What Airbnb, Uber and Facebook can teach brands about trust


Would you say you trust most of the brands you buy and use? Nick Liddell explores the issue of trust in today’s corporate landscape. 

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer report, only 34% of people do. And apparently 53% of us are able to spot “trust-washing”— Edelman’s newly-coined version of green-washing. This is seriously bad news for companies that are caught out: 45% of survey participants claim unethical brands would never be able to regain their trust, while 40% would stop buying from those brands altogether.

The assumption that underlies the Edelman report is so self-evident it seems almost pointless to write down: that trust is vital to a brand’s success. If people don’t trust a brand, they won’t buy from it and it can’t make a profit.  But arguably the opposite is true where the likes of Airbnb, Facebook, Instagram, Uber and Ebay are concerned. These online community brands begin from the assumption that people can’t be trusted… Except to rat on one another. Consequently, they effectively function in a manner similar to intelligence services during the Cold War – encouraging people to snitch on their neighbours and maintaining stability through the constant threat of excommunication and denial of service. In doing so, they have evolved capitalism into a darker, shadier incarnation: an economy of mistrust.

Who’s watching who?

In the economy of mistrust, businesses create profit by outsourcing the policing of behaviour to their online communities: they establish spaces in which people are encouraged to act as judge, jury and executioner. As a result, we have all evolved into a society of peeping toms. The act of recording strangers, judging them and sharing our judgment with other strangers has become commonplace and now comes with a revenue model. Examples exist everywhere.

An Irish family found eight hidden cameras at an Airbnb property in Athens. Cameras were found in every room including the bathroom. A family from New Zealand staying at an Aibrnb in Ireland discovered they were being live streamed via hidden cameras. In 2015, Airbnb settled a civil suit brought by a German woman who discovered hidden cameras while staying at a rental in California in 2013. Earlier this year, children’s camp director Max Vest informed Airbnb that he had discovered hidden cameras in a rental property in California. Dissatisfied with their (lack of) response, he approached the Miami Police Department to file a report – and was in turn accused of theft of the device’s memory card, which he had removed as evidence. The police, it turns out, exist to enforce the law and not Airbnb’s terms of service. Vest’s subsequent interviews with the media reveal enormous frustration at Airbnb’s unwillingness to enforce its own rules… But why should Airbnb invest in doing so when it can more profitably outsource this job to social media users and the press?

When power turns to tyranny

Far from diminishing the power of these branded communities, the economy of mistrust lies at the heart of their power: the gamification of peer review focuses us on critiquing one another, rather than questioning the legitimacy of the peer review system itself – and the brand that created the system in the first place. But there are plenty of reasons for doing so. Uber’s use of consumer-sourced driver ratings is highly likely to be influenced by implicit (and not-so-implicit) bias on the basis of gender and race. This matters because these ratings materially affect the employment opportunities of the rated. This bias is evident in other branded online communities; a 2013 study of iPod sales on Craigslist found that listings that showed a black person holding the device for sale typically received fewer and lower offers than when a white person was shown. A 2015 study of baseball card sales on Ebay revealed a similar pattern of bias. In the same year, researchers for the Harvard Business School revealed widespread discrimination against black guests. The economy of mistrust is an economy of inequality: it hard-wires centuries of prejudice into transactions, provides an echo chamber of bias and amplifies the tyranny of the masses.

This goes a long way towards explaining why society is becoming so polarised and why our first response to having our values challenged is not calm introspection but noisy, banging outrage. This is only sustainable in the short-term. The longer-term problem for branded communities is that the economy of mistrust is unstable and unsustainable, as the examples of Airbnb, Uber, Craigslist and Ebay demonstrate.

So what would an economy of trust look like?

Instagram may be about to show us. In Canada, the platform is trialling hidden like counts, as a way to encourage people to focus on the quality of the content people share, rather than the quantified popularity of who or what is being shared. Perhaps we are seeing the first tentative step in the rolling back of the platform’s reliance on unqualified peer review. The 2019 Edelman Trust barometer revealed that 76% of people believe that CEOs should take the lead on change. Top of their change agenda is equal pay (65% of respondents) and tackling prejudice and discrimination (64%). Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram, has clearly taken up the challenge. He explained the rationale behind the hidden likes experiment at Facebooks annual developer conference in April: “We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people that they care about.” The experiment is part of a broader strategy to evolve Instagram into a less pressurised and more welcoming environment.

Go on, make my day

The Instagram CEO isn’t alone in his desire to shift the focus of branded online communities away from competition for social validation and towards a more cohesive, collaborative state. Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is also reported as recently saying he would rethink the platform’s emphasis on likes and retweets as markers of success. Hopefully this is more than just wishful thinking. Do we really want to delegate responsibility (and blame) for life-changing decisions to algorithms and social media trolls? Do we want to fight discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender and sexual orientation or not? If so, more CEOs are going to have to resist the temptation to succumb to the wailing cry of the mob. And the rest of us have our own role to play in rebuilding trust. Social media and communities like Airbnb aren’t inherently evil or toxic; they only become so when we decide to use them as opportunities to stitch each other up and sell each other out. Substitute a “like” for a considered piece of feedback or note of thanks: it can’t be quantified but it could make someone’s day.

Nick Liddell, Director of Consulting, The Clearing, and co-author of Wild Thinking