Just Trust Me is a research project that was conducted with input from 92 females and males between the ages of 18 – 22 years worldwide, culminating in the analysis of 86 online searches, 10 interviews and 82 responses to a survey.

Initially, I worked with 9 students and 1 scholar living in South Africa: 6 females, 4 males. All individuals are between the ages of 18 – 22 years old putting them either in their final year of school or in first, second or third year of university.

Why South Africa? I’m a South African and as a result, could directly contact one of the students through a family connection to ask if him and 9 of his friends would be interested in taking part in my research project. After a 20 minute Skype chat with him and his girlfriend explaining the project 8 additional students emailed me saying that they would like to take part.

Each student received a welcome email with an attached consent form and information sheet explaining the project: they were requested to keep a five day journal of their online information searches and informed that after the five days, I would contact them personally to set up a day and time to conduct a 30 minute interview via Skype. At the end of each day, individuals emailed their in search diaries to a private Posterous group blog. I sent reminders to the students each day over email. In this sense, I utilised a traditional experience sampling technique. Some of the students kept their journals saved on their computers and decided to email me the entire batch in one go on the last day of the data collecting.

Each entry in the search diary was structured in the following way:

  • What information were you looking for?
  • How did you go about finding that information? Please explain your search process in as much detail as you can.
  • What made you trust/distrust the various source/s of information that you came across?
  • Were you satisfied with the results of your search (simply a “yes” or “no” is fine).
  • What would, if anything, have made the above search easier?

8 of the 10 interviews were conducted via Skype, 1 was conducted via a series of questions that I emailed through via email and 1 via a series of questions that I emailed via a Facebook message.

All respondents were asked the same questions and then in addition, were asked follow up questions relating to their specific questions. The questions asked were as follows:

  • When I say trust, what do you think or feel?
  • What factors do you take into consideration when choosing a search engine?
  • Have you ever deleted cookies off your computer and deleted your browsing history?
  • What factors or clues do you look for or influence you about whether to trust a piece of information you find on the web or not?
  • Would you say that you trust most of what you read online?
  • Would you say that generally speaking in your life, that you are quite a trusting person – that you give your trust easily?
  • Is there any information that you wouldn’t use the Internet for? Is there something specific things that you would only ask friends or family?
  • Do security seals, rating scales and social media buttons like the Facebook like button or the Twitter Tweet this button – when you see those does it make you feel like that website is more trustworthy and legitimate?
  • Imagine the following scenario: two websites both offering information on the same topic. Which website would you trust more – the one that was recommended by a trusted friend or family member or the one with rating scales, reviews, comments, social media buttons?
  • How much does your gut feeling come into the equation when it comes to trusting information you find online?

All interviews conducted over Skype were recorded using my iPhone and then transcribed in full. Any clarifications that needed to be between myself and the other two participants were done via SMS or instant-messaging service What’s App.

All 10 students used Google.

After this process, I realised two things: Firstly, that is impossible to talk about trusted online information sources without talking about Google. Google is trusted to deliver trusted information. Secondly, I also started to get a sense that there may be a closer correlation between levels of trust in the real-world and trust online, ie.  individuals who trust others more easily in their day-to-day life are more likely to trust what they read online.

I felt like I needed more data to see what people looked for when searching for information online.

As a result, I put together an online survey using Google Forms. I have used this tool before and it worked incredibly well. It’s also free, allows you to customise the design of your form and you can download the entries in a CSV file.

I wanted the survey to be quick and easy to encourage as many people as possible to answer it. As a result, I kept the survey to five questions:

  • When I say trust, what do you think or feel?
  • What factors or clues do you look for or influence you about whether to trust a piece of information you find on the web or not?
  • Would you say that you trust most of what you read online? Why?
  • Are you quite a trusting person? That is to say, do you trust others easily?
  • How much does your gut feeling come into the equation when it comes to trusting information you find online?

I shared the link on my Facebook page, my Twitter account and my Tumblr blog. I also contacted a PhD student at Loughborough University and an Associate Lecturer at Plymouth University and requested for them to please post the link on the university digital forum boards, which they kindly did. In addition, I posted the link on the Goldsmiths College digital forum. After a slow start, I decided to call on the help of my friends in the magazine world. I contacted my friend Kelli Acciardo, Web Editor at seventeen magazine in New York City and she kindly posted the link and a call to seventeeners to help me out with my research on the official seventeen Twitter page. As a result, the link when viral.

I soon received 88 responses. Unfortunately I had to dismiss as 6 entries as the respondents did not fall within the required   18 – 22 year old bracket: one 26-year-old males from South Africa and five females from the USA who were between the ages of 14 – 17 years old.

However, from the 82 responses I was able to use, I soon discovered that I had data from 9 countries. These included:

  • Brazil (1)
  • Canada (3)
  • Ireland (1)
  • England (9)
  • Lithuania (1)
  • Mexico (1)
  • Russia (1)
  • South Africa (11)
  • USA (53)

For insights from this research project, please see the section labelled ‘Findings’.