The Circle of Trust
This week’s readings deal with privacy, trust, and ethics in the digital world. The Schofield and Joinson piece, “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” and the Katz and Rhodes piece in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations,” really approach the same question from different directions. What does it take to gain user trust and maintain integrity in an increasingly digital world?
Schofield and Joinson (2008) argue that privacy and trust “interact in determining online behavior” (p. 24). They discuss multiple dimensions of both privacy and trust, and they suggest that users often rely on some combination of these components of privacy and trust to guide their purchasing decisions and online behavior.
As digital communities grow, members look for ways to verify that other members are who they say they are. Schofield and Joinson (2008) point out that there are many ways to build trust online such as use of profiles, photographs, media switching, and linguistic cues (p. 21). Individuals use these tactics to build trust among other individuals, but how do companies gain the trust of their customers? The below comic strip is a good example of how companies do not gain customer trust:
Schofield and Joinson suggest that assuring customers that the information they disclose and the transactions they conduct will be dealt with appropriately and competently is an important building block for user trust. Also important is the company’s reputation; if people believe that they can trust a name, this belief can be more influential on purchasing behavior than trust building techniques such as privacy seals and statements.
While conducting business online might require disclosure of more personal information than it does in person, it also offers benefits such as “personalized service, convenience, improved efficiency” (p. 17). As online business continues to grow, this is evidently an acceptable tradeoff to many users. I know that when I am faced with the choice of going on a retail hunt for vacuum cleaner bags in the rain or giving Amazon my address and credit card number and having the vacuum cleaner bags delivered to my door, I almost always choose the latter.
Similarly, many users appreciate the personalized aspects and conveniences of online shopping, which are enabled by user tracking. Schofield and Joinson (2008) assert that users who maintain the same pseudonym in multiple online arenas can be tracked more effectively than users who switch pseudonyms from site to site (p. 26). As pseudonyms protect a person’s identity, I’m not sure why it’s beneficial for a person to have multiple pseudonyms. I tend to think consumers benefit more from enabling companies to track their usage in order to provide them with better products, recommendations, and customer service than from maintaining multiple pseudonyms in order to inhibit user tracking and preserve the notion of privacy.
Katz and Rhodes (2010) argue that “to stay competitive, as well as avoid potential crises, organizations and the professionals within them must both acknowledge and actively engage in multiple ethical frames of technical relations” (p. 230). Essentially, this is also an argument about establishing and maintaining trust and identity through a digital medium.
The 6 ethical frames Katz and Rhodes present explain how we use technical relations to achieve certain goals. Rhodes’ study, in which she examines Email as A Tool and an End, Email as Values and Thought, and Email as a Way of Being, demonstrates that depending on how we use it, email technology can be: both a means and an end, a value system, a method of rational calculation, and an extension of individual consciousness- or some combination of these. Even in the lowest common denominator of these ethical frames, where email is considered a tool, email is the mechanism that facilitates achieving a common goal through a digital medium, which requires at least some notion of trust and integrity.
Katz and Rhodes (2010) offer, “In delineating the ethical frames of technical relations that define human-machine interactions, we therefore recognize the socially dynamic and constructed nature of ethics; indeed because we do, we hold that technology both instantiates and helps construct social and moral values” (p. 231). This statement illustrates the bidirectional relationship between technology and social and moral values; ethics is a fluid concept that changes as social norms change. Social norms are changing as a result of technology, and thus the ethical frames of technical relations offer us a way to correlate the changing use of technology with corresponding ethical implications.