the Internet move in 3 stages. In the late 90s, companies like AOL worked to get people online. Next, we saw people connecting online and the rise of social networks. Now we’re in the 3rd stage, and we’re seeing people using the Internet’s power to connect offline in the real world.

People have become more comfortable sharing online; they’re sharing their thoughts, places they’ve been and places they’re going. “I think it’s more interesting to put this sharing scene on top of the collaborative consumption layer. When people are connecting online and offline in the real world, this idea of honesty and transparency is especially important,” says Leah Busque, the founder of TaskRabbit.

“If you’re an honest person, the Internet will help make you more honest,” Gebbia points out. “But if you’re a dishonest person? It’s hard to say. Bad actors will always find a place to hide.” To combat this, Gebbia says they’ve designed their online community to have full transparency like “a town of illuminated streets with neighborhood police officers.”

I tell Busque that after 10 years, I have a 99% rating on eBay, and ask her why I should have to rebuild my reputation on TaskRabbit’s platform. When looking at the Sharing Economy space, Busque sees a huge opportunity to band together in order to establish greater transparency online, namely reputation aggregation. But how do we aggregate trust across peer-to-peer marketplaces such as RelayRides and ZimRides? And will aggregating trust work with companies in different verticals? That is, can you take your reputation on Airbnb (you’re a good homeowner) and apply it to TaskRabbit (you’re good at running errands)?

One entrepreneur trying to do just that is Lauren Anderson, the founder of Project Trust, a nascent organization aiming to create a best-in-class set of tools to build trust across collaborative consumption marketplaces. “Trust is an issue facing all collaborative companies and there aren’t any solutions solving this perfectly. While we’re in the very early stages, we’re trying to raise the bar for safety and security while lowering the bar to consumers in the end…Beyond that we’re looking to bring people together.”

Why honesty is awesome– online and off

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The Internet isn’t making us any more honest than the printing press or reality TV did. But it is helping us learn more about each other by allowing us to explore the myriad emotions and activities of other human beings. As we explore, we may discover vulnerabilities that can be taken advantage of. But we’ll also discover people with similar values, ideas and desires. The vast majority of us will choose to be ourselves online because in doing so we’ll naturally attract more people like us. Call it digital gravitation. 

The human is a social animal, dependent on trust, and more often than not –trust depends on honesty. Trust can also arise from a sense of common values and beliefs. We seek commonality, which is why we love social networks; the immediate friendships on Facebook and the instantaneous connections on Twitter. It’s why when we’re riding the Paris Metro, and we hear an American accent, we say ‘Hello.’

“When we trust, we’re more willing to experiment. We have the confidence that if we fail or trip over, that those who trust us will look after us. Our very survival depends on this. We’re not good at everything and we’re not good by ourselves… The goal is to amplify your strength and surround yourself with people who can do what you can’t do…” says Simon Sinek, a leadership expert and author of Start With Why.

Last summer, the Pew Research Center released a study titled “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” which posited that social networks and Internet use encourages trust. Pew states: ”The typical Internet user is more than twice as likely as others to feel that people can be trusted…A Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day is 43% more likely than other Internet users to feel that most people can be trusted.”

Has the rise of sharing and collaborative consumption services encouraged us to be more honest? It’s certainly brought the idea into the spotlight. In order to unlock the potential of our online connections in the real world, we need to build tools that allow us to manage the value of our online reputation; tools that encourage honesty, transparency and a healthy amount of curation. When our reputation is our most valuable asset, the potential for trust-based technologies will be massive.

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Oleg GekmanTrevor kellyDmitriy Shironosov via shutterstock