Anonymous personal attacks have been one of the Web's major, and most dangerous, flaws. So I guess it was only a matter of time before someone launched a site devoted to that very thing.
Deemed the "Yelp for people," Unvarnished is a new San Francisco startup -- founded by Peter Kazanjy -- which allows Web users to submit anonymous reviews of other people. Per the Website verbiage, "Unvarnished is an online resource for building, managing, and researching professional reputation." But read between the lines, and one will see how easily Unvarnished can become a site for defamation.
On the surface, Unvarnished looks to operate a lot like LinkedIn's recommendations feature: On LinkedIn, users have the ability to request reviews from contacts and post reviews and endorsements for others. However, Unvarnished is missing the social element that LinkedIn has. On LinkedIn, reviews are left by people whose connections to each other have been approved. On Unvarnished, reviews are left anonymously.
Anonymity means users can't be held accountable for their reviews. It seems the staff hopes to keep reviewers in line with pleas like the following: "Be honest, but be fair. Only review people you have a professional relationship with. Only discuss business-related topics."
But if the site's founder has any faith in this idea whatsoever, he's probably never visited the Internet before. Allow me to introduce you two, then: Unvarnished, this is the Internet. The Internet is a place where people thrive on the ability to defame those they dislike by hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. Internet, this is Unvarnished. Unvarnished is in the business of making all of the above much easier.
If the easy thing about Unvarnished is the ability to say whatever about whomever without facing consequences, "managing" one's reputation may be the hard part. While users are allegedly given control over their profiles, they can't easily have content removed from the site. Profiles and reviews cannot be removed, but potential libel should be reported.
Here's how Unvarnished suggests you manage your reputation:
Through creating their own profile, or claiming one that was created for them, professionals can take control of and build their professional reputation. Profile owners can manage and build their reputation, by receiving notifications of new reviews, requesting reviews from trusted colleagues, adding resume details, and responding to reviews.
And therein lies the choke-hold: You can't do anything about those who are using Unvarnished to soil your name except become an active Unvarnished participant, spending your time on this site in defense of your reputation.
Oh, but in case you were worried about the quality of people doing all the reviewing, never fear! The site is requiring users to sign up through Facebook Connect: "Unvarnished requires a Facebook account for registration as it helps shows [sic] us that you are a legitimate participant in this conversation."
Um... Whatever that means.
This site assumes a lot, most of which isn't true. It assumes that Web users are fair, and that the "crowd" is capable of controlling the conversation through moderation (reviews and reviewers can be rated). Unfortunately, the Web is more likely to attract anonymous attacks that lead to job loss, even suicide, than it is to be a place for fairness.
Of course, the only way Unvarnished could ruin people's lives is if it catches on. Should Unvarnished survive this initial hype phase and actually attract Web users and investors, the site could prove to be a dangerous tool. Here's hoping it doesn't get the chance.
— Nicole Ferraro, Site Editor, Internet Evolution