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.

Purple Heart, Jody’s grandfather

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.

About Rob_Henseler

Rob has been teaching high school English and Language Arts for 20 years. When he's not at school, he enjoys making and listening to music, woodworking, canoeing, and hands-on traditional skills.

Posted on November 18, 2012, in Creative, Society, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. It is hard to think of most businesses/corporations as being benvolent given how often we hear about scandals and fraud. However, it seems to make sense that individuals and businesses will prosper from being benevolent, since their customers/users truly appreciate it. Similar to benevolence, integrity may not always be an adjective used to describe businesses/corporations. When it comes to online transactions, trust is further diminsihed since the consumer never really meets the seller, and the latter may easily take advantage of credit card information etc. However, as your story illustrates, we sometimes have to simply take a risk and trust others to be good and honest people.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed following this, Rob. Thanks for sharing. You know, I especially enjoyed your point that in this case the website’s owner needed to trust your wife and her depiction of the story. It really would be rather easy to email and submit a false claim. How amazing that he not only trusted, but offered to sell it back without profit on his part.

    I must confess to be a lover of “Reader’s Digest” inspirational, bite-sized articles and I swear this story is something you would find amidst its pages. I think you should tweak and combine your posts and submit! The tie to trust on the web makes the story not only heartwarming, but relevant. Just sayin’.

    • This certainly has ended as a heartwarming experience. I am really looking forward to Christmas now, when my wife will give the medal to my mother-in-law. She will be floored.

  3. Lovely post that connects the readings to a “real life” moment. Given my research into the use of online spaces during and after times of disaster, I like to focus on those positive moments that rely on trust so much. For instance, did you know that because of how much people trusted Craig’s List, many turned to that Lost & Found section to search for relatives after Hurricane Katrina. They preferred those open spaces to more formal channels like the Red Cross.

  4. Phew! For a second there when you said that your wife called you crying I thought that maybe the guy didn’t come through.

    When you really stop to think about it, all internet transactions require trust. When I’m looking to buy something on eBay I’ll pay a little more to get a seller with a good reputation. They just had a story on the news last night about how Yelp, which is a review website, has started cracking down on companies that stuff their site with positive reviews that they have bribed people to post. I think they said that there was one jewelry store that was paying people like $100 to write a favorable review. The have detectives and algorithms that comb the site looking for unreliable reviews.

    Yelp is pretty much in the trust business. If people rely on a review and then get bad service, they will stop using Yelp and may share their bad experience with Yelp with their friends. And, as we have read, a relatively small number of people sharing an experience can impact a large number of customers.

    I guess that the regular–brick and mortar–economy also requires trust, but it’s kinda hard for an entire building to get up and disappear overnight, so you have that reassurance. So when eBay or PayPal guarantee a transaction you are making with a total stranger, they aren’t doing it just to be nice, they are doing it because if they don’t do people will buy things somewhere else.

    • It has taken me years to to finally trust PayPal and eBay, but they proved the only way to get bike parts my younger son needed for an old Schwinn he was restoring. After our first success, we’ve been less timid to make other eBay purchases.

  5. This is such a great story – and so right on the button with our readings. I bet you guys will have a very memorable Christmas.

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