It is T-time! The Role and Development of Trust in Virtual
Lappeenranta University of Technology, email@example.com
The existence of virtual communities fundamentally depends on the level of member
involvement in knowledge-sharing activities. Here, trust is found an important precondition to
generate positive community-level outcomes. Trust can be understood at three levels: general
willingness to trust or dispositional trust, referring to the general trusting attitude,
interpersonal trust between members who know each other, and impersonal trust, which refers
to trust relationships that are indirect in nature, i.e. are not based on direct personal contact.
This paper further discusses the role of trust by asking how trust develops in virtual
communities, and how trust affects knowledge sharing in them. Based on an analysis of prior
research work, trust is argued to develop from impersonal forms towards more interpersonal
forms. Secondly, the importance of trust in virtual communities seems contingent to their
degree of virtuality. Overall, trust was found to explain member involvement in knowledge-
sharing activities, particularly in terms of identification- and knowledge-based trust about
other members. However, it was also pointed out that trust does not explain the positive
knowledge-sharing outcomes in every type of virtual community, which may rely on types of
control mechanisms instead.
Trust, interpersonal trust, impersonal trust, virtual community, knowledge sharing
Trust is seen as critical in the knowledge-based network economy, especially as businesses
need to collaborate and co-create value with partners outside traditional firm boundaries.
Trust is seen as a lubricant in managing uncertainty, complexity, and the related risks (Arrow,
1974; Luhmann, 1979). There has been a growing interest towards understanding the types,
dimensions and roles of trust and reaching out towards a more comprehensive theoretical
ground, particularly as networked organizations cannot operate based on direct interpersonal
knowledge but increasingly on institutions and social categories (see Kramer et al., 1996;
Adler, 2001; Lahno, 2002; Blomqvist, 2005).
Internet technologies have enabled novel forms of collective action, such as online networks
and communities. They represent a fundamental change regarding the logic of social
organizing. These collectives are characterized by voluntary interactions and a shared interest,
conjoining people from different positions and background. From business viewpoint,
increasing attention has been given to virtual communities as they are seen to support
customer relationships (Moon & Sproull, 2001), product development (Nambisan, 2002;
Füller et al., 2006) and brand building (McWilliam, 2000). Virtual communities of practice, in
turn, extend traditional communities by allowing members to engage in different types of
online knowledge exchange (Ardichvili et al., 2003; Usoro et al., 2007). In any type of
community, the existence of virtual communities fundamentally depends on the level of
member involvement in knowledge-sharing activities. Without active members contributing
to the community and debating issues around the underlying shared interest, virtual
communities become ‘ghost towns’of no practical value; the greatest challenge in fostering
virtual communities is the willingness to share knowledge (Hsu et al., 2007).
According to Handy (1995), virtuality requires trust to make it work. From knowledge
sharing viewpoint, trust is found particularly important in virtual communities, as the socially
acceptable (i.e. norm-accordant) behaviour of others is essential for the continuity of the
community, particularly in groups aiming at deepening knowledge and exchanging
information about certain practice (Wasko & Faraj, 2000; Ridings et al., 2002; Usoro et al.,
2007). Yet trust remains a controversial issue: for instance, its criticality for successful
functioning of virtual organizations has been both underlined (Handy, 1995) and questioned
(Gallivan, 2001), and examining the role of trust is challenging, as it represents both an
antecedent and an outcome of communication and knowledge-sharing activities.
Thus far, prior research on virtual communities in terms of knowledge sharing and trust is
scarce. These studies emphasize the role of trust in explaining cooperation and knowledge
sharing, both in organizational virtual communities of practice (Ardichvili et al., 2003; Usoro
et al., 2007) and interest-based virtual communities (Ridings et al., 2002; Hsu et al., 2006, see
also Radin, 2006). To establish ground for further research in different types of virtual
communities, this paper discusses the role of trust in explaining knowledge sharing behaviour
in virtual communities. Methodologically, this paper represents a content analysis of prior
research articles published in scientific journals and explicitly concerning trust and
knowledge/information sharing on virtual communities, and relates the findings to general
theoretical debate on trust.
