Trusting Online: Finding Common Ground
To me, it seems a huge coincidence that one of this week’s topics is “trust.” As I wrote last week, my wife, Jody, found her grandpa’s missing Purple Heart, which he earned during World War I, on an internet site honoring soldiers who were wounded or killed in action. Jody wanted that medal back in the family, so she asked Mr. Maier, the man who runs the site To Honor Our Fallen, if she could buy it back.
According to Carina Paine Schofield and Adam N. Joinson’s paper “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” “Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable, based on positive expectations about the actions of others.” My wife and I felt pretty vulnerable this week, but on Saturday, when I was in Michigan, I received a tearful call from my wife that she was holding her grandpa’s medal in her hand. It was back in the family.
Last Sunday, when Mr. Maier told us he would send the Purple Heart back to us if we covered his investment in the medal and research surrounding it, we were put in a tough position. Mr. Maier did not operate a store, he had no reputation as a seller, and we knew of no recourse if a transaction went badly. Should we trust him? If we did, were we being foolish?
Schofield and Joinson’s article identifies three dimensions of trust including “ability,” “integrity,” and “benevolence.” We weren’t really worried about his ability; shipping a package with delivery confirmation is easy enough.
Mr. Maier’s “benevolence” was a concern that needed some thought, though a week ago I wouldn’t have considered calling it that. According to Schofield and Joinson, benevolent companies and organizations look out for their customers’ best interests and do not exploit them. Jody researched average prices paid for Purple Hearts and found out Mr. Maier was actually asking less than what a lot of other people make in selling these medals. Considering the emotional attachment we had expressed for this family artifact, he could have asked for more money. But he didn’t, and we were starting to trust him because of his benevolence (and the research Jody did–trust doesn’t need to be blind).
Still, we wondered about Mr. Maier’s integrity–whether he would actually follow through and send us the medal after we paid him. In retrospect, it was his “benevolence” that helped us believe in his integrity. Since he wasn’t asking for as much money as other people were asking for these medals, maybe that indicated he would be fair with us and keep his end of the deal. Also, the nature of the website he ran showed benevolence; he was not collecting Purple Hearts as a for-profit venture. He was using them and the information he researched about the recipients to share online as a memorial to veterans. Didn’t we have to trust him?
Yes, actually, we did. If we didn’t trust Mr. Maier, there was no way the medal would be back in the family.
And the reality is that he trusted us, too. He trusted that my wife’s account of how her grandfather was wounded, her memories of the man, and the significance of the medal were sincere. He trusted that we wanted the Purple Heart, not so we could turn a profit with a different buyer, but because it had meaning to us.
So we all trusted. And even though we never met Mr. Maier or talked to him or saw a picture of him, I don’t think we are complete strangers. Through Jody’s emails to him, he was given a glimpse of some of what we value–history, connections to family, and remembering the sacrifices made by our elders. And through the work of his web site and traveling Purple Heart memorial, he shows us that we have a lot in common.