Grappling with the Concept of Radical Trust

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History News

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life project, has said that we live in a golden age of the flowering of amateur experts. This oxymoron is at the heart of a relatively new topic of discussion in the history community. The topic is perhaps best illustrated in the term “radical trust.”

People have more platforms than ever before to share their opinions with a wider world and an increased expectation that they should be included in the dialogue. Allowing your users to contribute content to your website requires radical trust. This concept, gaining steam with the rise of Web 2.0 and the popularity of social media tools like Flickr, Facebook, Youtube, blogs, and Twitter naturally raises concern in history organizations. It threatens authoritative voice and weakens control. Yet, it offers opportunities to reach and engage new audiences.

Tim Grove

Tim Grove

Does user-generated content fit into your mission? Should it? Is it important? I asked several colleagues in history organizations around the country one simple question: What are your thoughts on radical trust? They represent administration, curatorial, and new media perspectives. From the practical to the more philosophical, here are their responses. Take a look — and then let us know what you think.

  • Rose Sherman, Director of Enterprise Technology, Minnesota Historical Society
  • Jim Gardner, Senior Scholar, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
  • Michael Edson, Director, Web and New Media Strategy, Smithsonian Institution
  • Kent Whitworth, Executive Director, Kentucky Historical Society
  • Your comments

Quotation mark

If our institutions are to be centers for civic engagement “where people gather to meet and converse and participate in collaborative problem solving.… an active, visible player in civic life, a safe haven, and a trusted incubator of change,” then we must embrace radical trust in our online programs as well as our onsite programs. We need to loosen the reins of control inherent to the authoritative voice. We need to be comfortable with the contributions of all of our publics—the scholarly and the non-scholarly.  By empowering our online public to share its knowledge, stories, and perspectives, we gain multiple perspectives, enriched collection information, stories from everyday folks, and passionate fans.[i]

Accepting user generated content (UGC) doesn’t mean that we abandon scholarly curation of our collections and interpretation of history.  Indeed, the majority of our online presence is scholarly. To help the public distinguish the difference, we identify which content is from the public. Some professionals are concerned that UGC cannot be verified.  This is a trade-off we must embrace when we engage the public to gift us with their personal stories or perspectives on historic events. Some are concerned that contributions may be libel, slander, or offensive.  Our Terms of Service prohibit such submissions, and we reserve the right not to publish it.  Most sites have an editor who checks for violations and adds value by categorizing content to facilitate discovery. For unmediated sites, we have ways for viewers to alert us to violations. In the four years we’ve embraced UGC, we’ve had less than a handful of violations. It is a non-issue.

Our job is to provide authentic resources and programs that help our audiences discover how history is relevant to their lives. By empowering our publics to participate in the documentation of history, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the information.  We create passionate fans who feel that they’ve contributed to history.

Rose Sherman
Rose Sherman
Director of Enterprise Technology
Minnesota Historical Society


Quotation mark

I’m concerned about the blurring of the line between knowledge and opinion in a Web 2.0 world.  Knowledge is at the heart of our brands as historical organizations, and, in the same way that we struggle with filio-piety, we need to resist the current impulse to welcome (and thereby validate) any and all opinions.  While I believe strongly that museums should share authority with the public, I don’t support abdicating our role and privileging the public’s voice or simply doing what the public votes for, no matter what that might be.

While some cultural institutions may not feel there is much risk in embracing radical trust, I know from firsthand experience that the subjects we explore as museums and historical societies sometimes attract individuals with problematic if not offensive opinions, and we cannot allow such individuals to use us for their own purposes—or our reputations will end up suffering collateral damage.  While Wikipedia and user-generated content have their value, I think the public deserves more than that from us as museums and historical societies.  Our challenge is negotiating a role that both builds on who we are and what our strengths are and also engages and challenges the public in new ways, whether in the virtual or the real world.

Jim GardnerJim Gardner
Senior Scholar, National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institution


Quotation mark

We developed the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy not in private, as most organizations do, but on a public wiki, out before the eyes and minds of the Internet’s 1.5 billion users.

