'Unvarnished': People Ratings Web Site Unleashes Controversy

New Web site lets people submit anonymous reviews of anyone.

April 01, 2010, 5:56 PM

April 2, 2010— -- 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."

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.

Similar to Yelp and other sites, Kazanjy also said that users can rate the reviews. If users think a given comment is overly critical or abusive, they can report it, which could result in a comment being removed or a user being labeled "not trusted." Over time, their reviews could fall in ranking or be entirely invisible across the site, he said.

"This is not about empowering people to give an F minus," he said. "It's about creating an environment that's safe to give a B plus."

He said the site's algorithms can also see if a reviewer and the person being reviewed share any contacts. If they share none, he said, that could be a red flag that the reviewer might not have any legitimate reason to leave the review, which could affect the review's placement.

But he said he knows that the onus is on his company to prove its value.

While people have become used to sites like LinkedIn and Facebook that give them almost total control over how they appear on a given site, he said that in the real, offline world, that's not how reputation works.

Frustrating though it may be, the person's whose reputation is up for negotiation doesn't actually own the conversation, Kazanjy said. It's other people's opinions that shape the construction.

Online Reputation Expert: Anonymous Review Sites Tend to Be Lopsided

Balancing the interests of the people who want to review, the person being reviewed and the person consuming the review, he said, is the key to translating what happens offline to an online community.

If an Unvarnished review does that successfully, it could be one of several pieces of information potential employers use to determine how a candidate performed in a previous job, he said.

"If unvarnished information isn't predictive, then we've failed," he said.

Despite Kazanjy's goals, those familiar with how reputations are built -- or broken -- online say that anonymous commenting sites tend to produce lopsided, inaccurate results.

"The major failings of a lot of these Web sites is that they tend to be used -- if they are used at all -- by people looking to slam one another for fun or profit, or looking to game it for themselves," said Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, which helps people monitor and manage their reputation across the Internet.

He also said that these kinds of sites only succeed on a massive scale. Kazanjy said the site currently hosts about 400,000 public profiles (mostly unclaimed, he said), but Fertik said success is counted in the millions of users, not thousands.

As people become more comfortable sharing information and opinions online, sites like Unvarnished will continue to proliferate, Fertik said. But although he believes the creators are trying to create a site with credibility, he said he still expects some people's reputations to be unfairly tarnished.

"It's inevitable," he said. "There's no way a site like this is not going to do some amount of massive damage to some people. That's not by design, that's just how it works."

But others take a different view of the new site.

Owen Thomas, executive editor of the technology and innovation blog VentureBeat, said he thought the early reviews were not only unfair but ironic.

"People accuse him of defaming, but aren't they defaming?" he asked. "They haven't played with the product, they haven't thought through what the true implications of the product are."

He said the biggest source of reputation information online is Google, but no one expects to control Google search results.

Who Could Unvarnished Help?

"Peter has really hit on something. You don't get to control what people say about you," he said. "There are laws about defamation, which everyone needs to observe. But just because it's possible that a newspaper could, in theory, print something defamatory about someone, [it doesn't mean] they should shut down the printing press."

He said it's understood that online communities develop their own cultures, which need to be managed.

"You can't just throw up a comment board and hope for the best," he said. "You need to engage with the community that gathers around the comments and find a way to cultivate the good commenters and discourage the bad," he said.

Unvarnished, he said, is attempting this on a massive scale. Though the success of the site remains to be seen, Thomas said that Kazanjy has attempted to design the site in such a way that a good offline reputation -- and the people who can vouch for it -- will carry through online.

And he said that if successful, Unvarnished could potentially even become a threat to a site like LinkedIn, which has gained significant popularity as a professional networking site.

Because users can control which recommendations to publicize or hide, LinkedIn profiles tend to be "Panglossian" or unreasonably optimistic, Thomas said. But that rosy finish makes the site less helpful to people researching job candidates, he added.

"LinkedIn assumes the best of all possible worlds, Unvarnished is in the real world," he said.

For a recruiter looking to fill middle-level jobs, he said, that could be an enormous help.

"You need a quick assessment and an honest one. That's hard to come by. I think Unvarnished could make recruiters' jobs easier," he said. "If it does that, it will serve its purpose."

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