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Apr. 6 2010 - 4:21 pm | 660 views | 0 recommendations | 14 comments

Unvarnished.com: The dark side of social networks

Is it just me, or does the controversial startup  Getunvarnished.com give other people the creeps, too?

This, of course, is the web site that allows readers to rate and review people at work.   According to some accounts, it’s just the next step in online reviewing.   There’s Yelp for restaurants and the like.  TripAdvisor for hotels and so on. TheFunded.com for sources of entrepreneurial financing.  So, why not provide the chance to rate co-workers or former colleagues?

The answer, I would think, is obvious. Because you’re not talking about businesses, you’re talking about private citizens.  Because these private citizens haven’t given permission to be included. Because  it provides the opportunity to create one giant, virtual slam book.   Comments are anonymous, so what’s to stop anyone from saying just about anything? Are you mad your office rival got the promotion you wanted? Just rush to Unvarnished and post whatever nasty observation you see fit to write.  Stands to reason the majority of people who will want to post reviews will be those who loathe the individual in question.

I know 20-somethings are supposed to have a different concept of what constitutes privacy. But, surely, there’s no way Unvarnished can be construed as anything other than a major privacy violation. And, as an example of the worst of the Internet–just what can happen when “democratization of information”, “citizen journalism”,  and online anonymity really run amuck.

Umair Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab, wrote, “Increasingly, today’s ’social web’ doesn’t empower people. It empowers hate, exclusion and polarization.”

That’s it in a nutshell.

The site is still in a test phase. Hopefully, after a flurry of initial interest once it launches,  Unvarnished will die a quick death.


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  1. collapse expand

    Hi Anne, thanks for the thought-provoking post. Another site worth a look is Coworkers.com (full disclosure: I am a co-founder). While it is also about peer feedback and reputation, we take a very different approach. We put users in control of their own profile and privacy, rather than cross that line over the “dark side” as you put it. Feel free to compare and contrast: http://bit.ly/cfLKzY

  2. collapse expand

    Hey, James, thanks for this. Is your site about helping people get information they can use to further their careers, improve, learn about what others see as their strengths and weaknesses and so forth?

    • collapse expand

      Hi Anne, exactly! With Coworkers.com we help facilitate honest, unbiased, specific professional feedback between coworkers. People want to be able to know the answer to the question “How’s my work?”. However without a modicum of control over that input/output stream, things can quickly move from constructive to destructive. We offer the right balance of privacy controls to allow a user to get and give a mix of anonymous and ’signed’ reviews. Users can have a public or private profile, and they can choose to share/hide/or delete any feedback they receive. We want to see professionals learn and grow, not go down in flames. Let us know if you ever want a demo and thanks for your consideration ;-)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Libel? Slander? The lawyers will have fun with this.

  4. collapse expand

    But, if comments are posted anonymously, I’m not sure how you can enforce libel laws. I guess you can sue the site itself, which would serve the founders right.

  5. collapse expand

    This just reads like a critique of the entire Internet.

    Writers don’t need someone’s permission to write about them. Yes, they do have to be legally responsible, but this site doesn’t evade that, it passes the responsibility along to the people who write reviews and doubtless would hand over its records if faced with a court order. That’s standard website operating procedure.

    It’s not wrong to empower people to give their opinions. It does get a lot of negativity on the page, that’s true, but it’s not necessarily WRONG.

    Of course, if the people reviewed are not performing their jobs in public (ie in front of other people, outside their homes) then you’re right, their privacy has been invaded.

    The right to privacy does not extend to acts performed in public.

  6. collapse expand

    Then let’s define “public”? As I understand it, once you have entered someone’s physical space — i.e. an office or store or studio they rent or own — it’s not public, while the sidewalk or street is. I recently interviewed a store owner in his store and want to name someone I saw there, but since I am not clear that this is a public space will likely cloak the person’s identity out of respect for their privacy.

    So, hey, flame the Con Ed guys working on the power lines in your street…but how is it public to start trashing your cube-mate because you hate her shoes or his cologne?

    Makes me glad I work alone at home, for once.

  7. collapse expand

    In the wake of all these recent teenage suicides due to cyberbullying, I think sites like Unvarnished.com are a disaster waiting to happen. The laws need to catch up to the technology; this is hate speech even though it’s directed at individuals rather than a class of people.

  8. collapse expand

    Most people struggle to give, take or learn from feedback in the real world for the simple reason that it brings up uncomfortable feelings.

    Nothing about social media technology helps people face those feelings or learn from the lessons that real feedback has to offer.

    If anything, social media technology does the exact opposite because in the online environment feedback is, by definition, disembodied and anonymous and usually lacking in accountability.

    Add a competitive dimension to that and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, regardless of the motivation behind the sites: from Coworker.com to TripAdvisor to Unvarnished to Angies List to RipOff Repot…. just a few of a rapidly growing list.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Sam, regarding Coworkers.com, we heartily agree on your two initial points: People aren’t realizing the benefits of candid professional feedback; The most constructive feedback (whether direct or anonymous) is often best exchanged in private.

      We handle these points in a VERY DIFFERENT way than the sites you have mentioned. For one thing, our main focus is getting people to solicit feedback, rather than pushing it on others. This breaks the ice and starts the exchange with a positive, non-threatening tone.

      Second, our site has a library of review templates, and people can create their own, so rather than just opening themselves up to blanket criticism, our users ask for and receive feedback in specific areas – communication, problem solving, specific achievements or documents, etc.

      Third, to the point about accountability – though we believe there is a place for anonymity (it’s standard practice in the survey world), we encourage people to “sign” their feedback and stand behind it.

      And finally, we let people have FULL CONTROL OVER THEIR OWN PROFILES. We believe that at the end of the day, privacy laws will win out, profiles will be edited (ie “cherry picked”) to some extent, and no single for-profilt online repository will be trustworthy enough to be the ultimate barometer for an individual’s reputation.

      To sum up, Coworkers.com focuses on letting people manage a more direct and open channel for exchanging a range of private and public feedback. We help people improve their performance and bolster their reputation through direct action. For these reasons, we have been referred to as the “Un-Unvarnished”. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify our position.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    I do not like this idea for a website. All you need to realize, is how prolific gossip is in the workplace to get a feel on where this thing will go, and how it will turn out. Go to jobvent.com, pull up any workplace, and start reading the negativity, and vile hatred not only toward the company but toward people. This just brings “hate unaccounted” to a very high level.. Where is it all going? How is this going to help anyone?

  10. collapse expand

    Just have to comment on the anonymity question. I think it’s a big problem. I know it encourages more people to express their opinions. But there’s a cost, and it might be a big one. Really, except for a few circumstances, you should be willing to put your name behind anything you write.

    As a small-business writer, I’d love to see more startups using social networking’s ability to create conversations and collect opinions, but require that people identify themselves.

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    It's just in the past few years that I've become interested in not-only-for-profit startups and small businesses. In fact, I can remember a time when I thought the concept of "enlightened capitalism" was simply an oxymoron. Now, I see the possibilities. Plus, it combines my own political bent with my long-time coverage of small business for such places as the New York Times, Business Week, CNNMoney.com, Portfolio.com, Harvardbusinessonline, and Fortune. Otherwise, I live with my son, a soccer fanatic, my husband, a journalist and avid rower, in Pelham, NY. My daughter, a former varsity wrestler, is away at college, studying art. You can see more of my work at www.annefieldonline.com. Or follow me on Twitter@annearfannearf.

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