Unvarnished: A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Defamation

Imagine every positive and ugly opinion about you— from your mother to that awkward co-worker you rejected at the company Christmas party— centrally located on one online profile. Sound scary? It is.

Today, Unvarnished makes its beta debut. It’s essentially Yelp for LinkedIn: any user can create an online profile for a professional and submit anonymous reviews. You can claim your profile, but unlike LinkedIn, you have to accept every post, warts and all. And once the profile is up there’s no taking it down.

I asked co-founder, Peter Kazanjy, “Will you ever give users the option to take down their profile?” Kazanjy’s reply: “No, because if we did that, everyone would take their profile down” (see our video with Kazanjy after the break). Thus Unvarnished is a service that depends (and ultimately profits) on digital paranoia and our growing anxiety when it comes to our online identity. Doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies but (as Mike Arrington points out in “Reputation is Dead”) it is perhaps a logical evolution of social media. The site’s fundamental concept is not new (ikarma.com, Jerk.com) but Unvarnished has the best interface to attract a large community of professionals. Here’s the good, the bad and the truly ugly:

For now, the site is invite-only beta. You can either join the nebulous waiting list or you can wait for a private alpha user (a group of roughly 1,000) to request a review from you via Facebook. Once you connect and submit a post your account is active and you are free to claim your profile, create a new profile, invite users and submit as many anonymous reviews as your little heart desires. There are roughly 400,000 profiles in the database with the vast majority from Silicon Valley.

Unvarnished argues that there are lots of tools to actively manage your reputation (like updates, ability to comment and request new reviews)  but it omits the most important tool of all: the ability to strike down really damaging posts. Of course, empowering the user in that way would render the site toothless (a LinkedIn 2.0) because no sane person would keep a negative or even lukewarm review on their profile. But as I’ve said, the alternative is really scary.

Let’s look at the few, real safeguards on Unvarnished: if a user has a dummy Facebook account (recently opened, no friends) and writes a negative review that post is automatically blocked. In addition, the community votes on how helpful a review is and positive ratings improve the trustworthy rank of the reviewer— a modest incentive to be fair. The truly vile and illegal trash– like false allegations of homicide– will be flagged and immediately removed.

But let’s remember: there’s a wide spectrum between downright illegal and ambiguously negative. You could raise serious doubts about a person’s ethics and competency without proof and — let’s be honest here— without even believing your fabrications. This could be the place to anonymously settle vendettas: co-worker swipes a promotion, go to Unvarnished, boss dishes out a small bonus, go to Unvarnished, the vice president makes an ambiguous pass at your girlfriend, go to Unvarnished…you get the idea. Kazanjy says the goal of Unvarnished is to bring accountability and transparency to the workplace, which it will certainly do to some extent. But it will also become a nicely indexed, digital burn book. And we all know how that ends:

Theoretically, a community of professionals has more scruples and ethics than a group of 17-year-olds (maybe), but my guess is that many will be seduced by the dark powers of the internet (the power to hammer an adversary under the guise of anonymity). Kazanjy says all those negative opinions/rumors are already out there, lurking in blog posts and comments. His site, Kazanjy says, merely condenses, organizes, and helps you refute those claims. I disagree, I think it encourages defamation by ensuring a forum. If you guarantee a microphone, there’s an extra incentive for a malicious co-worker to go out of their way to post a rumor— because they know it will directly affect your reputation. Obviously, the repercussions could be huge. A damaging review could severely jeopardize a user’s present and future employment. Because humans magnify the negative; an employee with 50 extremely positive reviews and 5 very negative reviews would be at a disadvantage against someone with no Unvarnished profile. Let’s look at one account with negative reviews:

If I was an employer, there is no way I would ever, ever hire Jane.

Ultimately, it comes down to how you view the collective’s online identity. If you look at it through the Hobbesian lens, we are brutish and nasty and should not be trusted to our own devices. But maybe all that doesn’t matter, because Unvarnished could be a success, a social media staple, no matter what shape this animal takes. Fear, fascination and the carrot of power are effective drivers. And wasn’t it also Hobbes who said: “In the state of nature profit is the measure of right.”

A short interview with Unvarnished’s Kazanjy: