Video: People-rating Web site stirs controversy

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    >>> bounty. the thick quicker picker-upper.

    >>> we're back at 7:46 with a controversial new website that allows people to rate and review each other. and if something negative is posted about you, there's little that can be done about it.

    >> reporter: websites like perez hilton pick on celebrities. now a new website, getunvarnished.com lets regular people criticize each other. users can make comments about colleagues or even strangers and rate them on a five- star system .

    >> what we're attempting to do is bring.

    >> reporter: it allows a user to create a profile of someone else without even telling them, and they have no way to take it down or remove anything negative.

    >> other people have a right to talk about you, even if you're unhappy about that.

    >> reporter: software developer rob abbott created his own profile and started using unvarnished to gain potential clients but he found himself in the hot seat , the lowest rating possible.

    >> i didn't know how to feel because i had no control and that was the biggest issue.

    >> reporter: tech experts say the lack of control can lead to some alarming online material.

    >> the worst behavior we've seen on the internet comes from people who hide behind anonymity.

    >> in the real world , you can sue a critic for defamation, but when the criticism is anonymous and online, there's no way to stop it. unvarnished says having people slam each other is not their goal.

    >> this is not a place for satellite grudges and for grinding axes. this is a place for productive conversation about professional reputation.

    >> reporter: rob abbott says that feedback is worth it. evaluating just about anyone, whether they like it or not. nbc news, san francisco .

    >> parry is executive director of wiredsafety.org. good to see you.

    >> good morning, matt.

    >> it is for productive conversation and professional reputation. if there's no way to control it, that has to worry people.

    >> they need to do it the right way, which means they need to put in security checks, find out who is behind it if they need to, legal protections.

    >> people say things behind our backs and other people's backs all the time. nothing new about that. there is something about putting it down in writing on the internet that does give it more power, doesn't it?

    >> it does. you look at it. it's on the screen and somehow seems real because a computer is involved. they're doing it, bashing each other in the millions.

    >> you have to ask the question why any responsible employer would go to a site like this, knowing that these things can be posted anonymously and without control.

    >> i don't know that they really think about how credible it is or not. it's a website. sounds like it does what it's supposed to do and you might believe any crackpot who will be posting these things.

    >> parry, a lot of websites go and rate restaurants anonymously and services anonymously. ebay, you can go and rate sellers. what's the big difference here?

    >> lots of controls are put in ebay on sellers, lots of people are doing it, you have to deal with it in the right way. they've been in there a long time. with people, there's grudges, your ex, your neighbor who is angry because your dog is barking. a lot of people will take pot shots at you because you are the high-profile or somebody they don't like today.

    >> a lot lately, a lot of disturbing things going on.

    >> a lot. it all comes down to education, making sure that the enterprise , the site knows what they're doing and need to adopt best practices . people need to know how to protect themselves and we need to constantly let them know what to be careful about.

    >> parry aftab , appreciate it.

    >> as always, matt.

By
msnbc.com
updated 4/5/2010 4:43:30 PM ET 2010-04-05T20:43:30

A new site dedicated to "building, managing, and researching professional reputations" that lets those in the work world comment on their bosses, colleagues and associates is creating controversy even before it's officially launched.

GetUnvarnished.com, still in a test phase, hides the name of those commenting on a person, but the reviewer's identity is known to those who run the site, said Peter Kazanjy, one of the site's co-founders. He said only civil comments will be allowed, and that Unvarnished, the company behind the site, will offer a more realistic assessment of a person's strengths and weaknesses than a professional networking site such as LinkedIn.

On LinkedIn, users have control over the profiles they post, as well as any recommendations they choose to add to those profiles.

"You end up only with fluffy, hand-wavy content that's not very believable because of the non-obscured nature of those reviews," with individuals required to use their real names, Kazanjy said of LinkedIn.

"While we obscure the identity (of the person posting comments), instead we present the reader of the reviews with authoritative metrics associated with that reviewer. The reader can’t look at the review and say, 'Oh, Jim left that review.' Instead, it says. 'This trusted reviewer left that review.' "

The site will rely on a combination of computer algorithms, monitoring and reports from its own community of users to keep tabs on inappropriate comments, said Kazanjy, who is formerly a product manager at VMware software.

