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Unvarnished: Is Pete Kazanjy an Evil Genius?

Unvarnished is a new website where you can post and read anonymous reviews of people and their professional performance. That sounds a little frightening, doesn’t it?

TechCrunch has been writing about it for days and the company just started rolling out invites. See Michael Arrington’s thought provoking, if extreme, post Reputation Is Dead: It’s Time To Overlook Our Indiscretions and Evelyn Rusli’s review Unvarnished: A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Defamation. I told Unvarnished founder Pete Kazanjy that I thought he was doing more harm than good, I heard his response and now I’ve tried his site. It turns out that reality is a lot more complex than the hype. Unvarnished is both more intellectually interesting and less freakishly prurient than you might think.

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A “trusted reviewer” badmouths VC Dave Hornik. But the criticism isn’t anything you couldn’t read elsewhere (like TheFunded) and is pretty debatable in its validity. This was the only criticism of a person I could find on the site in early browsing today, and it’s pretty tame stuff.

Unvarnished could be positioned as a place you can anonymously slam your former bosses on or a place you’ve just got to visit in order to see what’s been written about you. It could just as accurately be described as LinkedIn with teeth: minus the sappy reviews people post to each others’ profiles on that site. LinkedIn with teeth makes it seem more mundane, and that is the truth of the matter. Browse around a little and you’ll calm down pretty quickly. Come back later when you’re considering working with someone and you may find it useful.

Could the service be abused? It could, but first let’s look at how it works.

Unvarnished operates on top of Facebook, which is both good and bad. You have to get a request to be reviewed sent by a Facebook friend in order to create an Unvarnished account, you have to use FacebookConnect to log-in to the service and you have to have demonstrated a certain amount of activity on Facebook in order to prove that you aren’t setting up a fake account just to post critical reviews of people on Unvarnished. At many points in navigating the site you’re encouraged to post reviews of your Facebook friends.

The reviews you post are tied to your profile, but readers and the people you review cannot trace back from your reviews to see who posted them. They can only see your aggregate activity history on the site and how highly rated your other reviews have been. In other words, if you’ve reviewed a lot of people and many other users have approved of your reviews, then your next review is going to carry extra weight in the minds of readers. Chronically judgmental but on balance positive? You’ll love Unvarnished!

The downside of the close Facebook integration is that one more time Facebook is centralizing our identity while we navigate around the larger web. Expect to see many more sites do this, though, as it makes authentication really easy and means that every new user automatically arrives with demographic, social and taste data. Sorry OpenID and distributed data portability, 400 million people voted for Facebook.

Opportunities for Abuse

You can’t delete things that get said about you on Unvarnished. It’s like Yelp but for individuals, and many businesses already hate Yelp. What’s to stop people from saying untrue, unkind, unfair and unattributed things about you? Not much.

“A lot of people say ‘I don’t want people to make reputation claims about me’,” site founder Kazanjy says, “but they also say ‘I certainly would like to consume repuation claims about other people’.”

People on the site have the opportunity to say bad things about you and your supporters have the opportunity to respond. You might be a bully with a posse of bullies who have your back. Your critics might be marginalized people who make no use of Unvarnished other than to shed much-needed light on your abuses of power, or they might be people with an axe to grind who jump onto the site to post terrible, untrue things about you.

Kazanjy’s contention is that a low reputation on the site and a group of vocal supporters can overcome any unfair criticism of you. That’s not very convincing.

Unvarnished as a Democratic Force

When he says that both the offline world and the web at large work in the same way (anyone can post anything about anybody) but that Unvarnished is merely centralizing this discourse, then things start to get interesting.

Few people have the knowledge, the broadcast platform or the search engine pull to really post a free-flying slam against a person online in a place it could be easily found. The relatively few people who could do that have an unspoken agreement not to do so. It would be uncouth and open them up to other powerful people doing the same thing to them.

Unvarnished aims to create one centralized, democratized place to learn about a person’s reputation. Suddenly even people who are not powerful public figures will have a single, prominent place to post their criticisms of others – and they’ll have very little disincentive to doing so.

Is that evil? Perhaps it is, a little. Is it a little bit genius as well? Time will tell. Unvarnished invites have begun filtering through Facebook today. If you see one, take a few minutes to check it out.

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