Reputation and identity
The whole question of “privacy vs. public information” is naturally more important in at least two areas. One is for personal relationships — it’s very hard to fully trust your beloved partner if you don’t know much about them — and the other for business relationships. The first case is a more complex one. Obviously that if all you’re looking for is a friend you wish to talk to, there will be limits to what information each will reveal to the other. I remember that I didn’t know that my best friend from college was a swinger for over 15 years of a very close relationship. Some things don’t need to be “revealed” to maintain a stable friendship; what happens in your intimacy is not really needed to be shown in public. On the other hand, it is considered that to do successful business transactions, one has to prove their reputation with — documentation mostly. I might be wrong on this, but the whole point of “incorporation” is to establish the legitimacy of your company with a registration authority.
The problem here, as usual, is the subtle play on words coming from personal interpretations of what “identity” and “reputation” mean — not to mention “legitimacy” or, even more vaguely, “trust”. I find Robin Harper’s (ex-Linden) words quite interesting:
Trust is the foundation of any community. And one cornerstone of trust is identity. You’ve got to know something about the person you are dealing with before you can trust them.
Let’s tackle the easiest aspect first, personal relationships. Again, we have to separate two areas: the first is merely an “acquaintance”, someone you met, but don’t plan to hang around with for long. You might share a common background: hobbies or special interests. The way you convey this information to establish the “trust” part of the relationship can wildly vary. Traditionally, we would talk about it: “oh, I love to watch movies”. These days, we might put that on our Facebook profile, or chat about movies on MSN. Then we have to validate those claims, to establish reputation: we’ll go out with them to a movie and see their reaction. Will they behave in a way that shows that they’re pleased with the experience, or were they just bragging about it, but misrepresented themselves for any kind of personal advantage? In real life, we’re usually good at detecting lies. It’s not perfect — unless someone claims being able to read minds 🙂 — but we’re actually quite good at “reading” body language. We can see if someone is comfortable in a movie. We can watch their reaction after the movie. A good, talented actor might be able to mimic the reactions of a movie-lover for quite a long time; but how many among us are truly able to keep that pretence for so long? Some studies show that actually lying is not so easy as many people might imagine it is; that’s why for a given population, the number of liars vs. honest people is low, even if you take in account this study that claims that 1 in 25 adults are liars or even sociopaths. I wouldn’t be much surprised if we could assume that 96% of the human population, on average, is honest — this would be consistent with the article “What the Bagel Man saw: mankind may be more honest than we think” by the authors of Freakonomics. If you haven’t read the book, you should; it gives you a huge insight on what really motivates people to behave like they do.
So we can very loosely define that establishing reputation on a personal “casual” relationship is just screening the facts to see if they confirm the claims made by an individual. In essence, figuring out if this person is part of the 96% of humankind that is honest and doesn’t lie. We have several ways to assert that, but body language is quite a good way to figure it out. Among those 4% of liars, only a tiny fraction is able to conceal their body language and be able to maintain a “fake reputation” for a long time. And among those that are “perfect” liars (in the sense that they can maintain the illusion for a long, long time), only the tiniest percentage will actually use those “powers” to become criminals.
Nevertheless, we’re taught from a tender age that the reverse seems to be the norm, and that honest people are the exception. We know from experience how easy it is to lie about simple things; we might even know, also from experience, that some lies can go a long way. However, unless you have a religious/moral background, qualifying lies might not be so easy. Let’s imagine that your new friend claims to love movies, but in practice, he just likes blockbusters. You go with him on a date to an intellectual French movie, and you can read from his body language that he’s bored and disappointed. You might then confront him with the reality of the facts: did you lie to me when you said you loved movies? If not, why didn’t you like this one? A small breach on the armour of honesty has opened up, but how will that person react? Very likely by minimising the whole episode by saying, “I like movies, but not this kind of movies”.
So did he lie in the first place — or wasn’t clear enough (deliberately so, to catch a date with you) — or simply didn’t have enough information (he assumed that everybody equated “movies” with “blockbusters”; or wasn’t even aware that “intellectual French movies” were something that people could watch on theatres)? You see the degree of fuzziness that this simple example incorporates. Reality, as we should by now start to realise, is never black and white.
Now imagine that the same scenario would be played on online conversations. Would it be easier or harder to spot the “lie” (if there was a lie)? We tend to immediately think that it would be harder, since body language is not conveyed over an online communication. Well, I won’t repeat myself; we have that argument for over 120 years with telephone communications. The phone doesn’t convey any body language, but you can still detect most lies over the phone. Why? Because your brain is a fantastically adapting machine: it can make up for the loss of information quite dramatically, and work with partial data quite effectively. Biologists argue that this is a strong evolutionary trait that we have mastered to perfection: if I see the bushes moving, if I hear the growl of a large feline, if I notice birds flying away from trees… I don’t need to see the tiger to know that one is hiding behind the bushes. Quickly reaching to conclusions (and correct ones, most of the time) in face of partial data is a major human ability that we have honed to near perfection.
That’s why we can spot liars on the phone too, even if we don’t “read” their body language. It might be harder, but we’re so used to phones these days, that we will see little difference. Voice is a high-bandwidth medium, too, and a lot of subtle emotions are “encoded” in a voice communication, that more than compensates for the lack of visual feedback. Like on the example of the tiger, you don’t need to see it to feel fear and run away; just listening to its steps is enough to trigger the adrenalin shot that will allow you to run to safety.
Now, online non-vocal communication is yet a step removed; it is also quite recent. While we have 4 or 5 generations of telephone users, we just have one generation of online communications, and the second one is being brought up with those as being a natural extension of people-to-people interaction — like the phone was for our parents, but less so to our grandparents or great-grandparents. This means spotting the tiger while you just watch the birds flying away from the top of the tree — but you neither see nor even hear the tiger. You will still run away from it, though. We’ve evolved to detect those tiny signs and correlate them in our brains.
Ironically, it’s pretty much this area of “hunting skills in the wild” that is believed to have evolved into text processing: the area in the brain that processes written language is apparently the very same that is used by a hunter to detect tiny tracks on the ground or “read” trees and the environment in search for clues, for prey and predators. Allegedly, again, this is one of the most sophisticated data-processing areas of our brain, and one that is intensely related to deal with partial data. A typical example is showing how you can read almost as fast a phrase where all words only have the first and last letters in the right place, e.g.:
Aoccdrnig to rseearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.
See how you can read this perfectly? (and yes, that explains why we all are perfectly fluent in Typonese 😉 )