There’s no point in worrying about your reputation anymore, TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington has decided; everything will eventually find its way into the public sphere anyway. Union Square Ventures investor Fred Wilson, however, thinks there is a way to manage your reputation, namely having your community of friends and those who know you through social networks defend you. Pete Kazanjy says his new service Unvarnished, a social network for reputation management that launched yesterday, takes something from both of those ideas.
Unlike LinkedIn, which gives a user ultimate control over what appears on their profile, Unvarnished takes the same approach as Yelp does to restaurants: Anyone can create a profile for any person and then review them, at which point the person being reviewed can “claim” their profile. They can’t delete or vote on negative reviews they’ve received, but they can respond to them — and they can encourage their friends, coworkers and social network followers to vote on them or provide their own.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Unvarnished is that the reviews are anonymous (Kazanjy prefers to say that the reviewer’s identity has been “obscured”) so that you never know, for example, who exactly provided that two-star rating. Although it seems like the kind of thing that no one in their right mind would want, Kazanjy says such anonymity is a crucial part of what makes Unvarnished different from LinkedIn. Human nature, he says, means that the reviews on a LinkedIn profile are almost always positive, and are often so banal and vague that they convey virtually no real information whatsoever.
In some cases, those reviews may even be flat-out wrong. But no one will actually say what they really think because they don’t want to offend the person they’re reviewing — and besides, no one would ever authorize anything less than an enthusiastic review on their LinkedIn profile. Which, Kazanjy says, is like letting the owners of restaurants control what reviews appear on their Yelp pages — it ensures that nothing bad ever appears, and thus that no one ever gets a completely objective summary of all the information about that restaurant.
Even though you don’t know the identity of the person who left that bad review on Unvarnished, Kazanjy says the system is designed to track their behavior throughout the site, and that over time it creates a kind of persistent identity that’s almost as good as knowing who the person is (and users can reveal themselves in a comment or review at any time if they want to). Reviewers gain trust within the system by providing more reviews, and the service has an algorithm that looks at how long they’ve been a member, how many of their reviews are one-star vs. four or five, and so on. Users are awarded badges — new, novice and trusted — based on their activity, that others can view.
The bottom line is that the principle behind Unvarnished is a very real one: Your reputation is already being outsourced, whether you like it or not. All you can do is respond to criticism wherever it appears, and to get your friends and coworkers to do the same. Unvarnished offers a way to do that all in one place. It’s a valiant effort — but will it take off? The biggest issue for the service is that not everyone is going to want to confront those negative reviews, and/or hustle their friends to review them positively to counterbalance them. Of course, people already do that to some extent with LinkedIn, so what Unvarnished has to do is show that there is more value in the way it approaches online reputation.