The study particularly aims at identifying facets based on which trust develops in virtual
communities, hence preparing ground for empirically evaluating the relationship between
trust and knowledge-sharing outcomes. Two research questions are proposed, namely, how
trust develops in virtual communities, and how trust affects knowledge sharing in them? The
level of analysis is a community formed by individual members. In addition, studies where
trustors are technological systems or institutions are excluded, as trust only “exists between
entities able to experience good will, extend good will towards others, feel vulnerable, and
experience betrayal”(Friedman et al., 2000, 36) thus depending on human consciousness and
A virtual community is a specific organisational form, an online social network in which
people who share an interest in a certain subject or practice interact repeatedly inside certain
boundaries, and which relies on communication technologies at least to a certain degree
(Wasko & Faraj, 2000; Porter, 2004; Chiu et al., 2006). The fundamental unit of such
collective is “not the corporation but the individual”(Malone & Laubacher, 1998, 146) who
join together into fluid and temporary networks, organized around shared practices and
principles giving structure and form to the collective.
Knowledge sharing presumes a two-way relation between at least two parties or agents
capable of knowing, either individuals or collectives. As distinct from information,
knowledge sharing involves interpretation and sense-making (Hendriks, 1999). Knowledge
sharing and community need and breed each other (Wenger, 1998).
Trust can be defined as “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another
party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the
trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party”(Mayer et al., 1995;
712). According to Blau (1964), there are two factors that initially account for the basis of
trust: relationships have a repetitive character, and achievements increase in importance in the
course of time. Moreover, there has to be dependency about the other party, meaning that
one’s outcomes are contingent on the behaviour of another and furthered only by reliance
upon the other one (ibid.; Mayer et al., 1995). Respectively, placing trust means suspending
the risk involved in such situation, being either economic or social in nature (Kipnis, 1996;
Trust is seen to generate positive community-level outcomes in virtual communities (Ridings
et al., 2002). Here, trust can be understood at three levels: general willingness to trust or
dispositional trust, referring to the general trusting attitude (McKnight et al., 1998; Ridings et
al., 2002), interpersonal trust between members who know each other, and impersonal trust,
which refers to trust relationships that are indirect in nature, i.e. are not based on direct
personal contact. Impersonal trust can be mediated e.g. by organizations or institutions, social
categories, or information technology (Shapiro, 1987; Calhoun, 1992). Kosonen et al. (2008)
discuss three forms of impersonal trust identified in online interactions: institutional third-
party trust such as reputation systems or trusted third parties, institutional bilateral trust such
as secure communication and common standards, and trust that is at collective level (see
Kramer et al., 1996; Ba, 2001; Pavlou et al., 2003).
According to Järvenpää & Leidner (1998), virtual organizing in general promises flexibility,
responsiveness, cost savings and improved resource utilization, while also raising some
dysfunctions such as low individual commitment, role overload and ambiguity, absenteeism
and social loafing. In a similar vein, Sainsbury & Baskerville (2006) note how relationships
mediated by communication technology tend to exaggerate human characteristics – either
negative or positive – and also become more instrumental than face-to-face interactions.
People are more prone to shirk responsibility and yet magnify the positive self-impressions to
others, which for its part adds more challenges to communication and cooperation. In other
words, visual anonymity related to many ‘de-facto’channels of online communication
enhances a positive social impression, while it may deteriorate the willingness to commit
oneself to the task at hand; a characteristic of online cooperation to which Kollock (1999)
refers to as picking the “lowest hanging fruit”.
