'Unvarnished': People Ratings Web Site Unleashes Controversy

Photo: People Ratings Site ?Unvarnished? Unleashes Controversy

For a Web site about reputation, Unvarnished is having a tough time establishing a good one of its own.

In the few days since its debut earlier this week, the Silicon Valley start-up, which lets users submit anonymous reviews about anyone, has weathered a firestorm of fierce reviews about itself.

Tech blogs and media sites have called it everything from a "clean, well-lighted place for defamation" to a "public bathroom wall for everyone on the planet" to "a completely evil social network."

Critics say there is little to prevent the Web site's conversation from devolving into the hate fests found on so many sites populated with anonymous comments. But others say the honesty on Unvarnished might not just be a breath of fresh air but a potentially helpful resource for recruiters looking to fill jobs.

Peter Kazanjy, the site's creator, takes the criticism in stride.

"We're not Pollyanna-ish about this, and we do not take this responsibility lightly," he said. "This is serious business."

Site Is Like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon -- for People

Kazanjy said his site, which is currently invitation-only and in beta, is intended to be an online resource for those managing and researching professional reputations. It's not about who's best in bed, he said, but rather about a person's management style, productivity, integrity and relationships.

"Professional reputation resides in the brains of all your colleagues and co-workers, and it's very hard to access that," he said. "This is the place for productive conversation about this topic."

Using mechanisms similar to those that power review-sharing sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon, Kazanjy said his site is trying to provide an "unvarnished" window into a person's professional identity.

Like the popular professional networking site LinkedIn, users can request reviews of themselves and provide reviews of co-workers or others in their industry. But the key -- and controversial -- differences are that all reviews are anonymous and users can't delete any reviews about themselves.

For critics, the lack of profile control means nothing but trouble. Any co-worker or subordinate with a bone to pick or score to settle could head to the site and post an unfairly critical review, they say. And without their identity to hold them accountable, what's to stop online trolls from defaming anyone they want?

Founder: Safeguards Keep Comments in Line

But Kazanjy said his site uses several safeguards to make sure that doesn't happen. For starters, the site is invitation-only, at the moment. To gain access to the site, a user must invite you to review them. That in itself, he said, sets a tone, as users have an incentive to invite those they trust. (He acknowledged that the reviews on the site now actually have a positive bias as a result.)

Though he's not sure when Unvarnished will move out of beta, he said that as the site opens up it will likely retain a structure that carefully brings on new users.

He also said that users must sign in through their Facebook accounts. Though their reviews are still anonymous, he said the Facebook tie-in makes it easier to identify fake accounts and gives users a "persistent identity" across the site, which could help keep their reviews fair.

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