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2004 (26) Heft 1

Trust and Community on the Internet. Opportunities and Restrictions for Online Cooperation


Guest-Editors: Bernd Lahno / Uwe Matzat

Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

Early studies in the area of Internet Research emphasized the deficiencies that computer-mediated communication as opposed to face-to-face communication would have. The chances for the evolution of cooperative relationships on the Internet were assessed sceptically. Present research findings correct this point of view. In spite of a missing central authority, without formal controls and sanctions, with anonymity and easy-to-use exit options there is not only chaos and anomy on the Internet. Rather, there is a surprisingly large amount of cooperation and social order. There is a successful exchange of individual goods, public goods are produced, and there are stable social networks, reliable communities and effective social norms. If people interact online under certain conditions, there seem to be incentives that stimulate cooperation and social exchange. Additionally, under favourable conditions the Internet can be used for the establishing of cooperative relationships that would hardly be possible in the case of pure face-to-face communication. Such positive effects, however, are not a technical automatism. The failure of many online communities, as well as the discussion about the social consequences of the Internet for the social integration of its users is a warning against nave optimism.

In this volume the potential, the pre-conditions and the limits of the Internet for the emergence of trust and community building are discussed. Trust and community are social phenomena which are of utmost importance for social relationships and social order. The analysis of the Internet as a trust-building medium focuses on the conditions under which the Internet promotes social exchange and cooperation between individuals and between groups. The analysis of the Internet as an opportunity for community building focuses on the conditions under which it can be used for comprehensive forms of collective action and group living. Both questions are interrelated. Trust is a pre-condition for community building. At the same time, social bonds within a community facilitate the placement of trust under risky conditions.

Trust is a fundamental element of cooperative relations. It can be understood as the willingness to make one's own well-being to some degree dependent on other people or institutions. The advantages of mutual cooperation can often only be gained when individuals are willing to take risks and to expose themselves to the danger of being disadvantaged if others do not cooperate. This means: in such situations cooperation is possible only if trust is placed. In spite of the risks, individuals cooperate with each other on the Internet to a significant degree, as the examples on online markets and auctions show. These examples suggest that there is trust to a significant degree. Since trust-building mechanisms are an important foundation for different forms of cooperation, knowledge about the opportunities and limitations for building trust on the Internet is crucial for assessing the possibilities for online cooperation and collaboration in general.

One important question to be analyzed is in which parts of the Internet does cooperation take place and through which mechanisms is trust established and secured. It should be examined whether and to what extent the Internet as a technical medium contributes to an extension of trusting relationships and interaction. Which technical, organizational, social, and legal conditions further the extension of trusting interaction and in which way do these conditions depend on and contribute to a satisfying short-or long-term interaction between the participants? Conditions that are conducive to the placement of trust can be direct or indirect exchange relations between participants:

  • reciprocity;
  • trustworthiness or reputation of the actors;
  • one-sided prior contributions that initiate cooperation: gift-relations;
  • common norms;
  • communality through common goals or values;
  • affective bonds between individuals.

The general limits to the emergence of trust-building conditions will be the limits to the placement of trust. In as far as such conditions prevail for online interaction, the Internet is a trust-building medium. If such conditions can be realized on the Internet for individuals or groups that could not build up trusting relations outside of the Internet-for example because of transaction costs being too high-, then the Internet is a trust-extending medium.

Communities are characterized by a special feeling of solidarity between their members. They consist of groups of people who traditionally interact in locally restricted environments and who develop durable social relationships. Communities provide opportunities for individual and collective action with far-reaching consequences for society. But usually membership in a community does not only have an instrumental value for the pursuit of the common goals of its members. Additionally, membership has a highly affective value. Communities satisfy fundamental human needs, such as group attachment, identification, security, solidarity, and mutual understanding. They give individuals the feeling of being esteemed, and they are an important source of trust and thus provide for the stabilization of cooperation since they transmit common values and promote affective bonds. Communities have a pivotal function in integrating society and also produce social capital. The increasing mobility of modern societies contributes to the diminishing of traditional communities that are based on personal exchanges and the geographical closeness of their members. At the same time, mobility contributes to the popularity of communication media such as telephone and electronic mail that allow for interpersonal communication over long distances.