Depending on your age and/or New Media outlook, this was either a) a banal and obvious decision to use the best tool for the job, b) a voucher to admit riff-raff to the inner sanctum, or c) an act of organizational jujitsu that broke through layers of bureaucracy, inertia, and group think. Whatever it was, the transparent public process allowed us to write a game-changing strategy, on the cheap, in about six weeks. And we made a lot of new friends along the way.

Something profound happens when you work transparently—when you have to summon up your courage to listen to people and shape complex ideas out in public every day. Your work becomes more about humility than about your own authority and expertise. And somehow, magically, the work product gets better and better. I know a physical therapist who says “you get what you practice” and that’s exactly it! Our thinking—our strategy—got better, stronger, and more focused because we were practicing it with stakeholders in a public forum all the time.

To some people, our strategy creation process was radically transparent, but to me, it just made sense. The world is changing faster every day and public collaboration was the best and fastest way to get a strategy written. If we’d used the twentieth-century corporate playbook, I’d probably be in a committee meeting right now talking about font sizes for the draft report. Now that would have been radical!

Micheal EdsonMichael Edson
Web and New Media Strategy
Smithsonian Institution


Quotation markThe radical trust conversation around here has been fascinating.  We’re finally discussing pedagogy and now, to some, it may feel like we’re on the verge of throwing it out the window.  We’re not!  If nothing else we’re a microcosm of the wide-ranging perspectives on this topic within the profession.  I find myself in the middle of this issue both philosophically and administratively. If in fact a new, younger audience is engaging with history through organizations that trust them to do so, then I want us to participate and benefit.  On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to pursue a “radical trust” approach until we can properly resource it.  Whether we primarily monitor and occasionally intervene, or ideally interact on a regular basis, this will require staff resources—and the right staff.  So much for radical trust!

The unprecedented budgetary challenges and therefore diminishing staff resources should compel us all to focus on that which directly advances our mission and our strategic goals.  Easier said than done, right?  At KHS, our opportunity to radically trust comes as we begin to expand our Web presence and to utilize social media.  Our goal is to shift from primarily a marketing function online to include more teaching opportunities.  Daunting as it seems, if we will radically trust then sometimes we’ll be the teacher and at other times the student.  Like it or not, it is a whole new day.

Actually, the genealogical community has been managing the issue of un-vetted content for years.  People post family history content on the Internet all of the time and yet there is a basic understanding among most genealogists that this is not a substitute for the primary source documentation that is essential to sound research.  I’m not sure how they accomplished that, but I applaud them for doing so.  Perhaps organizations need to recognize the un-vetted content for what it is and to focus on better equipping traditional and new audiences to engage in the historical process.  The best news of all is that people want to engage with history!

Kent WhitworthKent Whitworth
Executive Director
Kentucky Historical Society

What do you think about radical trust? Whatever your opinion of the topic, we hope you will feel you are welcome to share it below.


Leave a comment
  1. Michelle Moon 20. Jul, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    Mike Edson’s words are well worth listening to. Approaching topics with humility, the mind of a learner, does not take away any of the authority or weight of the institutional voice.

  2. Terri Kusiortis Smith 20. Jul, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    For me if I understand the concept correctly; Radical Trust is another way of stating “needs of the business” or “what the market demands.”

    Information is now available to everyone who can read and type with access to the internet. My five year old grandson can surf the net and find what he is looking for faster than I can. I have been on the internet nearly 30 years.

    I think it is time to let go of past habits that restrict and limit our constructs and embrace the limitless albeit overwhelming task of the utilizing the ideas we are being given freely by a public begging for acknowledgement as they are the end users of the information, history, archives, artifacts and texts we manage.

    I feel this is the challenge we face today if we expect to be a part of tomorrow. Technology demands we “trust” our markets or we as the middle man my find we have become obsolete.

    Consider for a moment the possibility of a future without physical museums and Libraries:
    Is it more cost effective to create virtual places/stations similar to the games people play in arcades and at home? Place them in schools or even train stations and let a person sit inside and live stories, history and science? Who needs a space we have all the space we need if it is on the internet they just need a headset.

