Friday, November 12, 2004

'Trust me, I know what I am doing' (Hammer, S.)

'Trust me, I know what I am doing' (Sledge Hammer). Back to this painful topic of trust again. My previous post on this topic talked about factors affecting internet-based reputation management systems, and how that affects cooperation in an online environment. This post will be a little less gloomy (yes, my dear readers, I finally got out of my depression! Not completely, but getting there…) and promises to be more fun. It deviates slightly by concentrating on the specifics of fake identity, purposes of deception, and importance of accountability. And something else is different too… I write this post without reading or linking a single blog posting from anyone else's blog on the topic. ‘Goes against “first principles” of blogging!” someone screams… but hey, I want to write something entirely original for a change. Will it kill my readership of two or three? I'll have blind faith in them, and will take that risk…

Title: Identity, Deception and Accountability Online

Who am I really?

‘I am the product of all the people I met in my life, and my interactions with them.' Without anonymity, my offline and online persona is essentially the same. With anonymity, I can be quite different (Carl Williams* anyone?).

*insider joke for students & staff at USU IT dept. – apologies to those who don't get it.

Fun way to learn importance of identity & accountability

In this week's readings , Dave asked ‘If people could act without accounting for their acts, how to suppose they would act?' My response to that is to go watch the two following movies.

Movie #1: Groundhog day ' (I liked the show so much, I bought it!). For the rest who are too lazy to check out the movie, or do not TRUST (eh, this post actually is related to the topic?) my recommendations, the movie basically shows a person who repeats the same cycle of each day. There is no tomorrow for Bill Murray in the movie. He just relieves everyday till it drove him crazy. Wouldn't you go nuts if everyday was exactly the same? Wouldn't you go bonkers if nothing you did (no matter how hard you tried) did not matter?

What has this got to do with anything? The realization that there is no repercussions to any of his actions meant that history of past actions no longer mattered; it was equivalent of being ‘ anonymous '. In other words, you can get away with anything, there is no accountability . It was fun to watch bill Murray turn from depressed sod, to crazed fanatic, to supervillian bank robber, and finally to the local superhero helping everyone in the town.

Movie #2: The Incredibles ' is another movie worth watching. Why is a super hero's secret identity important? In the words of Mrs. Incredible (a.k.a. elastic girl), ‘it's our only protection to lead normal lives.' (Incredible, 2004)

Come-on, a cartoon?! Hang on there… I am getting to the point. So, if anonymity can protect our dear superheroes' identity, can't they help protect our average Joe's innate desires to be superheroes, e.g. crazed-no-life-bloggers; (or super villains, e.g. Trolls) in an online environment? And still allow them to lead normal lives? Think about the people who play secondlife ( ) and have virtual marriages, virtual careers, virtual anything! Whether they choose to make constructive use of their time, e.g. building virtual schools and educational materials, or indulge in taboo virtual fantasies, ok… you get the picture, it's up to them. However, you will more likely appreciate the power of anonymity if you are in the latter category.

Stop and think

  • In what manner are identity and trust related?

If there is some legitimacy to your identity, e.g. an email with a proper domain name , or a past history of work (wikipedia does a wonderful job of tracking the edits you make as a member) it is more likely to be genuine, and more likely for people to trust you. Relating to personal experiences, when I was an intern with CED, I emailed vendors with an official account. And the same time I emailed others with a hotmail account. Needless to say, the official account was treated like a real potential customer; univeristy representative looking to license our product? Big bucks! As compared to who is this joker with the hotmail account? Is he for real?

  • To what degree can trust be established with anonymous or pseudonymynous individuals?

How many adults (like me) will be willing to admit reading manga & comics and writing fan fiction ? I believe that Pseudonymynous individuals can still obtain a high degree of trust. Look at fan fic . Most of the stories I read are from authors who will never reveal their identity online. I wrote an interesting and funny (but crude) story on fan fic and received 3 different feedback within next day of posting. Some writers who have become accustomed to the quality of others writers articles even suggested collaboration in writing together. Certainly a level of trust however minimal must be present for such cooperation to take place.

  • What is the role of accountability in creating trust?

If there is no accountability, there is no danger, and no threat of repercussions. You can get away with anything. See above comment on ‘groundhog day '. How do you create trust then? Like Jose Gomez 's comment to my earlier post ,

‘…I still not convinced that informed consumers are satisfied with blind belief. I think as consumer becomes more experienced and aware of the dangers of the internet (esp. those involving monetary transactions), we do become cynical and do not just conduct themselves on blind faith but with a critical mind…' (Gomez, 2004)

So, if you had worked well with someone for 27 times, do you expect it to go well on the 28th? Reputation built on past behaviors and rationality would tell me 'yes'. Personal experience taught me 'no'. I learnt never take anything for granted. Blind faith can only bring you so far… you never know when your 28th stumbling step is... My point is, even with accountability, there is no guarantee of creating trust. But I am still a believer, and a fool.

  • What are the roles of accountability and trust in facilitating cooperation?

Just earlier I mentioned how fan fic is a possible avenue where people with Pseudo-names are able to collaborate together to write a story. But with anonymous identity, I think cooperation breaks down. If you don't even know someone, how do you work with him/her? There has to be a minimal amount of accountability to show genuine interest and concern. In Donath's article, he mentioned how even an email whose account names (e.g. bing@domain) is important as the domain gives contextual clues about the reliability of the writer.

