Silk Road: Trust in an Anonymous, International Online Marketplace

Rocco’s Study

Trust Breaks Down in Electronic Contexts but Can Be Repaired by Some Initial Face-to-Face Contact, published in 1998 by Elena Rocco, explores whether trust can emerge in electronic contexts.  Rocco explores the issues by measuring trust emergence in face-to-face and electronic contexts through experimentation. Trust emergence is measured through the use of social dilemma (i.e. a situation in which advantages for individualistic behavior make group cooperation vulnerable).

As the title suggests, the experimental findings find that electronic communication may be “inappropriate to support teamwork when trustworthiness is a prerequisite for action and members cannot rely on past experiences shared with the others.” The experiments show that trust in electronic context could only be achieved when team members have initial face-to-face contact.

The study emphasizes the importance of intelligibility in electronic communication; in which intelligible communication reduces risks of misunderstandings and encourages participation. The paper was published in 1998, and used an e-mail group mailing list (resembling a crude BBS) as the electronic medium in the experiment. Perhaps applications more advanced and more structured than mailing lists could support better intelligibility. So how applicable are the study’s findings today?

Silk Road

The e-commerce website, Silk Road, may provide an excellent case study for further examination on how trust is established in an electronic context. Silk Road is an anonymous, international online marketplace that operates as a Tor hidden service and uses Bitcoin as its exchange currency. The majority of the products that sellers list on Silk Road qualify as contraband in most jurisdictions; NPR has referred to the site as the “ of illegal drugs.”


Unlike traditional e-commerce sites where users are mostly concerned about getting scammed, the stakes on Silk Road are much higher. Silk Road users must also be concerned over tainted goods from malicious individuals and getting caught by law enforcement.

So how is trust established in an online black market – where the users are anonymous, the stakes are high, and face-to-face communication is next to impossible? Silk Road appears to tackle this problem by providing reputation systems and offering escrow services. A seller’s profile page indicates how long the seller has been on site member, when he last logged in, how many transactions have gone through the seller, a feedback system (similar to eBay), and a seller rating based on the percentage of positive feedbacks. Silk Road also offers an escrow service for transactions – in which, Silk Road will launder and hold on to funds while a transaction is being finalized.


Few studies have been conducted on Silk Road – most likely due to ethical concerns surroundings its controversial (and possibly illegal) nature. For more details on Silk Road – check out Nicolas Christin’s paper, Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace, published by Carnegie Melon University’s CyLab.