Reputation and Trust in the #Wildnerness

Having almost completed one fun yet twisted full year in Silicon Valley, one topic on my mind of late deals with online reputation and offline trust. I could probably write a year’s worth of posts on each topic, as each characteristic seems to permeate so many things around here, so instead, I’ll try to be as focused in this post as possible.

Apparently, what they say about reputation is true – it’s important. There is a lot of activity, lots of new things. Lots of founders, lots of investors, lots of bloggers. As a result, some things on the business side only accelerate when reputation is analyzed as a variable. Questions of relevance, network, reach, or influence come up. How many followers does this person have? How many visits does their Tumblr generate? How active are they on Quora? What does their Crunchbase profile reveal? Who are they connected to on LinkedIn? And of course, who are they friends with on Facebook?

It’s so easy to scan these things that it seems the browser tabs just open automatically, without prompt. Quick scans generate some type of imperfect equation, we put in the variables, and draw some conclusion — one that’s possibly directionally correct but probably very narrow and definitely not complete or thorough. We don’t have time to dig deeper. Instead, we unknowingly arrive at some measure of “influence” or “reputation” in our head. This is partly why I believe folks resist scores generated by a service like Klout — because deep down the truth of how we scan, assess, and judge online is quite crude.

But, online reputation only goes so far. Reputation can be positive, or it can negative. Someone recently remarked to me that if you’re online, if you’re on Twitter even, you have a reputation, and while you can craft the message you’d like the world to see, it’s largely out of your control. When the online and offline worlds collide, it’s like the old saying, “your reputation precedes you.”

And, reputation is only one building block of forming trust. While you can build reputation online, I’m not sure about trust. I have interacted with people now on Twitter for years and definitely have examples of an online dialogue forming the basis for a real relationship based on trust. Of course, it takes time. And, we need much more context, time, and interactions to start to build trust with someone.

During my #wilderness year, it’s interesting to look back on this interplay with reputation and trust. Online, reputation is oftentimes just an illusion. I’ve found myself in offline situations where someone had formed such a strong picture of me based on my online activity, that I had to spend time readjusting it by being very honest about my situation. Yet, at the same time, without the medium like Twitter, I may not have met that person in the first place. As a specific example, I’ve been lucky to been able to post on TechCrunch for the year, but I just write about things that interest me. I don’t have any special knowledge. I’m mostly unqualified for nearly everything I’m interested in.

So, here’s the kicker. When a relationship starts to transfer online to offline, if any perception of reputation is off, there is a period of re-calibration that is needed, and that ultimately puts up one’s guard and raises the bar to achieve trust. I’ve found that because of TechCrunch, or because I like to use Twitter, or because I like to talk about what I’m thinking as a vehicle to learn more and more, that it has the power to put me in situations that would have otherwise not been possible yet simultaneously cloak the interaction because of how quickly and inauthentically viewers can form a picture of one’s reputation.

I’m trying to be uber-aware of it and not take anything for granted. If you’ve read this far, and if we happen to meet, I hope to get the chance to earn your trust, for real, over time.