Consequently, online relationships carry two important implications in terms of trust. On the
one hand, the development of trust may be delayed due to the lack of physical cues, which is
typical in text-only communication (Bos et al., 2002). When comparing face-to-face and
virtual teams, Wilson et al. (2006) found support to the argument that trust starts lower in
online interactions but over time results to levels comparable to face-to-face ones. On the
other hand, trust may also develop too easily, resulting in so-called hyperpersonalized
relationships (Walther, 1996; Preece, 2004). Hyperpersonal trust refers to a situation where
trusting decisions are made based on over-relied perceptions and “imagined”characteristics of
the trustee, which the trustee may exaggerate by emphasizing positive self-impressions and
aiming at presenting him- or herself as a kind of ideal self.
Having presented general perceptions on trust in online environment, the next chapter reviews
literature on trust in virtual communities in more detail, in order to answer the first research
question concerning how trust develops in virtual communities.
The development of trust in virtual communities
The level of trustworthiness in a social environment is dependent on the level of reciprocity
(Coleman, 1990), in other words, one’s obligations need to be repaid for trust to develop. This
is closely related to communication, a key process also in virtual communities. In online
interactions, communication is yet coloured with possible effects of anonymity, multiple
identities, deception, flaming, spamming, and threat of hacking confidential information.
Taking the nature of communication environment into account, Radin (2006, 593) notes how
“it is difficult to imagine how trust can be engendered among members of an online
community; yet, it seems to thrive”. Thus trust is a paradoxical issue in virtual communities:
it seems to be essential for facilitating social interaction, but at the same time, it is difficult to
However, it seems that when a community is formed, the challenges related to online
communication are more easily overcome. In other words, if we only focus on the “virtual”,
then the development of trust seems challenging; if we, however, add the “community”, trust
is less threatened and its outcomes much about the same than in traditional communities. Let
us elaborate this argument more in detail.
When communication technology is analysed in rational terms, i.e. its bandwidth and
information-processing capability, it is considered less rich than face-to-face interaction (Daft
& Lengel, 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986) implying lower levels of social presence and
immediate feedback. Respectively, the lack of trust in online interactions is seen to result
from the lack of face-to-face contact and visual cues (Ridings et al., 2002). The rational view
encompassing the lower social bandwidth of communication media thus represents a focus on
A different focus can be seen in those studies that examine the social processes underlying
online interactions and the formation of communities (e.g., Walther, 1996; Wellman & Gulia,
1999). The existence of community –both online and offline –is contingent on a group of
individuals capable to create a shared context within which to interact, manifesting a core
purpose for the community to exist (Preece, 2004). A strong mutual interest may foster the
development of collective trust, as such shared intention serves as a cognitive frame that
encourages members to contribute and share knowledge. The more a person perceives
similarity with others, the more likely he or she is to trust others (Blanchard & Horan, 1998).
Williams (2001, 380) discusses the effects of social categorization on interpersonal trust more
in detail; based on Turner (1987), she notes how membership in a social group influences
trust development through stereotyping, “a cognitive shortcut that allows people to rely on
previously held beliefs rather than incoming information about specific group members”. A
virtual community thus favors the development of “thin trust”(Putnam, 2000) or swift trust
(Järvenpää & Leidner, 1998) in generalized others, relying on implicit background
information and expectations of reciprocity instead of direct knowledge. In addition, a single
act of giving/reciprocating is relatively easy to produce and openly accessible for the online
collective (Blanchard & Horan, 1998).
Categorization and the related social identification is also the core idea underlying the SIDE
(Social Identity and De-Individuation effect) theory (Lea & Spears, 1991), arguing that
impression formation in online communication derives from categorical and stereotypical
cues of others. In other words, in the absence of other cues, social categories form the basis of
the development of group-level norms to which members adhere, resulting in “de-
individuation”effect and less salient personal identities.
Current research also points out how general willingness to trust, or dispositional trust, plays a
role in virtual communities (e.g., Ridings et al., 2002). In conditions of general trusting
attitude, there is no specific object to be trusted. Experiences, personality types and cultural
background affect the individual’s willingness to trust (Hofstede, 1980). Respectively,
members’attitudes in terms of engaging to virtual-community interactions vary based on their
familiarity with online communication, confidence about sharing with unknown others,
communicative preferences, and culture, among others.
