I’ve been thinking about trust, precisely trust’s place in the sharing economy and the future of trust between humans on the internet. In this post, I go through my thought process and provide a glimpse into a potential future of trust in humans as a service.
First, I’d like to explain why trust has been on my mind. It all starts with this quote I like by Jeff Bezos:
I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next ten years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next ten years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable.
Focus on things that don’t change - it’s a useful lens to look through, which helps ensure long-term focus.
Bezos enumerates three elements that will never change for retail businesses: low prices, fast delivery and vast selection. He’s right - if you’re selling consumer goods, your customers will never ask for higher prices or less selection.
All of these elements are visible in Amazon’s strategy. For example: if you live in the US, with Amazon Prime, you can get one-day delivery on more than 10M products. Even Prime Air, their delivery drones experiments, doesn’t seem crazy when looking through this lens.
In the sharing economy, some of the marketplaces are fully C2C (Consumer to consumer) or have C2C elements. All three elements enumerated by Bezos, continue to be essential for C2C. I think that there might be a fourth non-changing element relevant for C2C marketplaces: trust. While I appreciate the rule of three, it has to be broken in this case.
For Amazon, trust matters, but is not part of their core business strategy. For C2C companies, it’s very much a vital issue. Here’s a quote from Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky:
Our real innovation is not allowing people to book a home; it’s designing a framework to allow millions of people to trust one another.
Without users on the platform being able to trust each other, Airbnb wouldn’t exist. Even if you’ve never stayed at a Marriott, without looking up anything, you would feel safe staying at any of the hotels in their portfolio. It wouldn’t be the same with an apartment hosted by Joe Shmoe on Airbnb.
Today, to help users trust each other, Airbnb’s primary verification method are: number and positivity of reviews, Government ID, verified email and a phone number. These and other methods increase security and reduce the chance of scam on the platform.
Airbnb used to feature Facebook as one of the verifications methods. Facebook Login could’ve been a crucial part of the trust infrastructure for the sharing economy. To ponder on how it could’ve worked: you would optionally verify your account with government id on Facebook. Afterwards, Facebook would provide verification information on each user after they’ve logged in with their login button. Facebook didn’t go in this direction, and Facebook’s Login relevance seems to be waning.
Each C2C company needs a trust framework similar to the one built by Airbnb. There’s also a lot of value in creating that kind of framework. Let’s imagine a single company developing a trust framework and all the C2C companies using that framework. This scenario would make that company an essential part of the sharing economy infrastructure.
Let’s go back to retail and the three elements enumerated by Bezos: low prices, fast delivery and vast selection. A third-party company can’t build “price” or “selection” and provide those for Amazon. Delivery can be done by third parties, though Amazon wouldn’t want that to happen.
Trust might not seem initially as something which can be provided by a single entity. But why wouldn’t it? It falls under the same category as “delivery”.
A single company controlling if a person is trustworthy would also be scary. You wouldn’t want that company to make a mistake and mark you as untrustworthy. Maybe we should be thankful that Facebook is not the one controlling whether we’re trustworthy.
It seems unlikely that a company can build trust-in-humans-as-a-service as its initial value proposition. Why would Airbnb (or any company in the sharing economy) give up management of their trust platform to a third party? But I could see Airbnb providing this information to other companies, given they would be able to leverage it into trust platform play.
Governments are naturally able to provide information on whether a human is trustworthy. They already do - one of the primary verification methods on Airbnb is a Government ID. The next step would be to do verification digitally instead of asking to upload a photo of the ID. I could imagine each country providing an API to determine whether their citizen is an actual citizen and give their trust score.
It’s worth pointing out, a dystopian version of this government API future already exist in China, and it’s called the Social Credit System. 26.82M air tickets have been denied to people in China deemed as untrustworthy. The potential for abuse is scary, whether it’s in the hands of a single company or a government’s.
Trust has become a commodity. Today’s companies build their trust platforms individually. That will change. Why I have doubts on how exactly it will look, I believe that it’s only a matter of time until we’ll be able to access trust in humans as a service. If we do it right, we’ll be able to avoid the dystopian bits and help humans build trust easier among each other in the digital age.