Chicken And Egg: Building Trust Between Anonymous Users

[As part of a new series of articles, I thought I’d discuss a few of the design ideas within the Swopster site. These concepts aren’t just applicable to free game swapping – any sites where you’re trying to get users to interact with each other need to solve similar problems]

Trust

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Building trust between users is a little tricky – within Swopster, users are simply identified by their made-up username. They could be anyone. How do you know if you can really trust them? You don’t want to send your shiny XBox 360 game off to a complete stranger without knowing anything about them, do you?

In the real world, you’d get to know someone first, chat to them, perhaps talk to their friends. You’d be able to spend a bit of time finding out about them. Obviously, it’s impractical to do any of this when presented with a big long list of folks who want to swap a game with you.

With the Swopster site, I figured there’d be three main factors involved in how other members perceive you: your swapping history, your member ranking and your logon usage pattern.

Element #1 – History

Each time someone swaps a game, everyone learns a little bit more about them and it’s the perfect opportunity for them to build up some trust. Since they’ve swapped a game, another user will leave a feedback score (which could be good or bad). The more swaps they complete, the more swap history they’ll create.

All history and feedback is public – by making the system as transparent as possible, other users can scan through the swapping history to build up a fairly representative picture of other members.

Element #2 – Ranking

However, there’s a bit of a conundrum here – if a member has no previous swapping history, other members may be wary of swapping with them. This leads to a classic chicken and egg deadlock – no-one will swap with them because of their lack of a swapping history, but they’ll never build a swapping history because no-one will swap with them… To help combat this, each member also has a ranking – essentially a score of 0-10 represented by 5 stars:

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While the ranking is heavily weighted towards positive swapping histories, there are a number of other things that can be done to boost a member’s ranking. These other elements are not dependant on their swap history, but will take a little effort to attain.

For instance their SwapList/WishList game lists are analysed to ensure they have a healthy balance that is beneficial to other members (a 1:1 swap/list isn’t considered healthy as it greatly reduces the level of choice within the free game swapping network). There are a number of other elements such as how many member referrals they’ve generated, how regular a user they are, etc.

Element #3 – Usage

So, armed with someone’s swapping history and ranking, will they show a complete picture of that member?

Well, within the context of Swopster, that’s not quite enough.

To stop members waiting around endlessly for other members to respond to swap requests, each request has a time limit on it (3-14 days). However, even before making a swap request, members can quickly see how active a member is through their logon usage graph:

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This shows how often they have logged into Swopster over the previous 5 weeks. It gives a clear indication as to how regular a visitor they are (I’m surprised I’ve never seen this before – as far as I know, I invented it!). The more regularly they visit the site, the more probable it is they’ll agree to a swap request.

Combined together, all these elements are intended to give members the opportunity to build a degree of trust with other members.

…And The Best Bit Is…

Of course, a useful by-product is that – generally – the actions they take also benefit the wider Swopster community by building traffic and encouraging regular participation in the site.

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