Informal Certification based on Authentic Trust

Federico Gobbo and Rosario Sica


As said by George Simens, to know today means to be connected, as knowledge moves fast today and “we can no longer seek to possess all needed knowledge personally.” As the known case study of Wikipedia demonstrates, knowledge reliance is an open issue in an unstructured virtual community of practice. In fact, participation is considered as a mark of prestige in itself, without consideration about competence or encyclopedic knowledge, while often domain experts aren’t so active in the community. An explanation of this kind of paradox, sometimes referred as ‘the problem of the experts’, can be found in social network analysis current trends. This field, with which is far from being new [1], has spread in into the field of organization studies, in particular at the Network Roundtable at the University of Virginia, grounded into in the complex network analysis results and perspectives – see for instance [2]. This approach describes networks with specific tools used for finding relevant nodes called ‘hubs’, which are distributed according to the power law, instead of a normal distribution. Moreover, the hubs intertwine with one another in such a way so that the social network analysis can predict reasonably predict the evolution of the network itself.

Recently the term ‘social network’ acquired an additional meaning indicating popular web 2.0 sites – e.g. Facebook, Linkedin, Ecademy, or Xing – which let people remain in touch in a semi-structured way. In these sites, algorithms measure, for instance, the degree of between-ness and density so in order to facilitate new job opportunities or simply friendship or any other kind of social relationship. Companies are becoming aware of the opportunities and challenges offered by these social networks, as they capture informal relations that go beyond the traditional hierarchies which depict organization and they are potentially disruptive, if not domesticated appropriately. A coherent model which take takes into account the social and ethical aspects of the aforementioned phenomenon is needed. The aim of this paper is to describe the guidelines of such a model, proposing the notion of authentic trust [3] as the underpinning force of web 2.0 social networks.

The notion of ‘authentic trust’ is precise and specific at the same time. Unlike the current use of the term in computer science, trust is an act performed by an agent, according to its interests and strategies, in a conditional, focused and therefore limited context. This means that the agent who trusts is always aware of the risk of betrayal and it is negotiable, so that it absorbs this risk in a reasonable way. In this way, authentic trust neutralizes its antithesis, i.e. cordial hypocrisy. It is worth noticing that trust can be performed by a single person as well as a group of people, when they can perform a choice – otherwise, there is no trust but only brute power or sheer force. Consequently, authentic trust is a process, and involves the establishment of a relationship (in the case of computers the terms ‘reliance’ or ‘reliability’ seem to be more appropriate: machines don’t have interests, in this respect they are like like stones). Authentic trust is negotiable, and it absorbs the risk of betrayal. On the contrary, according to [3], ‘simple trust’ is unconditioned, naive and typical in children, while ‘blind trust’ blocks evidence, denying the risk of betrayal and can be even foolish. As a a corollary, trustworthiness is the passive side of trust(ing), i.e. the belief about the receiver, if he or she is worth being trusted. For example, we can trust a child who isn’t (yet) trustworthy, or we can deny trust to someone trustworthy as since we want to perform the task by ourselves.

Web 2.0 social networks are reconfiguring the notion of endorsement, which is the public approval of somebody’s competence. In fact, competence is based on reliance, but it is the social network which informally certifies informally professional competences, and this informal certification is based on authentic trust. For instance, the certification given by an external organization, e.g. a University, can assure that that person is a doctor, but it is the social network in which he is in that tells us that he is honest, sincere and, for instance, not fighting a alcohol abuse problem.

A provisional conclusion of the paper is that, while organizations deal with competence certification, their inner social networks, i.e. the ones living within them, are the source of trust and therefore of endorsement. The challenge is that the informal knowledge spread out from inner social networks can improve the organizational system along flexible models, which are far more appropriated to the ever-changing context they are facing nowadays.

In the paper, illustrations and case studies of the aforementioned thesis work will be given, together with more relevant citations.


[1] Levi Moreno, Jacob (1977). Who shall survive? Beacon House. Original edition: 1934.

[2] Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo and Frangos, Jennifer (2003). Linked: The New Science of Networks. Perseus Books.

[3] Solomon, Robert C. and Flores, Fernando (2001). Building Trust. Oxford University Press.