    Now look at a real life example: Have you ever played the sit down version of Jurassic Park at an arcade?

    I am almost 50 years old and if I can imagine history or science being shared in this way when I experienced this game, I believe it is only a matter of time before they develop the software and make available affordable equipment for education and training to everyone.

    I don’t think the question is as giving radical trust to the public on your website as much as how are you going to keep the public engaged with your website.

  3. Mary Warner 20. Jul, 2010 at 9:35 pm #

    Tim Grove asks, “Does user-generated content fit into your mission?” as though it is somehow a new thing that comes with this series of tubes we call the internet.

    Does your museum collect from the public? Do you gather provenance on artifacts and history from your membership and other users? My organization, the Morrison County Historical Society, has been doing this since its inception in 1936. In fact, our society started because of a WPA project to collect oral histories from long-time citizens of the county. That’s user-generated content and those histories formed the basis of our original collections.

    Allowing comments on our website is merely a new format for something we’ve been doing all along. Yes, it may take a little more managing because we’ve expanded the potential audience, but it’s not much different from what we’re used to.

    • John H. Verrill 26. Jul, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

      Mary, I think your comments helped me to better understand the real meaning of user generated content and the fact that I have been using it in the form you describe my entire career. Applying this to web content seems much more reasonable when thought of in these terms. I think too that any way we have of engaging new audiences deserves looking into even when it threatens the status quo. Thanks.

    • Matt MacArthur 05. Aug, 2010 at 2:26 am #

      This is an interesting perspective on an important topic. Certainly the Internet allows the public to share and contribute the raw materials of history in more ways than ever before. What’s different now is that “experts” no longer exercise dominant control over the distribution channels for interpretation around those materials. Technology has leveled the playing field to a great extent.

      However, all signs point to the fact that our audiences continue to value museums as a source of reliable information. Trust goes both ways, and I think to earn trust we should continue to do what we do best, but with an attitude of openness and humility that acknowledges the new state of affairs, and even embraces the new opportunities for collaborative knowledge creation. As others have noted, to really do this responsibly and well will require more resources than most museums have been willing to give up to now.

  4. Robert Connolly 21. Jul, 2010 at 12:36 am #

    As the director of a small (size and staff) prehistoric/historic era Native American museum, I realized quickly that if we were to venture out into social media, I was going to need to give up exclusive oversight.

    Here is an example that deal only with one social media tool – about 8 months ago we launched a Facebook page that now has over 500 “fans.” FB “insights” and 3rd party stats show that our page is doing well. We also get good anecdotal feedback – in essence, we are confident the page is working for us.

    I envisioned I would be the sole “administrator” of the page to control content quality. In less than two weeks, I realized that having all photos/videos/text funneled through me was not going to work. I then made our three graduate assistants and other staff administrators and actively encouraged them to post comments/photos/videos etc. etc. Although reluctant at first, solely for fear of posting something not grammatically correct or possibly not wholly appropriate, the GA and staff folk now regularly post. About 50% of the page posts that occur once every three or so days are done by those other than myself. I must admit to cringing a bit when I saw the first video and photo posted by a GA. The posts did not conform to the precise museum reverence of my knee-jerk 58 year old sensibilities. My expectations were wrong. Our FB page is a great asset for our museum today. That is one type of radical trust story.

    Another type of radical trust is what fans post to our page. Early on, I deleted one fan post and now regret having done so. I had a private email conversation with the individual on why I thought the post was not appropriate, but realize now that I could have addressed the issue online as well. Since that time, I have encountered maybe 3 or 4 fan comments that necessitated a response to clarify an erroneous assumption. I believe that we are more transparent and engaging when we respond in this way. I also am not concerned that every fan post be 100% relevant and accurate – yet, to date, we have encountered no spam postings either.

    My takeaway on this “radical trust” is that in certain venues, the trust is wholly workable. That is not meant to confuse opinion with fact, but rather, FB is what it is, and it is a social media that invites interaction and exchange – not precise formulations that are beyond any possible dispute. I note that the Newseum FB page generally ends each post by soliciting a response to a question they pose – that is, they are truly social and interactive in their approach.