Donath ( ?, p6) expressed it best with:

‘While the name of the individual writer may be unfamiliar, often the name of the domain is not. Like notes written on letterhead, a posting submitted from a well-known site shares in its reputation: a posting about oceanography has added authority if it came from (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) and a question about security breaches may seem more intriguing if it came from .mil (the U.S. military)'

So, having a respectable domain name makes a significant difference. But wait! Does it not back fire as well? Flip it around, and think from that perspective…

Quiz time: win a prize!

Q: When you post stuff and have your official domain (university, or company domain) traceable, it indirectly links you as owning the commentary. How is this a problem?

There was a real life case that occurred where a university professor who made stereotypical remarks about the gay community caused a major uproar in gay sensitive groups. The university involved lambasted him but still had to protect the instructor because he was protected under first amendment rights to free speech. But the net effect was bad press for the school, and lots of bruised egos.

~ Note: if you manage to use google or yahoo to identify the name of the instructor & university I mentioned, and email me ( your result. If you get it right, I will give you a prize – No joke. :)

  • How does category deception affect our perception of others?

Hence, trolls who engage in category deception can adversely affect our impression of a social software. They are destructive mechanisms that the web will be better without. Donath (?, p 18) explains how our perception of others is not one of wholly unique individuals, but of patterns of social categories. According to him, first impressions count. These first impressions will affect how we see old acquaintances, meet new ones, and determine the degree of suspicion/trust in their motives and behaviors. Funny thing is I can actually relate donath's insight in the offline world as well as the online one. Scares the sh** out of me.

  • What Online multi-player games out there leverages on 'Identity, Trust and Accountability' to promote cooperation?

Game #1: Age of Empires III (a.k.a. Age of Kings)

Personal experience in this game made me realize that I employed deception tactics when I was playing AOE II series. I had some excellent team mates whom I trusted and worked rather well with. It never occurred to me how well we worked as a team… employing the same deception tactics (e.g. during a random sorting of teams, we would arrange ahead of time to team-up, but act like strangers going into the sorting room). Player Rating meant everything then (achiever player type). You could see from the win-losses how good a player was. The higher your ratings got, the more accountable you were for your own actions. Because now there is much bigger stake at hand… Trust naturally becomes an important issue (you won 15 in a row, will you take a risky alliance with someone else whom you don't know and risk your perfect record?). You want good team mates, they want the same. Some smart (highly skilled) players would use new accounts to disrupt the records of rival players, either through sabotage or using cheat codes. So, cooperation and trust don't come easy when the stakes are raised.

Game #2: Final Fantasy XI

Those players who have not earned enough respect, i.e. at least a mildly respectable level 40, will find themselves unprepared to take on the game. Because the difficulty of the game play has been raised so high, you are unable to advance by yourself in this game. You need a party of 12 to 18 people to complete, after which they'll have to split into groups of six to fight the expletive-inducing bosses (Vassar, 2004). So alliance in battle plays a big part in helping you get through the stages. Regardless of Player prerogatives (killers, explorers, achievers, etc.) have to work together to advance in the game. Chances are that if you find a good group, you want to work with them continually (sound like a PhD gathering…). Again, cooperation and trust don't come easy when the stakes are raised.

Game #3: Counter Strike

My personal addiction to this game about 2 years ago still brings back a smile (rare thing these days). Domain names concept applies here to the ‘clans' you belong to. I was never that good at the game, but I improved quite a bit when I joined a faction, and learnt team tactics. The intense rivalries between some of these clans make a fierce but friendly competition between the groups. Veterans dispatch advice to the eager new ‘recruits', and over time, highly skilled players are invited to join different clans. Trust is not as big an issue in this game as compared to the above two, how come? One possible reason is that there is no history of past performance tagged onto a player profile. Although each session you play enables others to see your skill level through game play and ‘frag' (kill) ratio.

Leave you thinking

I conclude this post with Donath's (?, p 23) golden question: ‘How can social software (blogs, Usenet, discussion boards) be redesigned to allow for better communication of social cues?'



Ps+ And thanks Dave, for referencing Gene Hargrove's 9 pages essay on Tom Bombadil , who made no sense to me at all. Lucky for you, I like Tolkien fan fic, or I would have really found it a waste of time.


Donath, J. S. (year ?). Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. Retrieved on November 12th, 2004 from source:

The Incredibles -- The Official Movie Website. Retrieved on November 12th, 2004 from source:

Vassar, D (Nov, 2004) Final Fantasy XI: Chains of Promathia Review. Retrieved on November 12th, 2004 from source:


At November 22, 2004 at 4:45 PM, Blogger David said...

"So, if you had worked well with someone for 27 times, do you expect it to go well on the 28th? Reputation built on past behaviors and rationality would tell me 'yes'. Personal experience taught me 'no'. I learnt never take anything for granted. Blind faith can only bring you so far... you never know when your 28th stumbling step is... My point is, even with accountability, there is no guarantee of creating trust. But I am still a believer, and a fool."

A-Bing, is there any other way to establish trust? Or are you just saying that trust is always chancy regardless of history? Isn't a certain amount of risk inherent in everything we do?


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