Inside Unvarnished: A Close Look at the Controversial Site

Inside Unvarnished: A Close Look at the Controversial Site

Contrary to popular opinion, Peter Kazanjy is not trying to make the Internet a safer place for slander.

But given the hostile reception he's received from my blogging brothers and sisters for his new startup, Unvarnished, you'd think he was taking kittens and seeing "if they blend."

Unvarnished is a crowd-driven reputation site like Yelp, but with a key difference. Instead of reviewing restaurants or dentists, people are reviewing you. More specifically, they're reviewing your performance as an employee, manager, or independent contractor (and you, of course, can do the same to them).

The site's goal is to get an "unvarnished" opinion of you or your colleagues, instead of the falsely glowing recommendations you find on other sites -- what CNET's Molly Wood brilliantly calls a "LinkedIn tongue bath." So all reviews are posted anonymously to encourage candor. And once a review of you is up, you can't take it down, no matter how negative it is.

That drives some people nuts.

TechCrunch's Evelyn Rusli calls Unvarnished "a clean well-lighted place for defamation." Internet Evolution's Nicole Ferraro calls it a "dangerous tool" and "just what the Internet didn't need." Lawyers have termed it a "litigation nightmare," while The Inquistr inquires whether Unvarnished is merely "a bad networking idea" or "the worst networking idea ever." And those are some of the nicer responses.

Could Unvarnished possibly be that evil? I decided to find out. But finding out isn't as easy as it might appear, because Unvarnished is in a closed beta. Visit its Web site, GetUnvarnished.com, and all you can do is sign up for a waiting list. To actually use Unvarnished, you have to be asked by someone who's already using it to "review" them. The site suggests you ask around and try to find someone who'll invite you. Not very helpful.

So I did the next best thing. I sent an email to the site and politely asked to be allowed in. Literally two minutes after sending that email I got a call from founder Peter Kazanjy, and we had a long chat about the service. He also invited me to review him, giving me entry into Unvarnished.

In today's blog post, I'm going to summarize what Peter told me. In Part Deux, I'll talk about the nuts and bolts of how the service works and what I was able to find out by messing around with it.

Make no mistake, Kazanjy is very focused on making Unvarnished a site by and for professionals. It's so grey and buttoned-down it makes LinkedIn look positively giddy by comparison. The site is all about making the hiring process more transparent, not about spreading malicious gossip or doing drive-by defamation.

"We're not trying to be Juicy Campus 2.0," he says. "We're trying to mirror online how professional responsibility works in the offline world, while bringing to bear the same transparency and accountability that sites like Yelp and Amazon Reviews bring to reviews of restaurants or software."

Unlike a lot of social media sites that try to get big quick by making it possible for anyone to join (I'm talking to you, MySpace), Unvarnished has put up steep barriers to keep the scammers, the spammers, and the malcontents out.

First, Unvarnished relies on Facebook Connect for your login. If you don't have a Facebook account, you can't use Unvarnished. Period. The reasons? A Facebook account a pretty good indicator you're an actual human, says Kazanjy, even if your username is HappyFeet123. And it creates a persistent identity that can be held accountable for its actions. So even if the people you review don't know who you are, Unvarnished does. If you act badly, there will be repercussions.

Sure, you can create a fresh Facebook account and log in, but Unvarnished algorithms will detect it as a new account and essentially put you on a watchlist. If you start slagging on other people, your reviews will disappear and your Facebook identity will be banned. If you're a good actor and appear to be a legit human, your reviews will become live and you can participate.

"Your account needs to be above a certain threshold of friends," he says. "And it needs to have existed long enough so that we're comfortable you're a real human, that you didn't just spin up an account to add a nice review of yourself or go crap on someone else."

Once you're in, you're free to review anyone on the site -- or to create new profiles for people not already included in the 400,000 or so Kazanjy's team has already added to the database. But if you have no real connection to the people you review -- no friends or reviews in common -- your reviews may get pulled from the site.

As you post reviews, other Unvarnished users can rate your reviews as helpful, unhelpful, or abusive. The more unhelpful or abusive you are, the more your reputation on the site suffers. Your reviews get ranked lower, and if you're abusive you'll likely end up getting booted. There's even an algorithm that watches as you type and prevents you from using bad language in your review, others that scan reviews after the fact and flag those with questionable content (more on that in Part II).

If someone manages to scale all those hurdles and still post a negative review of you, you'll be notified by email and get the opportunity to respond and/or rebut these claims. Like the following exchange between a well-respected tech editor and someone who clearly doesn't much like him (name and title obscured to protect his privacy):

Before you can respond, though, you'll have to "claim" your account -- essentially, proving you're you -- by providing your public LinkedIn information. So to play the Unvarnished game you'll need accounts on both Facebook and LinkedIn.

There's a lot more to say about Unvarnished, and reputation management in general, which I'll get to in Part II (and beyond). But first I have a few bones to pick.

The primary one is that anyone can add you to the Unvarnished database, and once you're on there's almost no way to get off. Kazanby says that in extremely limited circumstances (like creating a profile for someone who's not of legal age) Unvarnished will remove it. Otherwise, it stays.

Also: Unless you've claimed your profile in Unvarnished, there's no way for you to know if someone is shredding your reputation. So you're kind of forced to play along.

I have a problem with both of those things. One of the key tenants of privacy is choice. If you don't want to participate in an online community, you shouldn't be forced to. Nobody's forcing you to use Facebook or LinkedIn, or to put those really bad work experiences you had back in the day on your resume. I think Unvarnished should provide an opt out for people who don't want to play.

Yes, someone can still slag you on their blog (remember Liskula Cohen and the "Skanks in NYC" fiasco?), but that's much different than putting your name into a database designed to be used by your future employers. On this, Kazanjy and I disagree.

