GetUnvarnished.com: Should We Allow User Feedback about Personal Reputation?

by on April 6, 2010 · 15 comments

I got a call today from CNBC asking me to appear on a program to discuss the rising controversy surrounding GetUnvarnished.com, which CNBC called “the scariest website ever” and an “online reputation killer.”  For those of you not familiar with the site, it bills itself as “an online resource for building, managing, and researching professional reputation, using community-contributed, professional reviews.”  More specifically, the site says:

Unvarnished reviews help you get the inside scoop on other business professionals, providing candid assessments of coworkers, potential hires, business partners, and more. By contributing Unvarnished reviews, you can share your knowledge of other professionals, giving credit where credit is due, and valuable feedback where needed. Lastly, your own Unvarnished profile, which you may create yourself or claim one that has been created for you, helps you take control of and build your own professional reputation. Get recognition for your accomplishments and actively manage your career growth.

In essence, the site is like other online product or service review sites except in this case the product or service being reviewed is you!  By letting people comment on other people’s reputation anonymously, the theory is that Unvarnished can become “a central hub for community-contributed reviews regarding an individual business professional,” according to the site.

However, as you can well imagine, the site raises all sorts of thorny questions about anonymity, free speech, privacy, personal reputation, libel, child safety, cyberbullying, intermediary liability, and so on. If you read these two TechCrunch articles [1, 2], you’ll get a good feel for the heated debate that will follow, which I’m sure we’ll be talking about more here on this blog in the months to come. I can see this becoming the next AutoAdmit or JuicyCampus case, and raising some of the same questions that came to the fore during the “skank” blogger case last year. For now, here’s the video from the CNBC show, and down below I have included some talking points I put together before I went on the air.

Talking Points I prepared for today’s CNBC segment:

  • one of the best things about the Net is this instantaneous feedback loop it provides for a variety of things
  • that feedback loop is particularly powerful for products and services (think Amazon for books, Netflix for movies, Yelp for restaurants, and so on)
  • we should allow ongoing experimentation with user feedback mechanisms
  • the question that Unvarnished.com puts front and center is whether we should allow such community feedback site for people and their reputations. Should such “social reputation” sites be allowed to aggregate anonymous comments about the reputations of others?
  • in a sense, we’ve been here before with sites like JuicyCampus and AutoAdmit, although they were extreme examples
  • I think experimentation should be allowed to continue but…
  • we should encourage responsible behavior & site moderation
  • if serious incidents ensue, there needs to be method of identifying and dealing with biggest troublemakers
  • this is not like restaurant or book review sites; people are far more sensitive about personal information and profiles
  • lawsuits will fly if things get ugly on the site since people take their reputations so seriously
  • veil of anonymity may need to be pierced in extreme cases
  • a key feature of Unvarnished.com is that you must use a Facebook account to log, meaning that even though anonymous comments will be allowed, ultimately, they could be traced back to actual users (that’s what separates Unvarnished from Juicy Campus)
  • done right with proper safeguards, such sites could provide an important social resource
  • there will be reputational benefits of a different sort that accrue to the sites or companies that strikes the right balance
  • sites that adopt an “anything goes” approach will likely be marginalized
  • finally, let’s remember that there’s no guarantee that these sorts of sites will catch on. Just because uder feedback sites are popular for goods and services doesn’t mean they will be for people or reputations.  It could be that reputational feedback is left for sites like LinkedIn, where “real-name culture” is expected (no one leaves anonymous reputation reviews on LinkedIn. Of course, no one ever leaves a bad review either! It’s all just ‘you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours’ sort of reviews.)

_____________

Related reading:

TechCrunch articles mentioned above:

  • Todd

    “done right with proper safeguards, such sites could provide an important social resource”

    What do you consider to be proper safeguards?

  • Jim Harper

    Hey, Adam, what kind of totalitarian are you? “Should we allow…?”

    Mind your business! Let stupid people build a web site for stupid people!

