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 communities—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.

“Online communities, I believed then, foster shallow communication and scattered, atomized, ephemeral and unreliable relationships.”

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.

“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.”

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 really 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 in—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.

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

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 role—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.

“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.”

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. Editor’s note: Weave has received project support from Facebook in the past and the Governance Lab report was funded by a grant from Facebook and conducted in partnership with Facebook’s Community Partnerships team.

1 Comment

  • Benny
    Posted March 19, 2021 1:46 pm

    There’s definately a lot to learn about this topic. I like
    all of the points you’ve made.

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