Online Community, Reciprocal Consciousness and Trust

Source: Suresh Fernando

Many of us have vast amount of experience operating in virtual environments. We have all noted the substantial power of the internet. It makes possible real time communication across the globe. We’ve noted that massive projects like Wikipedia and the Linux operating system have had transformed the world. We have assumed that if something can happen in the real world, there should be some way to port the model to the virtual world.

In particular, we have assumed that we should be able to build scalable collaboration environments (open collaboration environments). This experiment has failed and this is why.

Collaboration requires trust and trust cannot be developed as efficiently in virtual environments.

The following are a few comments that aim to establish why our consciousness of each other in virtual environments is different than it is face to face. I start with the realization that trust can be formed in the real world and then draw a simple contrast with the virtual world with a view to establishing a difference between forms of consciousness. This should be enough…

Jean Paul Sartre referred to the ‘Look’… that moment of self consciousness when someone is looking at you. He also referred to this idea as Being-for-itself… a person becoming an object of the consciousness of others. If this notion is unclear, think back to someone in your life that you felt deep attraction to. Think of your desire to approach this man/woman; the trepidation you felt. Now reflect on the moment she laid eyes on you… the moment you crystallized in her consciousness; when you became an object in her consciousness… the moment that it became possible to be judged.

What does this constitute? This moment constitutes the full apprehension of your Being… the entire you… in your potential inadequacy. You have no place to hide. You are fully present… exposed.

Of course, you then have the opportunity to view her reaction… and to respond to this. Maybe she reflects a level of mutual attraction… a hint of a smile…  a tilt of the head. And, of course, the confidence that you attribute her is just that… and attribution. In all likelihood she also feels trepidatious. The dance begins… Reciprocal consciousness of each other has taken hold.

The idea is that, for example. Joe becomes aware of Anna who becomes aware of the fact that Joe is aware of her…  Joe might also be aware that Anna is aware that he is aware of her… and so on…

Two things are missing in virtual environments:

  1. Consciousness of your entire Being… in all its glory…
  2. Nested reciprocal consciousness  

Virtual Environments, Representation and Intentionality

Furthermore, virtual spaces are ones where you can intentionally represent yourself as you choose. You can upload the photos you want, write what you want and so on. You can act asynchronously which has many benefits. What it allows you to do is to manufacture your identity. This also allows you to hide important features…

At a deep level we know this…

These are the reasons that it is very difficult to develop trust in virtual environments. This does not mean that virtual environments don’t have powerful capabilities… Developing deep levels of trust is not one of them, however.

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