    My “proper safeguard” is not using the site along with everybody else.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    It's a rhetorical question!

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    It's a tough call, Todd. If they want to stay out of trouble, at a minimum, a site like this needs really strong guidelines about appropriate user behavior / comments. They need to have a strong policy in place to deal with repeat offenders of those policies.

    The Facebook connection should really help them make that possible since that gives them a link back to what, in all likelihood, is a user with a real name and profile. That should provide somewhat of a check on bad behavior.

  • MikeRT

    Should such “social reputation” sites be allowed to aggregate anonymous comments about the reputations of others?

    Absolutely not. They need to be able to track the comments back to a live person so that the site can be able to work immediately with the legal system in the event of defamation charges. The alternative is that Congress will take a baseball bat to section 230.

  • MikeRT

    Jim,

    What would you do if someone posted “Jim Harper raped me in high school (or college). He's a scumbag, don't trust him around your daughter” and you found that via a Google search for “Jim Harper?

    In a generic sense, this site should be allowed to proceed, but no one should be under any illusions as to its quasi-unique potential as a defamation machine. If this behavior becomes an issue, and the sites won't control it, then there will be a strong political movement toward ending section 230 protection or curbing it to the point of being ineffective for most sites.

    If this site will police it, one thing they should work on is a partnership with Facebook which will allow them to report libelous users to Facebook for a cascading loss of accounts if Facebook concurs. Then, they should partner with Automattic and SixApart to be able to submit high priority entries to Akismet and TypePad AntiSpam so that WordPress, Movable Type and TypePad-based sites will get some additional protection there.

  • osvd

    MikeRT-

    I agree with your concerns, comments and suggestions

    I've been part of the private launch and know two of the co-founders personally.
    They dedicated to making a useful, professional site.

    This isn't dirtyphonebook, et al

    Bad actors will have their accounts terminated and ALL the reviews they authored removed……not just the offensive one.

    Reviewers' identities will not be revealed to “the reviewed” but all identities are know by the operators of the site.

    Defame someone to the point of them taking legal action…….. the subpoena will divulge your personal information.

    Mike, I particularly like your concept of cascading account loss via FB.

    I suggest you contact the founders and get a UV accont so you can test drive it.
    They are depending on feedback (useful not flames) from the community to make this the best it can be.

    I'm sure they would be happy to hear from someone having thoughtful input.

    I believe that the section 230 regs are a good thing but if abused, they'll be history.

    cheers

  • cibley

    Truth is, once you are damaged this way by a disgruntled employee, boss,co worker or spouse, you are damaged without recourse. Who will judge “extreme”, and how will that “repair” be conducted? We all know that people don't care about retractions of any sort, just the bad gossip. Its so unreliable, and childish to call this viable or useful. This will attract gossip mongers, and problems for people looking for work in a bad economy. Does everything have to be judged by unknown tweeters??? When did your reputation become a game for others to control?? Have you looked at the rating sites for anything- apartment, restaurants?? People are scathing in their remarks. They don't care who or what they bring down. This is a small man's/women's way of conducting HR functions. SHAME SHAME SHAME!!!

  • cibley

    why does everything have to be “social” ?? This sucks!

  • osvd

    cibley-

    Are you not guilty of the very behavior you condemn? Visited site? Tried the site? Read other articles about the site?

    Do you review movies you haven't seen? Restaurants you haven't been to? Comment on people you don't know? and never met?

    Seems like you might be doing a bit of projection?

    There are laws against libel, theses laws apply to all posts on this site.

    cheers

  • Miss_ksa18-2012

    oooh la la…..

  • Miss_ksa18-2012

    guys every 1 has privasy even if it was work!!!!!

  • Miss_ksa18-2012

    oooh la la…..

  • Miss_ksa18-2012

    guys every 1 has privasy even if it was work!!!!!

  • Gavin 1990

    This reminds me of a site called http://getnosy.com

    Has anyone ever heard of it? Talk about scary!

    Gavin —

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