Thus far the establishment of impersonal and generalized forms of trust have been discussed.
Nevertheless, interpersonal trust is not an oddity in online interactions, either. Prior research
indicates trust in virtual communities yet takes a longer time to develop than in face-to-face
settings (Feng et al., 2004). Also ‘thick trust’is promoted in virtual communities, as identified
by e.g. Radin (2006) who investigated peer-to-peer medical communication within an online
patient support group. Thick trust (Putnam, 2000) is situated within dense networks and based
on personal experience or up-to-date information on the other’s trustworthiness. In virtual
communities, its development is typically associated with repeated interactions with others
(Feng et al., 2004) and relationships that also migrate to offline context (Blanchard & Markus,
2004). Ellonen et al. (2007) note how the processes of identification and identifying others
particularly in smaller sub-groups precede the development of interpersonal trust, which in
turn enhances sense of belonging to the virtual community. Radin (2006) points out how trust
develops from initial forms of ‘thin trust’(based on impressions derived from virtual
community site attributes and general atmosphere) towards more thick forms. This is enabled
both by self-disclosure and the vivid shared episodes combining with each other,
demonstrating a circle of care and concern.
Naturally, no two virtual communities are the same: the purpose of the community and nature
of interactions affect the underlying trust development mechanisms – based on direct or
indirect relationships. For instance, when the community allows members to exchange
anonymously or to create multiple identities, there is both less reason and less need for
interpersonal trust to develop (Ellonen et al., 2007). In other words, one’s personal position is
at lower risk due to anonymity. Hostile and distrusting behaviour may even form the
‘invisible code’that give form and structure to socio-emotional online groups (Franco et al.,
2000; Ellonen, & Kosonen, 2006). Interactions could thus be mobilized by impersonal forms
of trust, such as trust towards the community, the hosting organization and the related brand.
Figure 1 illustrates the development of trust in virtual communities.
Figure 1. The development of trust in virtual communities
To summarize the discussions so far, shared context basically enables interactions in virtual
communities but relational facets such as trust are needed to facilitate knowledge sharing.
Initially, trust develops based on expected reciprocity and category-related perceptions of
others, resulting in forms of collective trust. Over time - along repeated interactions - trust
develops towards more interpersonal forms based on direct knowledge, relying on knowledge
about others, self-disclosure (disclosing personal information and experience), and shared
episodes which convey care and concern among members, manifesting the benevolence-
component of trust. This leads to the following proposition.
Proposition 1: Over time, trust in virtual communities develops from impersonal forms
towards more interpersonal forms.
Having illustrated how trust develops in virtual communities, the discussion now moves on to
its role in achieving knowledge-sharing outcomes.
General willingness to trust
support, access to valuable
- third parties
- bilateral institutional trust
- collective trust
Shared context –a virtual community
Knowledge sharing in virtual communities and the role of trust
This chapter begins with reviewing prior studies on the relationship between trust and
knowledge sharing in virtual communities. Ridings et al. (2002) adopted the dimensions of
trust introduced by Mayer et al. (1995), namely, ability (skills and competencies enabling
individuals to have influence in a certain area), benevolence (expectation that a trusted party
will have a positive orientation or a desire to do good to the trustee), and integrity
(expectation that a trusted party will act in accordance with socially accepted standards or
principles). Trust scales were adopted by Järvenpää et al.’s (1998) study on virtual teams.
Ridings et al. conducted a web-based survey resulting in 663 usable responses from 36 virtual
communities representing different types of interests. As a result, trust –particularly in the
ability and benevolence of other members in this case – significantly predicted members’
desire to share, above all to get information. In addition, sharing was encouraged by the
generalized trust in the community.
