Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Trust in the Online Community

Larry asks "Who can you believe?" Faculty and university administrators ask this question all the time: "How can we trust the information if we don't know who created it?"

Credentials and structure are very important to many peer-reviewed, published professors. Thus, the concept that valuable, reliable, creative content can be created by the masses in a flat, chaotic, networked world is foreign to many university folks (certainly, not all faculty, but most).

In the massive flat world, where you do not "know" the person, do you trust the information more if you see PhD after his/her name? In most cases, it does not matter what letters, if any, follow the name. Furthermore, you may not know.

Larry and I, like other Extension faculty, represent organizations that pride themselves in providing research-based, non-biased information. Because Cooperative Extension is part of land-grant institutions, a plethora of people with doctorates, and other advanced degrees, surrounds us. Thus, our organizations naturally think you should trust us--because we are experts.

When people reach one of our sites, do they respond "Ahhh, this is Cooperative Extension--they are research-based education providers--so I can trust them"? Our organizations hope so; though, this is not reality. The reader will determine whether the content is trustworthy and valuable by other means.

When reading Internet content, people make judgments on whether to trust the information and how valuable the content is to them. Trust and perception of value are embedded in the thought-process of the individual seeking information.

The question is not "Who can be trusted?" Rather, the questions are "What can be trusted?" and "What is valuable?". Learning to trust online content is like learning to trust individuals. Trusting individuals and determining value usually have little to do with the college degrees. While the degree is where the connection is made (if you are sick, you go to a M.D.), trusting the individual (or online information) is built around many other factors.

Because society has changed the way it communicates and learns, university faculty have tremendous opportunities to expand their knowledge, share their knowledge, and become trusted and valued by others. To understand these opportunities is to engage, collaborate, discuss, learn, and be understood. The best way to understand trusting content (and individuals) online is to do it--live it--"be the ball" (i.e, edit public wikis, install a news reader, create a blog, join an online virtual world (i.e, Second Life), tag your bookmarks--let others see what you are reading and see what others are reading, engage your students online--let the public see how you engage them).

In order to do 2.0 you have to live 2.0 (be the ball). It's not something you can just hear about and then immediately grok.

For faculty contributions to be trusted by others (outside of the university systems), the contributions must become evident and seen by others (outside of the university systems). To trust online content and for one's contributions to be trusted, participate in these wide-open communities. Trust goes both ways.

Anne Mims Adrian, PhD

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