, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 327-341,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 11 Jun 2010

How can contributors to open-source communities be trusted? On the assumption, inference, and substitution of trust


Open-source communities that focus on content rely squarely on the contributions of invisible strangers in cyberspace. How do such communities handle the problem of trusting that strangers have good intentions and adequate competence? This question is explored in relation to communities in which such trust is a vital issue: peer production of software (FreeBSD and Mozilla in particular) and encyclopaedia entries (Wikipedia in particular). In the context of open-source software, it is argued that trust was inferred from an underlying ‘hacker ethic’, which already existed. The Wikipedian project, by contrast, had to create an appropriate ethic along the way. In the interim, the assumption simply had to be that potential contributors were trustworthy; they were granted ‘substantial trust’. Subsequently, projects from both communities introduced rules and regulations which partly substituted for the need to perceive contributors as trustworthy. They faced a design choice in the continuum between a high-discretion design (granting a large amount of trust to contributors) and a low-discretion design (leaving only a small amount of trust to contributors). It is found that open-source designs for software and encyclopaedias are likely to converge in the future towards a mid-level of discretion. In such a design the anonymous user is no longer invested with unquestioning trust.