The trust level of the room


A few days ago I mused about when media is social; I particularly wanted to highlight the need to separate social media from broadcast media, and how that could take some of the toxicity and polarisation out of the environment and help bring us back to places where civil discourse is possible.

Today I want to spend a little time on what we share, rather than who we share with or how we share.

Many years ago, I think it was while I was at BT, I spent some time with David Anderson. Fascinating guy. Our conversations started with agile and Kanban, then went through understanding how the behaviour of work-in-progress queues could signal operational health as well as illness. Somewhere within those conversations, as we touched on aspects of collaborative approaches, David said something that helped me think about trust differently; he used a phrase akin to “the trust level of the room”. Maybe those were his exact words. (David, if you read this, thank you once again for the time you spent with me.)

Ever since then, I’ve been musing about this, specifically when it comes to what we share.

Cooking onions in pans meant for milk

Words have power. They can build people up and smash people down.

A number of times in my life, I’ve been “dressed down” in public, and never enjoyed it. I still remember an incident in January 1972 like it was yesterday. New school year, new class, new teacher. The teacher started with an icebreaker: what did you do during the Christmas holidays? When it came to my turn, I told him precisely what I’d done. Played cards, carrots, scrabble, cricket, Cluedo, with my siblings and with the children of the neighbourhood. Listened to music. Read books.

And read comics.

The guy went spare, tore shreds off me, made an example of me in front of the whole class, ranting about how reading comics was the most damaging thing one could do when it came to developing and nurturing writing skills, particularly creative writing. I was 14 and thought I was tough, but my eyes were hot with my tears; the class was silent, but I could feel their shock and sympathy.

After the icebreaker, and before he started with the first lesson, he had some more business to finish. “One more thing. I hear that one of you won the senior school essay prize last year, the first time someone from class 7 got it. Who was it?”.

I took my time raising my hand.

I still remember those tears. That wasn’t the only time it happened, not just to me but to people around me. Over the years, I’ve seen too many examples of people criticising others in public and with venom. I’ve done it myself when younger, and learnt from that.

It took me many weeks to trust that teacher. There’s a Sindhi saying: When you cook onions in a pan meant for milk, the smell of onions stays a long time.

So it is with social media. There’s no dearth of places where we all choose to criticise, to negate, to tear strips off each other. Maybe we don’t need another one?

Making a space safe, one where civil discourse can be had, where divisive behaviours are not welcomed, is hard. Legislating for such behaviour is probably a waste of time.

There is still something we can do to engender such behaviours. We can lead by example. We can act with kindness in what we say and do in social spaces. Where constructive criticism is called for, it can be done with kindness, and in private.

We have to stop cooking onions in milk pans.

The trust level of the room

It’s been a few decades since I first heard the phrase “he walked in, and what he said just sucked all the oxygen out of the room”. I found it useful, but it lacked something.

What it lacked was this sense of collective ownership of an ambiance, a zeitgeist, an atmosphere. Associating a room with a trust level gave me that sense of collective ownership, which soon morphed into a sense of stewardship, a responsibility for keeping the trust level protected, a responsibility for growing the collective trust level.

Clay Shirky has shared many things that I’ve found really useful. One of them was to do with the commons, and how the differential in cost-of-damage and cost-of-repair helped preserve or pollute the commons. I think he used Wikipedia as an example, and spoke about the power of the Undo button. This was many many years ago. (Clay, if you read this, thank you once again for letting me into your world as often as you did).

If I remember right, Clay used graffiti and chewing gum as examples of where the cost of repair exceeded the cost of damage, and how the commons were harmed as a result. And then explained the power of the undo button.

This idea of cost-of-damage and cost-of-repair, and the need to keep the cost of repair below the cost of damage, is, I think, also applicable to the trust level of the room. It becomes a very human and sensitive challenge to preserve a room’s trust level.

For some years now, I’ve tried to think of the people I converse with as a “room” with trust levels that can be sensed; in practice, I’ve tended to think of it as a series of partially-overlapping rooms. Whenever I’ve thought about sharing something, one of the first questions I’ve asked myself is “what will this do to trust levels?”.