    Now, our monthly electronic newsletter, I still compose, copy-edit and take total responsibility for :)

    • Tim Grove 21. Jul, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

      Robert, great examples. You bring up a good point. Though “radical trust” is usually couched in terms of trusting the user, it can also be about trusting the staff and letting go of the filters so that information flows faster and in true voice. I think an institutional blog, for example, is much more interesting if it features a variety of voices and perspectives. Trusting less-experienced staff to post information that hasn’t been vetted can be scary at first.

    • Kathryn Burk-Hise 09. Sep, 2010 at 6:35 pm #

      Thank you for sharing your experience with Facebook. I just had that inner-conflict this morning when I heard that volunteers within our non-profit historic preservation organization may be tasked with posting to our Facebook page. You’ve really helped me to realize that I am not the be-all, end-all when it comes to insightful, meaningful posts to FB. :)

  5. Jonathan Finkelstein 28. Jul, 2010 at 7:45 am #

    We just posted a podcast interview with Dana Allen-Greil, New Media Project Manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in which she talks about a project that required some radical trust on the part of the museum: “O Say Can You Sing? National Anthem Singing Contest”. Allen-Greil references Jim Gardner (above).

    Check out the podcast at:

    … and feel free to share additional thoughts or comments about the project here.

  6. Bob 04. Aug, 2010 at 1:02 am #

    Thanks to everyone for their great comments on Radical Trust. I came across something today through a link Michelle Moon had posted that I think is relevant to the Radical Trust conversation.

    Both are from the Five Books site (
    Every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject.

    The first states the case of Academic, economist and co-author of economics blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen says the internet is even more Platonic than Plato – this democracy doesn’t need philosopher kings. He chooses the best five books on information.

    This link gets to Cowen’s five books on the subject of information:

  7. Edward J. Flesch 05. Aug, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    Some of the best information we have used in both temporary and permanent eshibits have come to us from voluntary, outside sources. Those used most are well documented and can be verified through other sources.

  8. Brian LaBrie 06. Aug, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    I think rethinking how we garner public input is a GREAT thing! We’ve been babby stepping into this at our firm. My first forray (also first at the firm) provided a weblink to our website where I kept a blog of the activities relating to a project in a low-income, National Register-listed community. And it was widely recieved. The client loved it because they could go there and see summaries of fieldwork, site visits, etc., but also check on progress of deliverables. So I am looking to do the next step soon and make it less controled by our firm so discussions can be posted on the site.

  9. Kevin Kuharic 16. Aug, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    I believe in identifying and engaging stakeholders in order to help build a sense of ownership and community support. Of course, this can lead to individuals who may take too much ownership. In those cases, job descrptions (for both volunteers and professionals) can be utilized to clarify roles and expectations. People (whether paid or not) get involved with not-for-profits so that they can make a difference. Allowing input is vital. Just keep in mind that listening is not the same thing as agreeing.

  10. Pamela McGuire 31. Aug, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    I may be too trusting myself, but I don’t think “radical trust” is a necessary underpinning to encouraging user-generated content. I assume that most of us work with history-related organizations and that our users are part of a like-minded community. I also assume that anyone who is actively contributing to a blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed or website is reasonably technically savvy and well aware of the pluses and minuses of “crowd sourcing” content. In other words, I believe that our users and our audience are more sophisticated than we give them credit for, and that they are naturally curious and interested in the process of learning and debating — not necessarily seeking or expecting absolute “truth”.

  11. Amy Douglass 09. Sep, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    User-generated content has made our institution stronger. As a community history museum, involvement of the community in our mission is essential. We have had several more formalized projects where we set up committies composed of different communities within the larger Tempe, Arizona community, such as Hispanics, Southeast Asians and Muslims. They have advised and guided the museum staff to tell their stories through oral histories and exhibits. Currently we are working with the African American community to publish a booklet on the African American experience in Tempe. The staff acts as facilitators to allow these communities to present their own stories within the parameters of what we do as a museum.


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