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Online, there's always a third party

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Internet of Communities blog series part 7 of 8 (part 1)

We are increasingly realising how current online infrastructure is unfit for purpose, particularly with regard to managing trust and empowering the creation of social value. This blog series proposes the creation of a new social layer to enhance how individuals and organisations manage their identity online. How will this work in practice?

The basic idea of the Internet of Communities is to replicate online the way in which we interact offline, which has developed over 200,000 years and in most situations is reasonably reliable. In the real world, people and organisations establish trust by sharing information about the communities (geographical and other) to which they belong, along with the contributions to and uses made of the capitals of those communities. This creates an incentive to make such contributions, which builds virtuous circles of social engagement. However, offline we tend to interact directly, whether in writing or in conversation. Online, we typically interact via an intermediary, such as a website or app via which we use to send messages, talk in real time, or make a transaction such as a purchase. This makes a difference, since now we need to trust the intermediary also - and to a greater extent than we need to trust the host of a party or networking event.

Trusting a real world host allows you to attend their event in the first place, and provides some reassurance about the other people that you may meet there. However, while at a physical event, you interact directly with other attendees and can make your own judgements about them. When interacting with someone via a website or app, you have not only to evaluate what the other party says, but also decide whether or not to believe that the intermediary is relaying their words or speech completely and accurately. Emails can be tampered with during transmission. As deep fake video becomes easier, can you even rely on what you see and hear in a video call? And we have only the information about a seller or purchaser that the intermediary wishes to provide. In other words, online you need at least as deep a level of trust in the website or app you're using to communicate as in the other party that you (believe you) are dealing with. It may feel as direct as Pyramus and Thisbe talking through a gap in the wall, but communication is far more complex online than offline.

What's more, websites and apps are updated often, sometimes without warning or explanation. As well as their functionality, their ownership and privacy policies can change. Trusting your email or chat service today doesn't mean you can trust it tomorrow. We need to become more aware of intermediaries as players in our interactions.

Fortunately, the same Internet of Communities mechanisms can apply to websites and apps as to people and organisations. We just need to get used to the idea that all these parties store information about their contributions to and use of community capitals somewhere, and in order to gain our trust, provide us with access to some of the details. We may all need to get to grips with basic mechanisms that ensure the reliability of these details, but this isn't the tricky part - if drivers of early cars could learn how to take out their spark plugs and warm them up in order to start the engine on a cold morning, users of the Internet of Communities can learn how to use permissioned blockchains. The real shift is in recognising that a message or conversation online is mediated in a way that it isn't in the real world. What you see in a video call may not be what is in front of the camera at the other end. The camera, or other end, may not even exist.

On the positive side, recognising this mediation leads to a world in which all of us - people, organisations and online intermediaries - are obliged to demonstrate the way in which we contribute real value to real communities, and not just once but continually. This is the deep virtuous circle underpinning the Internet of Communities. The more connected you are to your communities, the richer your identity becomes and the easier it is to prove. It is a deep virtuous circle since not only do your communities benefit, but you do too.

Research shows that connection to community makes more of a difference to wellness than anything else. We not only need to connect with those around us, we need them to value and need our connection with them. Why else would we get such pleasure from giving? From teaching? Even from helping strangers with directions? Making community connection of first importance online helps all of us focus on it, and understand that it is of first importance offline too.

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