We live in a privacy paradox.  Anyone who ventures online, uses a mobile phone, or even wanders the main streets of a large city relinquishes “personal privacy” to powerful third parties who track and photograph our movements, record our conversations, and process our decisions so that they may better steer us to our next pumpkin latte.

Then, as we wander these meshed grids of electromagnetic recording devices, something strange occurs.  We inevitably succumb to nature, get tired, and find ourselves in need of a place to stay the night.  We whip out the trusty iPhone, log in to Airbnb, find a comfortable room, and lodge that night in the home of a complete stranger, whose trustworthiness (not to mention our own) was vetted by a third party internet service provider and a network of other strangers.  We enter into a deeply personal transaction with our host, one that depends on a tremendous amount of trust, and one this is both very human and private.

And thus, the paradox is born.  We now expect the monitoring, but demand, though our activities and actions, the ability to use our digital tools to create new private relationships and spaces in an environment that utterly lacks privacy.  We, in effect, build an unexpected layer of security around our privacy by using technology to enhance our humanity rather than to dilute it.  The intimate relationships that the web now fosters place us squarely in a collaborative economy where trust, vetted by the network, opens the door to new real world encounters. 

Each of these relationships, whether it is a babysitter hired through Care.com, a job secured through Linkedin, or a vacation rental through Airbnb, require what I call a “trust broker” — a third party internet service provider who transacts in the trust of both the providers and the consumers who connect via the service.  The trust brokers must respect and support our right to engage with one another privately and securely, they must value our trust or fail.  In a sense, they need to be the opposite of facebook, a company that vocally dishonored privacy rights almost from its inception and, as a result, finds itself unable to broker trust. Companies that do not value our need for privacy will not be able to transact in trust.

Trust Brokers

In the age of trust, honor, good will, and social capital now stand as economic commodities that you can trade with and use to gain access to a remarkable array goods and services that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.  As our circle of trust expands we begin to allow what was once unthinkable: we allow strangers into our homes for the night because they came to us from CouchSurfing, we crowd source eldercare providers, and we decide it makes more sense to share a car with our friends rather than to purchase one of our own.

The companies that transact in trust and reputation must learn and continuously relearn that it matters how you treat, service, share, and store these very delicate things.  It means everything to your business as a trust broker and the policies and procedures you put in place to manage trust will grow into important strategic assets.

We now enter a new phase of digital communication where basic human values come back into the fore and thrive.  Successful trust brokers will create digital environments where the delicate elements of trust can thrive and real relationships can emerge. Companies who do not embrace this trend will suffer.

What it all Means

Don’t pretend that you know me, because I don’t even know myself.

— The Who

The trust brokers already disrupt many aspects of the culture and economy and I believe that their influence will continue to grow, often in unexpected ways.  Here are some of the trends I see playing out:

Lowly, often neglected, Terms of Service and Privacy Policies become central to business strategy.  Five years ago most startups viewed these documents as an afterthought.  The facebook “privacy is dead” meme dominated thinking online and people simply viewed these policies as boilerplate language that no one but their lawyers cared to read.  Now, privacy and security emerge as business models and startups need to build privacy, security and data protection into their early infrastructures and cultures if they want to become valid trust brokers.

Verticals continue to grow more powerful in their niches; blocking out the generalists.  This remains true for a couple of reasons.  First, the vertical sites arrive naturally optimized for the world of apps and mobile devices whereas companies that are web based look like a maze in comparison.  Think about this example: you find yourself in need of a car for a quick errand and are out and about in a new city.  Is it easier to simply click Uber app on your phone or navigate Yahoo! with a browser to eventually find a link to the service?  Second, the trust brokers will offer subject matter expertise that generalist cannot match — sites with focus like Best Doctors offer more credibility as their knowledge of their field deepens.

“The key lesson: humanity and connection are trumping the desire for corporate scale.”

— Seth Godin

Economic activity will move outside of the mainstream making it more difficult to measure and exploit and this will spur backlashes from large corporations and governments.  Both Uber and AirBnB now face this type of bureaucratic resistance.   

New types of transactions will emerge like: “You can use my condo at the beach one weekend a month if I can use your car three days a week.”  A real exchange of value takes place here but it is not an exchange that can be measured in GDP, taxed by local municipalities, and captured by large corporate entities like car makers and hotel chains.

This move to collaboration and peer to peer economics will catch many by total surprise.  Governments and automakers, to provide one example, remain totally unprepared for the radical changes that could emerge from a generation of car sharers.  Regardless, the trend grows stronger by the day and, as it does, the opportunity to reconnect with some of our humanity expands.