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Who is more trusting? People with a private or public profile?

“There are two sides to every coin”

I have many friends who use Instagram. I often hear different views, some love it for the content, some are annoyed to see people not presenting their real self. There are always two sides, being online can make you happy or unhappy; connected or isolated; confident or losing more self-esteem…the same technology but with different effects.

Better decisions

Our responsive behaviours online become intriguing for researchers like me to better understand the impact of technology. Over the years, some friends have closed their social media accounts due to privacy concerns and others are using social media for everything. Personally, I love social media but have seen both the good and bad sides of it. I even tried doing a social media detox and have also noticed myself switching between private to public from time to time. When it comes to how we use social media, there is no simple right or wrong decision. We make the best decision for ourselves with what we know. To me, the more important part is how to make better decisions so we can actively avoid the negatives. This where Cyberpsychology – a study of human behaviours and technology – can help.

It’s a paradox

Trust on is particularly important because there are 3 billion people who spend an average of 2.5 hours a day on social media. That’s a lot of information being collected, shared and viewed by family, friends and complete strangers. There are many reasons that we use and post on social media, one of them is self-disclosure. It’s human nature to want to share our experiences. Creating a social media profile fulfils the needs of social connectedness and belonging, but the process of disclosure can also reduce privacy. We need trust to disclose, but the more we disclose online, the less privacy we have. With less privacy, do we expose ourselves to more risks? With more risks, do we trust less? There are a lot of questions about this shared paradoxical relationship.

“Trust is a confident relationship with the unknown.” – Rachel Botsman

Why is trust important? Let me ask you a question? Have you ever had a successful and happy relationship for distrusting someone? Rachel Botsman explained in her TedTalk that not trusting is riskier because it can cost us valuable relationships and opportunities, while trusting can open up personal and commercial opportunities especially for collective consumption such as Airbnb. A business which was made possible because of technology and trust.

Almost everything we do on social media is linked to trust. Do we trust that the platform will protect our data? Do we trust what we read? Do we trust others to see our posts? Who do we trust to see our photos? And the list goes on. While social media continues to transform us, our changing behaviours on social media become fascinating for researchers. My interest for my Masters dissertation was in the responsive behaviour of selecting profile privacy status.

On Instagram for instance, there are two distinct statuses: A private or public profile.  Setting your profile status is a common way to protect your privacy. Over half of people on social media have changed their privacy settings according to European Commission guidelines. If you change your profile to private, you will limit the self-disclosed information to approved friends only. I was interested in how this behaviour indicates our trust and maybe even changes our trust? There was no information I could find so I designed a research study to find the answer to the question:

If you have a private Instagram account, do you have a higher or lower level of trust, compared to those who have a public account? (What is your guess?)


People with private profiles generally have a higher level of trust than people with public profiles.

Is this the same as what you thought?

Existing research can provide some explanation to this. Based on the well-known Communication Privacy Theory (CPT), higher trust is indicative of stronger privacy boundaries, that is what private profiles provide. The private profile offers individual protection to the owner but also collectively to people who are linked to the owner.

My research study involved 59 participants and their profile privacy status and general levels of trust. The correlations between their status and level of trust were strong but what about impact of privacy status on others? Does profile change our trust?

The second part of my study was about whether being exposed to a certain type of privacy status will alternate our level of trust. The results only showed that users with private accounts actually increased their level of trust regardless what types of profile they were exposed too. I was hoping to find a stronger link to the Cultivation Theory which suggests that persistent exposure cultivates one’s world view. There are many possible explanations, but only future research can tell us how profiles can change our view on trust.

The Evolution of Trust

We share our information on social media to establish trust. However, using social media can also take away our trust. Understanding, protecting and nurturing our trust is paramount, especially in the digital era.

Placing our trust in people to bring happiness, enjoyment and prosperity is our main goal. I remember watching Rachel Botsman’s Tedtalk back in 2008 and being overwhelmed by her idea that “The currency of the new economy is trust”. Just look at the example of Airbnb again, it is a collaborative consumption that empowers people to make meaningful connections. No one would have thought that letting strangers stay in your house would become one of the biggest businesses in the world, before Covid-19 anyway. This pandemic has also been a fascinating topic for researchers from how stories were told, how fear and misinformation can affect our trust in others.

We, as a user of any sort of technology, whether it is social media or a virtual meeting tool, have the power to make decisions on how it is affecting us and how it is affecting others.

Remember, there are two sides to every coin. For example, we can either decide to build more trust, or alternatively, allow trust to be taken away! The good news is that people are very good at evolving and learning to make better decisions. That is what motivates me to continue exploring and helping others to be happier with technology. After all, technology and social media are not going away anytime soon.