‘Trust is the Currency of the Sharing Economy’

Some days you wake up and wonder. As part of my morning routine, reading email and recent posts to my social networks and from RSS feeds is the first activity after greeting my wife. “The Risk Of Reviewing The Reviewer“, which actually published yesterday, riveted my early-day attention. For TechCrunch, Aimee Millwood writes something everyone, particularly bloggers and journalists, should read. You aren’t her intended audience, but you should be.

The headline to this post is among her key quotables and resonates with a point that I repeatedly make here on this site and emphasize in my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers: While inexplicably intertwined, trust trumps truth. The pursuit of truth isn’t your first ethical objective but establishing and maintaining trust with your audience—and, yes, this concept contradicts traditional journalism teaching. But it doesn’t, since truth ties to trust. 

Two-Way Street
Back to Aimee’s point, and further how it applies to mine: She sees, and rightly, “the rise of two-way reviews”, which context given is firms like Uber tracking customers’ behavior. If someone from address A consistently doesn’t show up when a car arrives, the ride-sharer should want to know and make that information available to drivers.

She asserts: “Reviewing both sides has its benefits: it builds transparency and keeps people accountable while improving conditions all around”. I absolutely agree. For my profession, the application should be obvious, but damn if I see traditional journalism adapting to it: News gatherers are accountable to the audience, which responds quickly using the social-sharing tools available to it. As I explain in Responsible Reporting:

What all parties share in common today is audience, where trust is the glue. Some audiences demand advocacy, while others look for impartiality—or both. But all seek sources of information they can rely on…You aren’t beholden to truth but to your audience—to them you are accountable, and in the age of context with shocking immediacy. During the print journalism era, reporters were accountable to editors. Today, they are accountable to the audience. If you lose your job, you can always get another. Audience isn’t easily regained, if lost, nor reputational trust.

Aimee writes for a business audience, for whom a process without standards affects. “The sharing economy may very well need bilateral reviews to create a basis of trust, but this system isn’t necessarily ideal in every business sector”. She suggests establishing “clear-cut standards” and reducing the “stigma of negative reviews”. Those concepts would benefit her employer, YotPo, which offers solutions for managing online reviews, and its customers.

However, I see both objectives as unattainable—for my profession and everyone. Any standards must be fluid and established by the sharing economy. Trolls will always be. Companies will always seek to have their best reviews. Someone will always game the system for self-benefit. That is as much the positives as the negatives. A few days ago, Amazon sued “four websites that allegedly sell phony product reviews”, Ben Fox Rubin explains in a news story for CNET.

My contention: Commenting and online review systems that let users respond to other reviewers (such as voting systems) or algorithms that track online behavioral patterns will be more effective keeping everyone honest and creating trust than establishing standards and attempting to get anyone and everyone to abide by them.

For the news gatherer, the task is simple, even if complicatedly obtained: Be trustworthy, which is best achieved by producing accurate original content that matters to your audience. If you don’t directly source, you aren’t trustworthy. If you misreport, you can’t be trusted. You pass your trust in sources onto the audience. There’s nothing reliable to give, if those sources aren’t your own. (“Frak, Wilcox is off one of his sourcing diatribes, again”.)

Ghostwriter Blues
I presume that Aimee understands the problems, because of career path. In her other story for TechCrunch, she gives good reasons for her giving up ghostwriting. Snippet:

I strongly believe in the power of online content, but after a few years subsidizing my freelance work with ghostwriting, I couldn’t help getting the eerie feeling I was working in the seedy underground of an otherwise strong system. After seeing how it worked from the inside out, I understood the serious damage ghostwriting was doing to online content, and I loved content marketing too much to be a part of it anymore…

The companies who hired me wanted to boost their online reputation, and while I respected their goals, I couldn’t help but feel the method was awry…I was hired to work for almost a dozen startups, writing thought leadership articles that were published by CEOs whose work I knew nothing about, or creating guest blog posts for big publications on topics I had no more knowledge in than a degree from ‘Google It’ Academy.

In December 2014, I opined about “Journalism and the Corporate Blog Problem“. You don’t know who wrote that blog post claiming to be from some CEO or product manager that, at the least, surely was vetted by some public relations handler. From first-hand experience, Aimee asserts: “Ghostwriting is becoming so prevalent that we don’t know ghostwritten content when it hits us in the face”.

Lazy bloggers and journalists enable corporate blogging by freely quoting [Insert Name Here] company employee when they might never quote a press release. Can you really trust the source, or the motivations behind the company? Answer is no to both.

Couple years ago, I received an email from a company offering to ghostwrite stories for me, and I would be compensated for the privilege. Since I write professionally and see such action as violating the very trust this post you read advocates, I firmly, but politely, declined. But you see the point, yes? You can’t be sure who really wrote what.

While it might seem like I digress, I see trust, or lack of it, as the glue binding together reviews or so-called official company content with some person’s name attached. The source is unknown unless you directly communicate with the person. News gatherers pass their trust in sources onto the audience, for which trust is paramount. Similarly, companies and their customers want to trust in reviews’ authenticity.

I agree with Aimee: “Trust is the currency of the sharing economy”. That particularly applies to my profession, but also to anyone writing anything online. Few months ago, my wife got a great deal on Cafe Bustelo coffee purchased from Amazon. The retailer prominently placed her five-star review.

But later, when the 12-pack selling price rose by shocking amount—from $52.90 to $69.31—she amended her review and dropped the rating to four stars. Her audience is the people reading her reviews, and she establishes trust by being honest and by providing accurate information. Ha! Amazon’s algorithm responded by immediately pushing her review off the main product page.

Photo Credit: compassrose_04