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. 

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

If the technology settings are right, we are far more likely to trust a stranger than our own colleagues. The findings are from a study co-authored by researchers and executives from BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing platform connecting drivers and riders mainly for city-to-city travel. 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 - nearly the same level of trust in family members (94 per cent). 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 need to do something about that. Maybe they could copy the key innovations of sharing-economy platforms. Research suggests people trust strangers on sharing platforms for two main reasons. First, the strangers build a digital profile to let people know who they are. Second, a lot is driven by trust in the platform. A survey of Airbnb users found people trusted it because it offered insurance and a two-way review system. 

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 bigger than home sharing.

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, but surely it's just a matter of time.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a Fairfax columnist.