You just happen to hit a red light at that busy intersection.  The person standing at the corner catches your eye.  She picks up a piece of cardboard, holding it in your direction.

“Unemployed.  Homeless.  Hungry.  Please help.  I’ll take anything.”

What should you think?  You know that that you’ve heard that it’s probably best to make a donation through a known charitable institution, where your money might have the most impact.  But (a) will you remember to make the donation once you get to the office?  And (b) will it have the same satisfactory, immediate, direct impact that giving money right here, right now to this specific person would?   So you decide to assess the situation for yourself.  You take in her appearance.  Are her clothes dirty?  Does she have sufficiently warm clothes for that cold front you heard about?  How old are her shoes?  Is she well fed?

And then you consider her message.

Is she really unemployed?  Does she really live on the street?  You’ve never seen her before.  It probably took her five minutes to scratch out that sign.  Why should you even trust her?  More concretely, why should you roll down your window and give her money based simply on what she has written and how she looks?

This unfortunate, all too common social occurrence, metaphorically, also represents an increasingly common dilemma that we all face in today’s information marketplace.  We’re busy.  We’ve never had access to so much information in the history of humanity.  We actually have the ability to interact directly with someone who’s publicly trying to get our attention – itself an increasingly scarce resource that has never been so severely strained.

More challengingly, even if something does catch our eye, and we somehow decide to devote a fraction of our attention to it, will we trust it enough, be persuaded enough – to actually follow through and take some sort of action on the basis of this information?

This is the digital age dilemma: how to calculate the value proposition in someone’s attempt to communicate with us.  We have access to more information than ever before yes, but we also have less ability to discern credibility as well.

And yet, what if?  What if you had been getting caught at that red light for years?  What if you had noticed that this particular woman had shown up a few weeks ago, which happened to coincide with recent layoffs at your region’s major employer?  What if her sign changed every day, as she revealed more details about the terrible plight that had forced her to beg at this street corner?  And what if you ran into acquaintances who had seen that same woman, who had actually rolled down their windows to speak to her, and even went as far as to begin an informal campaign to find her food, shelter and work?  Would all that make your decision whether to believe her – and even to help her – easier?

I’d like to think so.

Let’s set aside this analogy now, but apply some of this thinking to communications and technology specifically, where we face this very same confusion.  Thanks to the explosive impact of digital media, we can now hear from so many people; they’re all begging us to listen to them.  Should we pay attention?  Should we trust what they’re trying to convey?  Should we act upon it?

This book will argue that we’re more likely to respond affirmatively to all three of those questions if we recognize that technology has enabled nearly all of us to communicate publicly to people we don’t know.   And with this huge surge in participation, this technology also demands that for us to succeed in convincing these unknown people to pay attention to us and act , we must be prepared to build trust, through an ongoing,  (ideally) transparent relationship.


  1. And, what is trust? One of the dictionary definitions says “acceptance of the truth of a statement without evidence or investigation”. Not so long ago, I really worried about the safety of giving my credit card number to an online retailer – then came the “trusted source” icons, and the encryption protocols. Those keys to information added to my trust that the site was legitimate. It took awhile to believe they were truthful also.

    All communication is fraught with questions of trust and ethics – advertisers have made outrageous claims over the decades, writers have copied whole paragraphs and used them as their own, and then there are the people who purposely dress in rags and hold up a sign just to see what the can get.

    So, I think trust is earned through ethical behavior, at least in part. If we are to accept that something is trusted without evidence or investigation, consistent application of ethics by the communicator is necessary too.

  2. “Thanks to the explosive impact of digital media, we can now hear from so many people; they’re all begging us to listen to them.”
    Regarding your three core questions.
    Should we pay attention? We can’t. The crush of communications heading at us – personal, professional, commercial – is beyond our capability to take in. We come with built-in biases that cause us to squeeze down the fire hose of visual and aural input. We may look but we do not see. That’s why we can’t find the keys that are sitting right on the counter. Even if we wanted to, we can’t focus on everything in the analog world much the relentless onslaught coming out our phones and computers.
    Should we trust what they’re trying to convey? That all depends on who they are. Trust is earned over a series of interactions and can be lost over one. The volume question becomes even more acute when the value proposition forces us to not only process the pitch but evaluate it.
    Should we act upon it? Sorry. I can’t spare a second. Must be checking the Twitter and rss feed.

  3. Hanson, your analogy really speaks to me.

    I’m Catholic, and I’m conducting an experiment during the 40 days of Lent. I’ve pledged that if a panhandler asks me for money, I will give it to him or her, no questions asked and without hesitation. I work in downtown Seattle near Pioneer Square so I’m in constant contact with people begging for money. Most of the time, I blow past these people and don’t give them a second thought. But almsgiving is supposed to be a central part of Lent (and Christianity in general) so I wanted to see how I would feel if I was forced to pay attention to every single panhandler I met.

    So far it’s been really positive. Besides the money, the homeless people I’ve encountered just seem to be really grateful that I noticed them and that I recognized them as people. I try to look people in the eyes as I’m giving them the money. And I can feel that this makes a difference. It hasn’t cost me much at all. I’ve decided to give panhandlers each a dollar unless someone asks for a specific amount.

    I don’t know any of these people. I don’t know their stories. I can’t trust that my money will be used for lodging or food instead of drugs or alcohol.

    In regards to digital media, you ask: should we pay attention, should we trust, should we act. For me, I’m more interested in figuring out WHAT makes us pay attention and WHY we decide to trust and take action.

    I’m being forced to pay attention, and I’m finding a lot of value in it.