It is an important question whether and to what extent communities exist on the Internet and what their emergence and continuation depend on. In this context, it is of special interest to analyze whether the Internet provides opportunities for the development of new communities that are as valuable for individuals as the traditional communities whose existence is endangered. An additional issue to be discussed is about the quality of online relationships and online groups. Under which conditions can relationships that were developed on the Internet acquire a satisfying quality for individuals and groups? The task of Internet research is to examine in how far conditions can be realized in online groups that are known to be community-advancing in general. Such conditions are

  • common goals and values;
  • special relational interests of the group members;
  • a high degree of interdependence among the members;
  • multiplexity of the relationships;
  • durability of the relationships;
  • easy accessibility of the members to each other.

Traditional communities ensure the existence of (some of) these conditions usually by their local embeddedness. Since such a local anchoring of communities is not the rule for online groups, the question emerges as to the other mechanisms which help the Internet to promote the existence of favourable conditions for community development.

Social, economical, psychological, legal and technical conditions have to be taken into account to examine the potential as well as the limitations of the Internet for the development of trust and communities. The evolution of the Internet is influenced by a variety of factors which suggests that a discussion cutting across the usual disciplinary borders is necessary and useful. This conviction was the background for an international and interdisciplinary conference on Trust and Community on the Internet. Opportunities and Restrictions for Online Cooperation. The conference took place from 31 July to 2 August 2003 at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) at the University of Bielefeld and was organized by Michael Baurmann, Bernd Lahno and Uwe Matzat. The meeting was financed by the ZiF and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The organizers greatly appreciate this support and express their thanks to both institutions. The articles in this volume are all based on papers which were presented at the conference.

The first group of articles consider Concepts and Backgrounds. They discuss general theoretical models and empirical analyses of conditions for the development of trust and communities and examine whether such conditions can be found in certain parts of the Internet or to what extent they can be created. Henk de Vos explicates the fundamental sociological concept of community. He points out that communal living has deep connections with human social nature and is strongly associated with well-being and health. Structural conditions for the emergence and maintenance of communities are specified and it is discussed in which way the Internet affects these conditions. Bernd Lahno differentiates between a behavioral, a cognitive, and an affective dimension of trust. He argues that affective aspects of trust must be included in any adequate account of the role of trust in social dilemma situations involving multiple equilibria. The design of institutions that can foster trustful cooperation in the context of the Internet is analyzed under this perspective. The article by Hans-Werner Bierhoff and Bernd Vornefeld deals with the social psychology of trust. Three levels of trust are delineated: trust in a specific person, trust in people in general and trust in abstract systems. The authors assume that, in the case of the Internet, trust in the Internet as a system is of crucial importance. Several possibilities for strengthening the trustworthiness of the Internet as a system are presented. Uwe Matzat gives an overview of the present state of theoretical-empirical Internet research. He emphasizes the fact that recent insights suggest that the Internet should no longer be regarded as a constant that has uniform effects but that the social consequences of Internet use depend on a number of contextual conditions. Some hypotheses as to which conditions and features of online groups could facilitate bilateral or group-level cooperation are discussed.

The second section of articles focuses on The Internet as an Environment for Trust. Victoria McGeer argues that the Internet provides conditions in which rational individuals can in principle initiate and maintain relationships of interpersonal trust. But she underlines the importance of developing mature capacities for trust in an Internet context since immature trusters are particularly vulnerable to the liablities of Internet trust. Philip Pettit expresses his fundamental scepticism of the idea that trust between people can be formed on the basis of Internet contact alone. According to his view, a necessary precondition for the development of trust in a rich sense of the term is not given when people are related only via the Internet and their personal identity remains invisible to others. Russell Hardin analyzes the Internet as a form of social capital that is not reducible in its characteristics to other forms of social capital: it enables us to do many things with radically greater efficiency than is possible without it. But Hardin suggests that relationships on the Internet are too thin to back trust and cooperation among those who do not have relationships off-line with each other. In their joint contribution, Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit deal with the role of esteem in Internet relations. They argue that the desire for esteem not only serves an important function in ordinary social life but that Internet relations are also susceptible to esteem-related incentives. For them there is every reason to believe that a good e-reputation is an object of desire for real agents and therefore an important driving force in disciplining interactions on the Internet and supporting the operation of social norms.

