Opinion: We trust strangers more than colleagues

Passion for chickens: Can robots really replace all the weird and wonderful interests and abilities that make us human?
Passion for chickens: Can robots really replace all the weird and wonderful interests and abilities that make us human?

Have you seen the movie Chicken People? It's a charming documentary about people who breed chickens and show them at agricultural fairs. There's plenty in it about chickens, but it's really a movie about people and their passions. What else but passion, or perhaps obsession, would drive people to spend 24 hours straight washing and blow-drying chickens without being paid? Or to hold the breeding details of a family tree of four generations of chickens in their heads so they can select just the right mating pair to hatch babies with the perfect comb, wing span and feather pattern?

I've always found it endearing how humans are endlessly diverse and creative and fixated on fields of study that are boring or obscure to others. Perhaps robots are coming to take our jobs, perhaps not. Either way, it's worth remembering that some technology is about connecting humans with humans, and letting us make a livelihood from our passions.

It turns out that if the technology settings are right, we are far more likely to trust a stranger than our own colleagues or neighbours. Weird, huh? The findings are from a study co-authored by assistant professor Mareike Möhlmann at Warwick University, professor Arun Sundararajan at New York University, and two executives from BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing platform that connects drivers and riders mainly for city-to-city travel. It's hitchhiking for the 21st century. A survey of 18,289 members across 11 countries in Europe found 88 per cent of respondents highly trusted a member with a full digital profile. This was nearly the same level of trust in family members (94 per cent) or friends (92 per cent). Yet only 58 per cent of respondents said they would highly trust a colleague and 42 per cent, a neighbour.

If trust is important in business, HR departments and managers probably need to do something about that. Maybe they could somehow copy the key innovations of sharing-economy platforms. The research suggests that people trust strangers on sharing platforms for two main reasons. First, the strangers build a digital profile to let people know who they are, and this can be linked to other profiles. Second, a lot of it is driven by trust in the platform itself. A separate survey of Airbnb users found people trusted the platform because it offered insurance, and because of the two-way review system. On some platforms, people might give a positive rating to avoid retaliation, but on Airbnb the reviews don't become public until both parties have submitted.

Thomas Friedman from the New York Times wrote recently about Airbnb's next step and the interesting implications for the future of work. Airbnb started by enabling people to rent their home or a room in their home to strangers. Now the site is branching out to “experiences”. For $75 you can make brown soda bread and Irish stew at Eimhear's house in Dublin, or for $150 go kayaking on Sydney Harbour with Matt from Glebe. Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky told Friedman he believed the experiences business had grown tenfold this year and could become even bigger than home sharing. He's 35, and his goal is to create 100 million new entrepreneurs by the time he retires. “The biggest asset in people's lives is not their home, but their time and potential — and we can unlock that,” Chesky says.

If you go to the page to sign up to host an experience, the tagline is “share your passion with the world”. There's nothing on there about breeding show chickens that I can see, but surely it's just a matter of time.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a Fairfax columnist.