Hsu et al. (2007), in turn, built a model where trust was hypothesized to directly affect
knowledge-sharing behaviour of members, and indirectly by increasing knowledge-sharing
self-efficacy. The latter represents “a form of self-evaluation that influences decisions about
what behaviours to undertake, the amount of effort and persistence to put forth when faced
with obstacles, and finally, the mastery of the behaviour” (p. 155). Hsu et al. explored
economy-based trust (i.e. calculative process trust, deterrence-based trust, or calculus-based
trust) which is based on economic benefit and fear of punishment for violating trust (e.g.,
Lewicki & Bunker, 1996), information-based trust based on familiarity of the other party
resulting in reduced risk, and finally, identification-based trust, which exists because members
understand and appreciate each other’s needs and act for each other.
Hsu et al. (2007) conducted a web-based survey, sampling 39 virtual communities, dedicated
to different types of interests, and resulting in 273 responses. They found identification-based
trust critical in terms of knowledge sharing, referring to emotional bonds between people who
understand each other and appreciate each other’s needs; hence, in virtual communities trust
is seen to result from emotionally-laden interactions and expressing care and concern for each
other. In a similar vein, Ellonen et al. (2007) found identification a key process preceding the
development of interpersonal trust and sense of community, and Radin (2006) highlighted the
effect of shared episodes which convey mutual caring among members.
However, Hsu et al. (2007) also point out how economy-based and information-based trust
has to be established first. In other words, the expected rewards are critical in initially enticing
members to participate, and the related uncertainty can be managed by establishing
information-based trust (e.g., familiar and secure communication environment, well-known
brand, clear policies about how to act within the community). Over time, members of the
community develop shared values and establish emotionally-laden relationships, manifesting
identification-based trust. It also affects the perceived knowledge sharing self-efficacy, thus
having indirect effect on knowledge-sharing behaviour. Trust in virtual communities is a
complex concept, as are the trust-building processes.
Usoro et al. (2007) investigated one virtual community of practice, namely, Systems Thinking
Community, which is a global group of over 400 members within the CSC organization. They
adopted the Trusting Beliefs Scale from McKnight et al. (2002). Usable responses were
received from 75 members of the community. Usoro et al. (2007) emphasize the role of
integrity-based trust rooted in past behaviour among the community. In virtual community,
integrity-based trust is manifested in the compatibility of the community’s cultural values
with those of the trusting members, the credibility of the community’s reputation, and the
consistency in the behaviour of members.
Finally, Ardichvili et al. (2003) note how knowledge-based trust is essentially critical for an
organizational virtual community of practice: members contribute knowledge when they
know what to expect from other members. In other words, they need not fear others will
ridicule them in public or take undue advantage of what is being given to them. Institution-
based trust (e.g., roles), in turn, provides members with a reasonable assurance that others
have expertise in a certain area and they can be relied on. As an implication, prior knowledge
on others seems vital for the community, and there should be –at least partially –existing
community or informal group underlying when aiming at developing intra-organizational
In sum, current studies vary in how trust is approached; yet their findings emphasize the role
of prior knowledge about members (knowledge- and identification-based trust), a favourable
history of community interactions (integrity-based trust, benevolence), as well as members’
skills and competencies (ability) in terms of having expertise within certain domain.
However, also opposite views on the role of trust have been presented. According to Gallivan
(2001) who content-analysed a set of case studies on open source software (OSS)
communities, a set of practices that ensure control lead to positive outcomes in the absence of
trust. In other words, these collectives rely on forms of social control and self-control for
effective performance. By controlling the conditions and norms of behaviour, members can
have confidence in other members, hence obviating the need for trust. Bakker et al. (2006)
argue that trust is highly overrated as a driver of knowledge sharing: for instance, individuals
are less motivated to share when they believe others are capable of already holding the
Generally, there are two intertwined but yet separate routes to reduce risk within a
relationship: trust and control. Neither of them can fully ensure the desired outcome, but they
determine the total perceived risk (e.g., Das & Teng, 2001). Control can be seen as a process
of regulation and monitoring in order to achieve organizational goals; it could be defined as
“a regulatory process by which the elements of a system are made more predictable through
the establishment of standards in the pursuit of some desired objective or state”(Leifer &
Mills, 1996, 117). Rousseau et al. (1998) note how control comes into play where adequate
levels of trust are absent; in this sense, they could be seen as the two sides of the same coin.