Still, Unvarnished isn't the evil Web site it's been made out to be. For specifics on why, you'll need to tune in to Part II, coming soon to a browser near you.

Continue to: Inside Unvarnished: A Close Look at the Controversial Site Part II

Part II

In the last episode of TY4NS, I dove into the controversy swirling around Unvarnished, the reputations Web site people love to hate. Why do they hate it? Because the Yelp-like site appears to allow disgruntled employees, meddling managers, and other assorted pissants the opportunity to slander you anonymously. Worse, once a negative review has passed Unvarnished's phalanx of automated and human censors, you can't have it removed.

Today I'm going to talk a bit about what it's like to actually use the thing (something I suspect 99 percent of its critics have yet to do). My overall conclusion: The site definitely has its share of faults, and it can be gamed to some extent, but it's a lot harder to savage someone's reputation on Unvarnished than it appears.

As I noted last time, you must log in via Facebook Connect, making it difficult for one person to pretend to be multiple people on Unvanished. As it turns out, I have three Facebook accounts -- yes, I am schizophrenic -- so I was able to create three Unvarnished accounts to use in my experiment.

I tested Unvarnished the way I tend to test every service -- by pushing it to extremes to see where it breaks down. So I created my logins and started posting reviews. The first one I posted was of Unvarnished CEO Peter Kazanjy, since he's the one who invited me onto the site. I gave him 4 stars, rated him 8 out of 10 across the board for Skill, Productivity, Relationships, and Integrity, respectively, and left the following comment:

"I think Peter needs to drink less caffeine and eat more vegetables. Otherwise, he's the perfect manager/employee/founder/scourge of the Internet."

I posted a couple of straight reviews of people I knew on the site, and then a few of my fictional friends that were a little funkier. Like this one:

The next day, I got an Unvarnished Community Guidelines Violation Notification email saying this review had been pulled from the site. The reason they gave? Not because I essentially called this person a drunk who sleeps on the job, but because I suggested he kept weapons concealed in his desk. To wit:

"... your content "he keeps throwing knives in his top desk drawer" on profile [xxxxxxx] was found to be problematic, and removed from the site. Namely, the content was [inappropriate language]."

Two other funky reviews got yanked. Apparently, you can't suggest someone is an alien or married to a donkey. (Who knew?) But in neither case did I receive any notification. (That was a mistake, says Peter K.) One of my largely positive "straight" reviews also got 86'd. Why? In that instance it was because I said "for all I know, she might be a screaming hellbitch before noon." Apparently, Unvarnished didn't like my use of the word "bitch." And that's not the only word it doesn't like:

So if you're reviewing someone whose job involves working with, say, door knobs, you'll have to find some creative ways to phrase your praise.

One of the things I found weird was that, despite these reviews getting pulled, they still appeared on the My Unvarnished page on my account. I could still see them, but nobody else on Unvarnished could. So I would have no way of knowing (aside from the not-so-reliable emails) that there was anything wrong with them.

I spoke with Peter K. after my experiment. He told me that if I were a normal user (and not a reporter who'd just interviewed him and requested access to his site) I would have earned myself a lifetime ban from Unvarnished, based on the handful of screwy reviews I posted. They also caught one of my two fictional identities. They did not catch any of the reviews I posted of people who don't exist, however.

The major problems with Unvarnished, as I see them:

* You might have a profile on there and never know it. Peter K. says down the road, Unvarnished may attempt to notify people when someone has posted a positive review of them (though how exactly that would work is still unclear to me). He says they wouldn't do it in the case of negative reviews, though.

* People you don't know and have never worked with might be "reviewing" you. Kazanjy says the site has an algorithm that will detect these and give them less authority; it may eventually weed them out entirely. But I never saw this in action, so I can't tell you how that would work.

* You may have posted a review that got flagged and removed, but you may not ever know that. An email is supposed to be sent to you telling you why the review was problematic, but this didn't always work. Personally, I think if a review doesn't pass muster, the problematic parts should be highlighted so people can change them. But it's not my site, so...

* You can reply to a review and rebut it, if necessary. But that's where the conversation ends. The reviewer you're replying to never gets notified that you've responded (though your reply will appear in his or her "My Unvarnished" page). So if they call you a lying weasel, and you say "au contraire, mon frere," that's the end of it. Personally, I find this deeply unsatisfying.

* It's possible (though difficult) to create multiple identities in Unvarnished and cross post between them.

* It's possible to add fictional people to its profiles database (though why you'd want to is unclear).

* The anonymity of reviewers won't withstand a legal challenge. If you post a negative review of someone and that person issues a subpoena demanding Unvarnished reveal your identity, they're legally required to do that.

Peter K. says the site will do all in its power to keep that from happening -- by notifying the person who posted the review about the legal challenge and giving them 60 days to amend the review or remove it; by informing the aggrieved party of just how difficult and expensive it is to pursue any kind of defamation case, as well as the unlikelihood of success.

If gentle dissuasion doesn't work, however, you can be held liable for things you say on Unvarnished. If nothing else, that should make you think twice before you make jokes about throwing knives or donkey marriages.

My overall view: Unvarnished is a bit (wait for it) ... unpolished. Then again, it's still in beta. But the idea isn't going away. Your online reputation is hugely important -- it's what social media is ultimately about -- and it will only grow more so with time. That's something I'll be addressing a lot in future posts. Now I'm tired and need to lie down. Who knew slander could be so exhausting?

When not spending a ridiculous amount of time playing with Unvarnished, Dan Tynan tends his geek-humor-gone-wild site eSarcasm, which surely has destroyed his own reputation by now.

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