Can Silicon Valley Handle Unvarnished?


Can you handle the truth? That's the word buzzing around Silicon Valley this week in the wake of the launch of Unvarnished, a startup that allows people to post anonymous rants about people. Want to slag your former co-worker who passed gas after lunch? Unvarnished is the place for you. How about the boss who slammed your team for not working hard enough, then took off on a three-week cruise? Now you can post the unvarnished truth.

What makes the concept behind Unvarnished different is that the site won't let you take down nasty notes or anecdotes about you. It won't even let you control whether a profile of you appears. Like the controversial local ratings site Yelp, Unvarnished aims to let the masses voice their opinions with impunity, anonymity and no fears of reprisal.

Started by former VMWare product marketing manager Peter Kazanjy, Unvarnished has proven to be a lightning rod in its scant few days of existence. Lots of posters on blogs have voiced either visceral hatred of the concept or ecstatic joy. Gawker Media's Valleywag blog perhaps voiced the sentiment many were thinking but were afraid to say -- that Unvarnished is a digital extortion racket. More telling, perhaps, were a few posters who explained how Kazanjy's site could be put to good business use. One poster on TechCrunch opined that an enterprising consultant could hire a small army in India or somewhere else to post positive comments on a profile as a means of boosting business. Another poster stated the obvious yang to that ying -- that it would be very easy to use Unvarnished to smear a competitor. Unvarnished plans to roll out systems to prevent this type of reputation spamming, but Amazon, with all its tech savvy, has struggled to police ratings fraud perpetrated on a fairly broad scale by merchants and marketers.

Rating People Is a Whole Different Universe From Rating Businesses

To his credit, Kazanjy is going to eat his own dog food, allowing his own profile to be commented on and publicly weighed for all past transgressions, real and imagined. And it's clear Kazanjy thinks that Unvarnished won't turn into a "burn book" of unhinged nastiness. Rather, he thinks that lots of positive commenters will come forward and that the site's profiles will reflect the true beliefs of friends and colleagues. He may be right. While Yelp has garnered plenty of negative press, not to mention a few class action lawsuits, over damage that small merchants claim was caused by bad reviews or the manipulation of bad reviews, the biggest gripe against Yelp has long been that the reviewers are entirely too positive. If Yelp were truly a bell-curve grading system, the most common rating would be 2.5 stars. A quick skim through Yelp clearly shows this is not the case.

On the other hand, more recent ratings carry more weight, and a few truly horrific ratings coupled with disgusting tales of woe related to a Yelped business can do serious damage. It's one thing to explain away such ratings in a business that perhaps serves hundreds of customers per week (of course someone is unhappy). I personally came out with a position in a recent article that Yelp should do away with anonymity to improve its business and its reputation with reviewed merchants.

But in the case of people, this is an entirely different universe. What if the bad rating comes from someone who claims they worked with you in your last job, a circumstance that is much more circumscribed? By extension, these ratings will likely matter far more and carry more weight and damage. For hiring managers, any tool that helps them peer into the soul of an applicant is welcome in this era of CYA, say-nothing-negative job reference etiquette.

So can the world handle the unvarnished truth? We're certainly about to find out. Kazanjy has preloaded 400,000 profiles of Silicon Valleyites onto Unvarnished. The next few months will be critical for his business, which will likely flourish quickly or fail quickly. But the coming months will also be a fascinating experiment in collective human nature, and perhaps, an extremely informative lesson in what sorts of checks and balances are required in a digital age. Unvarnished plans to show us precisely what it means to live in an online world where not only is there no privacy, but everything anyone says can and will be used against you -- for the rest of your life.