"To encourage candor, and allow review authors to contribute honest, balanced reviews without fear of repercussion, Unvarnished obscures the name of reviewer authors," Unvarnished says in a document about its site.

"A review author's real world identity will never be outwardly tied to a review they have been submitted. Furthermore, Unvarnished does not outwardly tie together multiple reviews submitted by the same user, in order to prevent the reverse-engineering of an author's identity."

Unvarnished requires those who sign up to do so through Facebook Connect, in order to verify their professional identities and associations, said Kazanjy. Someone who just wants to spout off without professionally knowing a person — say, an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend — will have their comments removed, as will someone who "engages in unproductive conversation, or is marked as abusive," Kazanjy said.

"If a user is engaged in very bad behavior, his account can be terminated, and all his reviews can disappear," he said.

Still, unless a person who is being reviewed is a member of the site, or knows he is being reviewed, there's little chance he'd find out about it — unless he runs a daily "Google alert"  on his own name or hears about Unvarnished.com comments from colleagues or associates.

That's no different that how things are "on the Internet at large," said Kazanjy. "Somebody could create a blog and use that to say something about you, or on their Twitter stream, and you may or may not know that that’s happening. This is why some people set up Google alerts, to pay attention to what is being said about them on the Web.

"What we’re doing is providing a centralized place for this discussion to take place, where there are rules and there is structure, and we have reserved a primary seat for you at this table."

The site is free to join, although it is "invite-only" right now, he said, with about 400,000 users.

"Once we are out of beta, when somebody leaves a review, we will provide an option for that person to send an e-mail" to the person being reviewed, he said, so that they are aware. But an option means just that: not required.

The site is not the first to be a public bulletin board of sorts for people who want to criticize — or praise — others. Several sites already offer an electronic megaphone for complaints about companies or services. One of them, RateMyTeacher.com lets students anonymously review their teachers' performances.

Attorney and Internet safety expert Parry Aftab, speaking on "The Today Show," said that while sites like eBay allow ratings for sellers, the company has been doing it for awhile now, and it's a less personal issue than someone being rated for the job they do or don't do.

"With people, there are grudges," she said. "There's your ex, there's your neighbor who's angry because your dog's barking ... There are a lot of people who take potshots at you because you're either high-profile or somebody they don't like today."

And Unvarnished's comments can get ... uncomfortable, witness Kazanjy's sharing of a screenshot from his own profile.

"Was never impressed with Peter's performance ... He seemed to think that because his product was the only consumer product at VMware, that they should get special treatment, and not be subject to the same policies as the other products. This sense of entitlement was frustrating to deal with."

To which, Kazanjy responds, on the site: "Well, I'm sorry you feel that way, but I think that my record at VMware speaks for itself ... at the end of the day, my duty was to my team and my customers before internal vendors whom I may have aggravated."

If that's too much public disclosure, consider this, Kazanjy says: "If you were trying to make a decision as to which real estate agent to hire, or which sales vendor, or whether to work for his boss, don't you think you have a right to research this person on the Web?"

But if it's your hide — and reputation — being criticized, constructively or not, it's still tough to swallow.

"People immediately think of the worst-case scenario, because we’re obscuring the names of reviewers, that this is the place where you go to give people F-minuses," he said. "But it’s the place to go where it’s safe to give someone an A-minus or a B-minus … it makes them more believable, as opposed to other places (or sites), where everyone’s above average, and not only are they above average, they’re 95th percentile, which makes it hard for people to make educated decisions" about potential hires.

Unvarnished's co-founders include a former eBay manager, Jason Heidema, and former LinkedIn employee, Danis Dayanov. Kazanjy said it's not known when the site will move from "invite-only" to "everybody."

"The plan right now is to take is slow and watch how the community evolves," he said. "Right now, we like this model because it ensures productive, professional conversation of the sort that we are seeing on the site right now, and we will be evaluating our timeline based on that."

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