Craig Newmark talks about how he thinks the web needs to develop a “distributed trust network” to allow users to monitor and manage their own reputations and the reputations of others online. He says this is the next big problem that the Web has to solve.

I had the chance to sit down with Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark recently at his favorite breakfast spot in San Francisco, just a block or two from the house where Craigslist was launched 15 years ago this month. We talked about a number of his favorite topics, including the bird feeders he keeps having to replace (because the squirrels he likes to post about on Twitter destroy some 10-15 of them every year), his love of dogs (he doesn’t own one himself, but keeps dog treats with him to feed the various neighborhood pets he runs into during the day, most of whom he knows by name) and — last but not least — what he thinks is the next big problem the web has to solve.

And what is that? The question of who to trust online, according to Newmark. To solve it, he believes that what the web needs is a “distributed trust network” that allows us to manage our online relationships and reputations. I just happened to have a Flip video camera with me, so I convinced him to let me capture a few minutes of him discussing this concept; I’ve embedded the clip below.

Newmark called some form of distributed trust system “the killingest of killer apps” for the web over the next decade (he said he wasn’t sure that was the best way to describe it, but was trying out to see how it sounded). He talked about “reputation and trust ruling the web, just the way it does in real life,” and how he was looking to big players such as Google, Facebook and Amazon as the kinds of entities that would have the scale to handle such a distributed trust or reputation management network. And he said that despite some occasional missteps by both Google and Facebook when it came to privacy (Google Buzz and Facebook Beacon, respectively), he believed that both were acting in good faith and had a policy of “not being evil.”

The Craigslist founder also said that he saw a place for government to be involved in this process — something he hoped he would be able to help with — but that there would need to be a private-public partnership to provide checks and balances. And he hoped that the major players such as Google and Facebook would co-operate to create some kind of universal standard or platform to support such a trust or reputation network, rather than fighting with each other. Newmark said that as a society we needed to “get our act together and make this happen,” adding with a wink that the idea for the distributed trust network was all part of his “hidden agenda to move ahead on the web to try and save the world.”

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  1. Craig Newmark Thursday, March 18, 2010

    Mathew, thanks! and I really do have a lot of confidence in Google and Facebook.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Craig — and for taking all that time with me and doing the video, etc. Hope the new bird feeder works out :-)

      1. so far, new bird feeders resisting brutal squirrel invasion. new (teenage equivalent?) squirrel challenging older dominant one for control of suet feeder.

  2. Fascinating, though not explicitly articulated. I can see where this is going. I have my own ideas about this regarding school districts and the “pooling” of blended capital from non-profit, private equity and federal / state monies to assist education innnovation. If either of you would like to have a conversation about that, let me know.

  3. eBay has a pretty good self-policing mechanism. It wouldn’t be that hard for Craigslist to incorporate something like that. It would be a big addition for CL.

    1. I think Craig is talking about something much broader than that — covering the entire Web and all its various sites and services.

  4. What’s the problem with a watered down version of PGP?

    1. I wondered the same thing, actually. I think I still have an old version of some PGP keyring software around here somewhere :-)

  5. Trust is learned, it is not assigned. Basically one observers behavior over time and learns which one to trust. Its heavily biased based on generalizations.

    Google assigns a ranking value to text, machine translated and back which in the process becomes totally garbled besides a few keywords. No hope there, that they ever will figure out how to build a system which builds and learns its own generalizations.

    I trust my bird feeders to withstand the usual squirrel attacks, but not a black Bear one. Observations from the Rocky Mountains.

  6. I agree that this is a challenging and fertile area for innovation.

    The problem itself is massive. To begin with, there is so much lying that goes on online that it is close to being an epidemic. Having been the CEO of a well-known web company, and having had a successful exit, I now see my former employees and co-workers fanning out across the web as to be expected 4 years after selling the company.

    What has astounded me is the amount of resume puffing that has gone on after the fact. All of a sudden people that had important single contributor jobs are telling others about how the “built xyz” or they “launched abc”. Others have used inflated titles post-transaction to make people think they had those elevated roles pre-transaction. Anyone that understands the M&A world knows they are very different times.

    This may not be the kind of reputation issue that Craig talks about but it is a problem. Who can you trust? Is their past to be believed? It’s a major epidemic imho.

  7. Rebecca Newton Thursday, March 18, 2010

    Linda Criddle of ReputationShare.com and Denise Taylor of Privo.com are both pioneers in this area. I’m with Craig 100% on this subject. I think a “distributed trust networks” are needed as well.

    1. I think Craig has to explain (define) if he talks about control or trust. Some very different concepts, IMHO. Control is used where I can not trust, with trust I don’t have to control.

    2. Thanks for mentioning those services, Rebecca. Much appreciated.

  8. Sanjay Maharaj Thursday, March 18, 2010

    I think Craig is right on the mark on the trust thing. I think the dust is now slowly settling and users are saying “hey wait a minute, how come our data is not being controlleed by us”. Turst will come but within a trusted network of family and friends where content is onyl shared with only thosse who you trust and have faith in. We at Virtual LockBox are actually developing such a model for sharing information and content with those who you trust and at the end of the day you the user is in full control of your data, you share it who you want and when you want.

  9. Craig Newmark on the Web’s Next Big Problem (Mathew Ingram/GigaOM) | TechCombo Thursday, March 18, 2010

    [...] Ingram / GigaOM:Craig Newmark on the Web’s Next Big Problem  —  I had the chance to sit down with Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark recently at [...]

  10. what about OpenAPIs?

    why can’t Jeremy Zawodny give us Open APIs for Craigslist?

    Why isn’t the press and the blogosphere asking this question?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Marc. I think open APIs are definitely part of the solution.

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