The next group of articles under the heading Reputation and Online Auctions analyze empirically the mechanisms that further the building of trust on the Internet especially in the field of economic transactions. Chris Snijders and Richard Zijedeman investigate the phenomenon that transactions in online auctions such as eBay and Ricardo seem to work relatively smoothly. In an attempt to replicate the results of recent research on online auctions, they study the conditions under which eBay's reputation mechanisms can prevent opportunistic behaviour. Gary E. Bolton, Elena Katok and Axel Ockenfels report on experiments suggesting that it is the interaction of social preferences and cleverly designed reputation mechanisms that solve the trust problem on Internet market platforms to a large extent. The experiments show that the seller's intrinsic motivation to be trustworthy is not suffcient to sustain trade when not complemented by a feedback system. Werner Grüth and Hartmut Kliemt compare traits of an organizational design to promote trustworthiness as suggested by economic reasoning with those that have actually emerged on the Internet. They ask whether institutions like eBay will increasingly have to 'economize on virtue' although they have so far been able to rely on its spontaneous provision.

The subject of the next four articles is Groups and Networks. Coye Cheshire and Karen S. Cook comment on the application of experimental sociological research to different types of computer-mediated social interactions, with particular attention to the emergence of 'trust networks'. They develop a classification system that helps to integrate the existing research on trust in experimental social psychology with the field of computer-mediated exchange. Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman state that the role of groups in networked organizations has remained unclear and that little is known about how computer-mediated communication is used to bridge group and organizational boundaries. They examine how employees of a high-tech company communicate with members of the work group, other colleagues in the organization, and colleagues outside the organization to understand their boundary-spanning communications better. The paper by Andreas Flache addresses the question of how virtual communication may affect cooperation in work teams theoretically. A formal social exchange model is used and the degree of team virtualization, i.e. the extent to which interaction between team members occurs online, is related to parameters of the exchange. Simulation results suggest both positive and negative effects of team virtualization on work-cooperation. Margit Osterloh and Sandra Roth investigate under which conditions open source models-such as the open source software production- may be successful in general. They show that a complex interplay of situational, motivational, and institutional factors have to be taken into account. It is argued that the success of the open source model is greatly facilitated by well-balanced intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and low costs for contributions and governance mechanisms.

The last article in this volume by Eric Hilgendorf deals with Law and the Internet. The main forms of datanet crime on the Internet are described and some of the most important Internet-cases of the last decade are discussed. As one of the main problems of datanet crime is its global scope, a transnational criminal law for the Internet seems to be desirable and possible. But Hilgendorf points out that the problems of computer-related crime on the Internet cannot be solved by criminal law alone.

The volume is completed by the Internet-hymn. The lyrics of the hymn were written by Geoffrey Brennan to the tune of the famous song Edelweiss by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II from the musical The Sound of Music. The Internet-hymn was performed for the first (and, so far, last) time at the Centre of Interdisciplinary Research at the final session of the conference. Geoffrey Brennan as the solo-singer was strongly supported by the chorus of the conference participants.

Finally we wish to express our personal thanks to the staff of the ZiF for their exceptionally friendly and professional support, especially to Marina Hoffmann, Daniela Mietz and Trixi Valentin who were in charge of the organization of the conference and the well being of the participants. Not least because of their invaluable assistance the conference was a pleasure for all.

Michael Baurmann, Bernd Lahno, Uwe Matzat


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