The unvarnished truth about Unvarnished, part II

Is it possible to slander someone on Unvarnished's professional reputation site? Yes, but it's not easy.

In the last episode of TY4NS, I dove into the controversy swirling around Unvarnished, the reputations Web site people love to hate. Why do they hate it? Because the Yelp-like site appears to allow disgruntled employees, meddling managers, and other assorted pissants the opportunity to slander you anonymously. Worse, once a negative review has passed Unvarnished's phalanx of automated and human censors, you can't have it removed.

Today I'm going to talk a bit about what it's like to actually use the thing (something I suspect 99 percent of its critics have yet to do). My overall conclusion: The site definitely has its share of faults, and it can be gamed to some extent, but it's a lot harder to savage someone's reputation on Unvarnished than it appears.

As I noted last time, you must log in via Facebook Connect, making it difficult for one person to pretend to be multiple people on Unvanished. As it turns out, I have three Facebook accounts -- yes, I am schizophrenic -- so I was able to create three Unvarnished accounts to use in my experiment.

I tested Unvarnished the way I tend to test every service -- by pushing it to extremes to see where it breaks down. So I created my logins and started posting reviews. The first one I posted was of Unvarnished CEO Peter Kazanjy, since he's the one who invited me onto the site. I gave him 4 stars, rated him 8 out of 10 across the board for Skill, Productivity, Relationships, and Integrity, respectively, and left the following comment:

"I think Peter needs to drink less caffeine and eat more vegetables. Otherwise, he's the perfect manager/employee/founder/scourge of the Internet."

I posted a couple of straight reviews of people I knew on the site, and then a few of my fictional friends that were a little funkier. Like this one:

Unvarnished negative review

The next day, I got an Unvarnished Community Guidelines Violation Notification email saying this review had been pulled from the site. The reason they gave? Not because I essentially called this person a drunk who sleeps on the job, but because I suggested he kept weapons concealed in his desk. To wit:

"... your content "he keeps throwing knives in his top desk drawer" on profile [xxxxxxx] was found to be problematic, and removed from the site. Namely, the content was [inappropriate language]."

Two other funky reviews got yanked. Apparently, you can't suggest someone is an alien or married to a donkey. (Who knew?) But in neither case did I receive any notification. (That was a mistake, says Peter K.) One of my largely positive "straight" reviews also got 86'd. Why? In that instance it was because I said "for all I know, she might be a screaming hellbitch before noon." Apparently, Unvarnished didn't like my use of the word "bitch." And that's not the only word it doesn't like:

No Knobs Allowed

So if you're reviewing someone whose job involves working with, say, door knobs, you'll have to find some creative ways to phrase your praise.

One of the things I found weird was that, despite these reviews getting pulled, they still appeared on the My Unvarnished page on my account. I could still see them, but nobody else on Unvarnished could. So I would have no way of knowing (aside from the not-so-reliable emails) that there was anything wrong with them.

I spoke with Peter K. after my experiment. He told me that if I were a normal user (and not a reporter who'd just interviewed him and requested access to his site) I would have earned myself a lifetime ban from Unvarnished, based on the handful of screwy reviews I posted. They also caught one of my two fictional identities. They did not catch any of the reviews I posted of people who don't exist, however.

The major problems with Unvarnished, as I see them:

* You might have a profile on there and never know it. Peter K. says down the road, Unvarnished may attempt to notify people when someone has posted a positive review of them (though how exactly that would work is still unclear to me). He says they wouldn't do it in the case of negative reviews, though.

* People you don't know and have never worked with might be "reviewing" you. Kazanjy says the site has an algorithm that will detect these and give them less authority; it may eventually weed them out entirely. But I never saw this in action, so I can't tell you how that would work.

* You may have posted a review that got flagged and removed, but you may not ever know that. An email is supposed to be sent to you telling you why the review was problematic, but this didn't always work. Personally, I think if a review doesn't pass muster, the problematic parts should be highlighted so people can change them. But it's not my site, so...

* You can reply to a review and rebut it, if necessary. But that's where the conversation ends. The reviewer you're replying to never gets notified that you've responded (though your reply will appear in his or her "My Unvarnished" page). So if they call you a lying weasel, and you say "au contraire, mon frere," that's the end of it. Personally, I find this deeply unsatisfying.

* It's possible (though difficult) to create multiple identities in Unvarnished and cross post between them.

* It's possible to add fictional people to its profiles database (though why you'd want to is unclear).

* The anonymity of reviewers won't withstand a legal challenge. If you post a negative review of someone and that person issues a subpoena demanding Unvarnished reveal your identity, they're legally required to do that.

Peter K. says the site will do all in its power to keep that from happening -- by notifying the person who posted the review about the legal challenge and giving them 60 days to amend the review or remove it; by informing the aggrieved party of just how difficult and expensive it is to pursue any kind of defamation case, as well as the unlikelihood of success.

If gentle dissuasion doesn't work, however, you can be held liable for things you say on Unvarnished. If nothing else, that should make you think twice before you make jokes about throwing knives or donkey marriages.

My overall view: Unvarnished is a bit (wait for it) ... unpolished. Then again, it's still in beta. But the idea isn't going away. Your online reputation is hugely important -- it's what social media is ultimately about -- and it will only grow more so with time. That's something I'll be addressing a lot in future posts. Now I'm tired and need to lie down. Who knew slander could be so exhausting?

When not semi-comatose, author Dan Tynan tends his actual online personae, as well as eSarcasm, his slander-filled geek humor site. Follow him on Twitter @tynan_on_tech.

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