Figure 2 provides a framework on the options virtual communities have in terms of reducing
risk in order to achieve positive knowledge-sharing outcomes, depending on the degree of
Figure 2. Trust and control in virtual communities: three basic options
In other words, in highly virtual communities instrumental mechanisms to establish control
may explain the positive knowledge-sharing outcomes even in the absence of trust (Gallivan,
2001). Sources of impersonal trust (trusted third parties, bilateral institutional trust such as
secure communication, and community-level trust based e.g. on social categories) also serve
as a means to reduce uncertainty and risk. However, when the level of virtuality is lower,
virtual community members establish more close and intimate relationships and also
interpersonal trust. Finally, when the perceived risk to engage in community interactions is
low, general willingness to trust or dispositional trust may be enough to facilitate knowledge-
Proposition 2: The importance of trust in virtual communities is contingent to the virtual
community’s degree of virtuality.
In this paper, current research on trust and knowledge sharing in virtual communities was
discussed. Two research questions were posited: how trust develops in virtual communities,
and how trust affects knowledge sharing in them. As a result, two propositions were
formulated: over time, trust develops from impersonal forms towards more interpersonal
forms, and the importance of trust in virtual communities is contingent to their degree of
virtuality. Overall, trust was seen to explain member involvement in knowledge-sharing
activities, particularly in terms of identification- and knowledge-based trust about other
members. However, it was also pointed out that trust does not explain the positive knowledge-
sharing outcomes in every type of virtual community, which may rely on types of control
LEVEL OF RISK
third parties, bilateral
institutional trust, collective
Lack of trust
GENERAL WILLINGNESS TO TRUST
Firstly, this paper contributed by identifying how trust develops from initial impersonal forms
towards more interpersonal forms in virtual communities. Also Lewicki & Bunker (1996)
note how trust not only grows stronger along repeated interactions, but the general frame
within which trust is considered also develops over time. In other words, the issues faced at an
early stage are different from those in a long-established relationship. In virtual communities,
it is thus of essence to identify how trust evolves over time and to understand the ‘whole’of
community relationships within which members engage.
Secondly, this paper contributed by highlighting how risk and degree of virtuality are
involved in trust-building mechanisms within virtual communities, which is a largely
neglected issue in current studies. It is suggested that further investigations on the relationship
between trust and knowledge sharing in virtual communities should pay attention to how
members perceive the actual risks, social or economic, while engaging in community
interactions. Trust in virtual communities is not an issue that should be examined for its own
sake; rather, its role and overall need to trust in different types of communities should be
critically investigated. Virtual-community research would also benefit from interlinking trust
with the nature of interactions, both online and offline.
As interpersonal trust often is delayed in online interactions, managerial attention should be
paid to establishing routes to impersonal trust. Intuitively, when members of virtual
community share a similar interest and engage in repeated interactions, they also build
interpersonal trust as a natural “by-product”of being in touch with others and learning from
them. However, a more challenging issue is how initially get people to attach to a community.
The means for building impersonal trust depend on the nature and purpose of interaction: in
business communities, reputation-based monitoring and trusted third parties seem most
applicable, while interest-based communities may use member monitoring systems
(presenting member history, ranking the content of messages). Different forms and
components of trust may complement each other. Moreover, high levels of trust are not
necessarily significant for any virtual community. Rather the question is, which forms of trust
or control a community needs to succeed in its overall mission –gathering people together to
engage in conversations across time and space.
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