Unvarnished: Person reviews or trollfest?

A new Web site lets strangers create profiles for other people, then say things about them that can never be removed. Gosh. What could go wrong?

Updated throughout with comments from co-founder Peter Kazanjy

A new site called Unvarnished launched in beta today, and aims to do for individual people what Yelp does for restaurants and local businesses: let anyone create a profile about you and then post "reviews" about your job performance, management style, reputation, behavioral quirks, and so on. Or, put another way, it'll let co-workers or relative strangers subject you to anonymous and potentially defamatory attacks that are completely outside your control, can't be removed or edited, and are ripe for abuse. So, that sounds like a super idea.

Unvarnished: the road to hell is paved with good intentions
Unvarnished: May it stay a closed beta forever.

Just out of the gate, Unvarnished isn't finding a warm welcome on the Web. TechCrunch calls it a "clean, well-lighted place for defamation." ZDNet hopes Unvarnished has a good team of lawyers on retainer and ready to go. TGDaily wonders why anyone in their right minds would sign up for the private beta. Me, I'm just trying to find a way to translate "shocked sputtering" into text.

Because let's be clear. Though Unvarnished may be billed as a natural extension of trends that started with LinkedIn, Yelp, and even Facebook, MySpace, and message boards, there's nothing about this site that, in my opinion, doesn't lead almost immediately to rank nastiness.

After a long conversation with co-founder Peter Kazanjy, formerly of VMWare, I'm convinced that the founders (the others come from eBay and LinkedIn) really do think they're creating a site that will maintain a professional veneer, be well moderated by its users, and won't descend into personal attacks. I just don't agree.

Maybe I'm sadly jaded at this point, but I think creating a "social network" dedicated to reviewing and rating people basically amplifies everything that's awful about the Web right now: anonymous, drive-by, ad hominem attacks that can't be erased or edited and that live in search forever.

The problem here, of course, is that someone else can create a profile about you, and all the reviews on the site, although tied to a real person behind the scenes, are "obscured." (That's not quite anonymous, but you won't know who wrote the review, and neither will anyone else viewing the site.)

You can claim your own profile, but that doesn't give you any control: it can't ever be removed, and Kazanjy insists that letting you edit or remove reviews, no matter how nasty or personal, would of course undermine the whole idea of the site. That's an approach that might work for user reviews of laptops, coffee machines, body shops, or books, but reviewing people is an entirely different can of worms and one that is intensely personal and potentially very, very professionally damaging.

"We're committed to preventing that," says Kazanjy, pointing to the fact that you join the site via Facebook Connect so that your identity, even though it's "obscured" on the site, is actually known, and you have persistent identity as you move through the site. So, says Kazanjy, the site will depend on not just its community to moderate the potential nastiness of the site, but also a sense of responsibility from the reviewers themselves. Reviewer behavior will be tracked as they move through the site, and they'll get "trusted" rankings over time, as they provide more reviews and get more experience with the site.

Again, it's my feeling that this approach works fine on Amazon, where a prolific purchaser can review lots of products over time. But even after talking with Kazanjy, who explains that reviewers won't build up trusted status simply by posting a lot of reviews, I'm still convinced that a busybody on this site is a busybody in the real world, too. A "trusted reviewer" might have posted a lot of relatively innocuous or even positive reviews that are well-received by other reviewers on the site. But that person still isn't anyone I'd ever consider a trusted source. That person is a nosy, judgmental gum-flapper who should spend a little more time thinking about his own performance and less about everyone else's (if I may channel my third-grade teacher for a moment).

Kazanjy says reviews will be ranked, in part, by how close you are to the person your reviewing in terms of other social networks--in nerd voice, your nodes have to be interconnected for your review to have algorithmic weight. You can, if you engage in a lot of drive-by nastiness of strangers, actually end up getting an "untrusted" designation by the site itself, and all your reviews will be hidden. Again, the founders of Unvarnished really do want the site to be about reviewing fellow professionals to help the community at large figure out if there are potential employees out there who, for lack of a better word, "universally suck."

But that designation, with some exceptions, is almost always personal. You might think your manager is incompetent, but it might just be because you two have differences in personal or professional style, or you just bug each other. Since everyone is different, it should be obvious that another person might have a completely different experience with your manager (or with you).

The thing I dislike most about this idea is that it gives someone else all the power to exert his or her will or personal preference on the reputation of another. Just because you don't like your boss doesn't mean you should have the power to affect his or her future employment prospects. After all, it's possible you're the jerk, not your boss. And so what if you can counter a negative review? If it hasn't risen to the level of outright defamation, it's just a matter of opinion, and the presence of that opinion could cost you a job.

To me, the biggest barrier remains the fact that the reviews, however closely monitored, are presented to the public as being anonymous--sure, there's a real person back there who's slightly more accountable than your average troll. But they can still speak without fear of being identified. And anonymous commenting is actually one of the things about the Web we like the least. That's not a forum that should have the potential to affect people's livelihoods.

Kazanjy and his partners are hoping that Unvarnished will actually improve the idea of online reputation by aggregating it into a single area where people can participate in the conversations about themselves and where, he's hoping, a sense of basic decency and accountability will keep things honest.

I suspect, though, that the more effort that goes into trying to formalize the idea of online reputation, the more we will, in fact, start to devalue the entire concept.

After all, Kazanjy and his co-founders may be convinced that they can keep a slag-fest from breaking out on Unvarnished, but they're also convinced that no one will ever leave an honest critical review of a peer or co-worker using a real name. If it's true that you'll only ever slag from safety and that all praise is a lie, then everyone leaving a review of a person anywhere, whether on LinkedIn or Unvarnished, is either a liar or a coward. And that's no way to get at the truth. I'd almost rather take my chances on a bad hire.

I think most Web-savvy people now realize that Yelp reviews aren't entirely trustworthy, whether because they're outright suspect or because individual reviews are such a murky, subjective mess. Similarly, I can't imagine that, in a few years' time, employers will take Unvarnished reviews any more seriously than they take the LinkedIn tongue-baths Kazanjy is hoping to combat. I don't think you can keep out the trolls, the liars, or the cowards, and I think human interactions are totally emotional, subjective, and judgmental. There's simply no algorithm that can overcome those two things.

One thing that is true? These guys just took the discussion on online reputation to the next level. And this will be a fun one to watch.
 

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