A Theory On Data, Trust, and Communication

Recently I was talking with a friend about a sketch released by comedy duo Key and Peele. The sketch consists just of two characters texting each other back and forth, but the humor is in how they each end up attributing completely different meanings to the exact same words they read. (The scene's embedded below, but be warned, there's some language in it that makes it definitely NSFW. You can skip viewing and still understand the rest of the post just fine).

I bring up the scene because I’ve been thinking a bit about trust, data, relationships, and communication, or more specifically about how the different ways that we communicate can affect our levels of trust in one another. Let me show a small chart to better illustrate what I mean:

Above is a scale of different ways of communicating with people. The modes that give the most information are towards the right and those that give the least are on the left. The items that are closer to the right side of the scale are associated with greater intimacy and trust, while the ones towards the left side provide more ease through instanteneity. This is not to say that the ones at the right require more trust, only that they have the potential to foster higher levels of trust.

Let’s expand a bit more: at the right you have interaction where all channels for data are open (here when I say "data" I mean both the implicit and explicit messages that we exchange when we’re communicating). A huge portion of human interaction is non-verbal; when you’re sitting face-to-face with someone, you don’t just pay attention to the content of what they say. You also consider their expressions, how they’re sitting, the intonation of the words they utter, the attitude that they project, and so on. In fact, it’s the non-verbal communication that fills in the gaps of what someone’s direct words might not cover.

When you think about it, what I’m saying likely comes as no surprise. It’s why after reading a resume or application, institutions still insist on an in-person interview. It’s why presidential candidates pay as much attention to their image as to their speeches. As people, we tend to be much better at discerning information when we have access to more than just words.

But as you look towards the left of the scale, more streams of communication are cut off, signaling the loss of potential channels for information-gathering. When you’re video chatting with someone, you can see and hear them but you miss being able to catch the micro-reactions and subtle clues that an in-person interaction would provide. On the phone, you’ve got hearing but no sight; in messaging (whether chat or text) you’re lacking sight and sound but you do get the immediacy and back-and-forth that defines a conversation. This is contrary to e-mail, which is essentially just streams of asynchronous monologues, and Twitter, which is really a large conversation unfolding at once where everyone is invited but can only say so much at any given time. MOving down the left side of the scale is a bit like compressing a file. You can still transmit content, but chunks of information are removed. Though you can still communicate, it does become that much more difficult to discern the more subtle (and often significant) messages.

But this, again, isn’t a surprise when you think about it. We know the mistakes that arise when you’re texting a friend who responds with “kay”, leaving you to decipher whether they’re being passive-aggressive or just concise. We’ve all had the experience of hearing silence on the other end of a phone call and wishing desperately that we could see the expression on the other person’s face. And surely you’ve been in the unenviable position of having written an email that receives no response for days, or even weeks. The forms of communication towards the bottom of the scale provide us with the ease of not needing to be in the same place or even responding at the same time, but there’s no arguing the fact that there are bits of information that are lost in the tradeoff.

A slightly more lighthearted take on the concept of the communication scale, this is a depiction by Colleen Douglass of a moment from the HBO TV Show Girls where two characters described the "totem of chat". 

A slightly more lighthearted take on the concept of the communication scale, this is a depiction by Colleen Douglass of a moment from the HBO TV Show Girls where two characters described the "totem of chat". 

Now, you ask: why does this matter?

Well, a week or so ago, I wrote a post for National Geographic about data, tracking, and the climate around both. If you haven’t read it yet, go here to take a look.

One point I alluded to in the post was that the people who are participating in my project have agreed to give me access to their data because they realize that data's already available to lots of corporate entities. But there's an essential part of the picture that I didn’t have the space to highlight in the post, and I can sum that missing element up in one word: trust. Here’s my theory: trust is manufactured through multiple interactions that hover closer to the right side of the scale that I presented earlier. In other words, no matter how many text messages you send, you’ll never truly trust someone unless you graduate to a more context-rich mode of communication.

The reason this is crucial for me is because trust forms the foundation for data sharing. You need trust in order to share the pieces of information that you think reveal something substantive about you. And sure enough, when I think about it in terms of my project, all of the participants who are sharing data with me in this first round are people who I have had either substantial or meaningful (or both!) in-person connections with. Most I’ve met multiple times face-to-face; the others I’ve spent at least an hour or more just talking with. Not coincidentally, the ones who I’ve spent the most time with are the people who I asked to participate and who acquiesced; those who I spent the least time with happen to be the people who volunteered to participate in the project (this is a noteworthy point because I likely wouldn’t have felt like I had fostered enough trust to be able to seriously ask them myself). For all of the participants, before any talk of tracking was brought up, I had already had conversations with them that stretched beyond superficial topics like weather and the tube.

So what am I saying? That successful collection of data from people is and must be built upon a foundation of trust.

This is a theory whose details I’m still fleshing out, but its implications are compelling for someone like me, who is interested in the interpersonal sharing of data between people. I’ll see how this theory unfolds as I begin recruiting and talking to people who I’d like to be involved in the second round of tracking for my project.

One final note: once you have established a bond through higher-context interaction forms, it becomes much easier to use the lower ones. For instance, I’ve known my friend Monika since we were both 8 years old. To this day, we have a steady stream of communication through various messaging services. She can text me one word and I’ll immediately be able to determine her tone and what she means when she’s saying it; this is simply because I have so much material from our years of being friends and interacting in person with each other that I can draw on that to flesh out the her texts. What someone else might interpret as inappropriate I might laugh at, because I know what she really means.

On the other hand, when a friend of mine received a strange message from someone she was talking to on Tinder, lacking any sort of rich information stream from him, she was more inclined to simply stop engaging. Without the in-person data to fill in the gaps, she had no way of being able to decipher the tone or more general connotation around his message.

As I just said, I still have at least one more round of tracking to go, so I’ll continue to reflect on this process of using the scale from the beginning of this post to help explain the importance of building up genuine bonds with the people involved in my project. I’m looking forward to fleshing out this theory as I discover more.