Virtual community content as a valuable information source and the issue of trust
This PhD research starts from the idea that an online group of people can play a significant role when it comes to making important individual decisions. When looking for factual, non-news reference information (Metzger, 2007) - such as how-to or pre-buy counsel – one can turn to online content from regular users or user-generated-content. In this way, the information search process is becoming a social event where Internet users can be considered valuable information sources. However, before people will share or pick up information, they must experience a certain level of trust. Trust allows people to cope with the insecurity they might experience when they are looking for advice based on a large pool of information, where different users possess different levels of expertise. Literature shows that in a traditional, offline environment, trust is built slowly during the process of people getting to know each other. People who often participate in online conversations - or even read the discussions of others - develop a common interaction history on which they can rely. But how do less committed users assign trust? Important trust antecedents such as identity, reputation and experience are not always that easy to infer online. Computer-mediated communication does not always offer sufficient knowledge of the skills and capacities of online information contributors. This insecurity about the identity of others makes trust development less evident. Users need a certain level of skills, not only to deduce useful information sources but also to receive and comprehend cues concerning the trustworthiness of these sources. When users succeed in understanding the identity of others they can anticipate conversations, which in return creates the opportunity for trust and trusting behaviour. Despite the clear need for trust in virtual communities, current online trust research often focuses on commercial and organisational settings or on the link with online security and privacy. Less attention is being paid to the role of trust and trustworthiness during the search for reference information. My study looks at the construction of trust within a mainly textual online environment (“forums”), when searching for both explicit knowledge and implicit know-how (also known as knowledge based on everyday personal experiences). In order to comprehend online trust, the theoretical framework focuses on notions of community, identity, reputation, interpersonal and computer-mediated-communication and trust. The study will contain two major empirical parts. A content analysis will be performed on forum threads in order to grasp the way in which people reach consensus, how they display elements of identity and expertise and how other forum members (re)act upon these trust antecedents. During the second empirical stage, my focus will be on online and offline interviews combined with online observations, where I will contrast people experiencing initial trust with those users who already have a common interaction history with forum members.