Kevin Kelly and “speeding up evolution”

Many years ago, I was fascinated by something Kevin Kelly said about invention and innovation. He said something along the lines of ” they happen for three reasons: to satisfy a perceived demand; to make use of an observed effect; or to speed up evolution”. I think he used Kevlar as the speed-up-evolution example. Humans could have evolved to become bulletproof: many millennia, many deaths. An alternative was to invent Kevlar. (I shall resist the temptation to say “or ban bullets?” since it’s a rabbit hole insofar as this particular discussion is concerned).

In keeping with this frame of mind, I’m fascinated by the idea that we can invent “interventions” in social media that “speed up the evolution” of the trust level in our different rooms, the collective of which is the sphere of social media.

Language and sensemaking

I’ve been spending much of the last nine months looking sideways at language, and learning about the incredible sense making capability that language represents. The sense making capacity and value becomes particularly interesting to me when I consider language diversity.

Even today I’m astonished that, in my mother tongue, there are a litany of words for aunt and uncle, letting me know which of my parents is the sibling of the aunt/uncle, and going beyond that to tell me whether that person is older or younger than the parent in question. The existence of that litany of words was itself proof positive of the importance of family and relationships in Indian cultures. This is akin to the “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” example of the number of words for snow.

Holding on to the cultural diversity shown in language enriches our capacity to make sense of the world we’re in, and will help us make sense of worlds to come.

On a call this afternoon, there was reference to a Dean Kamen quote along the lines of “You get more of what you choose to celebrate“.

We need to learn to celebrate the forms of sharing on social media that will help us protect, develop and enhance our collective trust level. I know that sounds a bit Kumbaya but so what?

Some conclusions

As with everything else, these are provisional observations, shared with a view to helping us learn.

Over the years I’ve been active across different forms of social media, learning by using. Wherever possible I’ve tried to engage as early as possible, experimenting, learning from failure.

If I take just Twitter as an example, in my first year of using it, I learnt, for example, how to rescue a hamster lost underneath floorboards; how to buy a CD from a shop in Toronto that wasn’t on the web, and have it shipped to my home in England.

One time, maybe a decade or more ago, I shared my excitement at getting tickets for a Cat Stevens/Yusuf concert. (It’s his birthday tomorrow. If any of you knows him well enough, wish him happy 75 tomorrow!). Where was I? Oh yes, sharing the news that I’d acquired tickets for a concert. A few minutes later, I heard from a friend who lived in mainland Europe that he’d been wrestling with what he was going to get his wife for her 50th birthday, and my sharing had led him to get tickets to the concert and to book a trip to London for it, all as a special surprise for his wife. That made me very glad.

So where am I going with all this? Words have power. We can build people up, we can cut people down. There is an abundance of people-cutter-downers. We can be different. Social media retains that promise, and we have that power.

Thinking about what we say. Using language that will help advance the cause of building collective trust. Sharing things that “do no harm”. Thinking about who might find it useful before sharing whatever we are sharing. Learning to cross-check and corroborate what we share. Celebrating the power of collective curation. Choosing to share what we write, our original work, giving credit when quoting others, saying thanks when relevant. Acting as curators for the collectives we are part of.

All the while doing all this while being kind.

Utopia? Maybe. But I’m a child of the fifties who entered his teens in the sixties, so there are many things I remain utopian about.

We have the power to make what we want of social media. I’d like to believe we have the will as well.

PS If I get the time and if I find people are interested, I will continue with a “taxonomy and ontology for sharing”. Been thinking about it for a while, but not polished it up into a shareable state as yet.

2 thoughts on “The trust level of the room”

  1. Words Are Windows (or They’re Walls) by Ruth Bebermeyer.

    I feel so sentenced by your words,
    I feel so judged and sent away,
    Before I go I’ve got to know,
    Is that what you mean to say?
    Before I rise to my defense,
    Before I speak in hurt or fear,
    Before I build that wall of words,
    Tell me, did I really hear?
    Words are windows, or they’re walls,

    They sentence us, or set us free.
    When I speak and when I hear,
    Let the love light shine through me.
    There are things I need to say,
    Things that mean so much to me,
    If my words don’t make me clear,
    Will you help me to be free?
    If I seemed to put you down,
    If you felt I didn’t care,
    Try to listen through my words,
    To the feelings that we share.

    Source: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships by Marshall B. Rosenberg

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