  4. I have lived downtown for 7 years. I walk by homeless people every day. Many of these people seem scary and unpredictable. Many have mental disabilities or substance abuse problems. I generally continue past them to my destination, not wanting to engage too much with the unknown.

    There is a man with gray hair and a beard who has slept in the same spot, in a doorway on First Avenue, for nearly all of my years downtown. He never asks for handouts, never seems threatening. Sometimes he is reading a book from within his sleeping bag. I had never interacted with him until a couple of months ago. I stopped and offered him my left-over dinner. He looked me in the eyes and he was so gracious, that it made me cry.

    It took almost 7 years for me to trust reaching out to that man.

    In the digital world, does technology accelerate this trust period? New communication tools certainly make communication easier.

    I agree that in the digital world, “we must be prepared to build trust, through an ongoing, (ideally) transparent relationship.” Nonetheless, with unknown identities on the Web, extra efforts must be made before trust is granted online.

  5. I agree that transparency can build trust and credibility. But with all the digital noise out there, a talent for marketing seems key in getting people’s attention.

    In Chicago, I used to know a guy named Maurice who would put on an act when he was panhandling, spinning colorful tales of woe. This strategy worked brilliantly for him because he was entertaining.

    If the story is one we’ve heard or seen before, we tend to tune out.

  6. I was just sitting at an exit on my way to class tonight, contemplating similar points you touched on as I was staring at a young woman who held a sign, asking for help. Every time I take that exit, I notice there’s a different person standing at that same location, with the same type of sign. I’ve heard stories about groups of people actually running scams where they’ll have a different person from that group pan handle at the same location every day, then the group shares the profits. I’m not saying that I think that’s what’s actually going on at that particular exit I take every day, but I couldn’t help but think about that today while waiting for the light to change. I think when you’re in your car, it’s easy to ignore these people because you’re in this shell that closes you off from these people. On the other hand, when you’re on the street, and come face to face with the homeless, it has a different impact.

    I live in an area where I used to come in contact with homeless people on a daily basis while walking to work. I’ve been asked for money in the past from some of these people, but instead of giving money, for a few cases, I decided to purchase a meal for them instead for those I felt some kind of connection with – as silly as this may sound. In purchasing the meal, my thought was that I would be insuring that they were actually getting a meal instead of purchasing substances. Those that I have purchased or given meals too, were people I saw regularly and felt like I knew them well enough, based on minimal interactions and observations of passing by them on a daily basis while walking to work.

    Like this scenario, I too am learning to see beyond the surface and not take things at face value when it comes to digital media, especially when it comes to social media. Through the use of social media platforms, It seems like so many people are speaking out because they can, not necessarily because they have anything truly relevant to say. This seems to be a growing trend. Transparency is necessary, but doesn’t resolve the process of weeding through all the muck before getting to the truth. Someone should come up with a process for that next.

  7. The analogy stated between trust and the homeless reminded me of the case of Elizabeth Smart- a fourteen-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002. She was kept hostage by a man the town thought was a local crazy (This American Life told her story in the episode “Mind Games”: He was someone the city knew and ignored.

    The bizarre aspect of the case was that Elizabeth’s abductor kept her within plain sight. They stayed within the greater Salt Lake City area. She was covered in robes and from an outsider’s perspective was this man’s second wife in a polygamous marriage. Many people, who she had known before her abduction, saw her with this man. It took nine months before anyone recognized who she was despite a national search.

    The analogy of who we trust, who we ignore, or who we take the time to listen to is reflected in this case. We are sometimes so blinded by what is right in front of us that we often fail to see the truth. This holds true for the massive wave of digital information that permeates our daily lives. When there is so much information to sort through, one could not expect the search for truth to be so easy.

  8. The analogy of a homeless panhandler on a street corner is apt for a reason — both in that situation and in the realm of social media, we often have very little evidence on which to base judgments about what is true and what is a lie. But with social media, things get a bit more complicated.

    Imagine that there are 25 solemn-faced men and women standing with cardboard signs around your car. Imagine that there are 50. Maybe 100. Suddenly, you’re not just deciding if you trust one person, if you believe what they’re telling you. You’re deciding who to look at, who to make a connection with, who to give your money to — if you pull your wallet out at all. And to some people, the situation is likely to be so overwhelming that they never fully feel they can trust anyone at all.

  9. Great analogy Hanson. I find that the more life experience I get, my ability to easily trust decreases. Especially being in a new city, I am hesitant to trust right away. Per your example, I often find myself questioning the intentions of panhandlers and the homeless whom I encounter so frequently here in Seattle. Are they planning on using my donation for alcohol? Is it a scam? Have they even attempted to find work?

    The same questions are transferable to the increase in contributors and participants in the digital media landscape. Should we pay attention? Should we trust and take action? Answers to all of these questions rely on our ability to effectively filter in a time of information overload. In order to pay attention, we need to learn how to decipher which content is accurate, transparent, and worth our time and trust. In order to take action, we must trust and believe in the content we consume. It’s a cycle in which many details are factored.

    The digital age dilemma – calculating value proposition and discerning credibility – will become increasingly present as the quantity of available content continues to multiply, though not necessarily in step with the quality. As a digital media professional and student, I struggle with this dilemma all the time. I am faced with hundreds of blogs, tweets, email blasts, “buzz” updates, promotions, news stories and online ads in any given day – how do I know which ones are worth my time/money/action/trust and which ones to ignore? Which ones to believe and which ones to write-off? As I continue to fine-tune my ability to filter, calculate value proposition and discern credibility, my hope is that this process will only become less overwhelming.

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