Cyber-Bullying Gets a New Name: Unvarnished

Last Updated Apr 7, 2010 1:58 PM EDT

As if life wasn't tough enough, the unbridled web site Unvarnished bows this week with one objective: to legitimize anonymous cyber bullying of persons and businesses without reproach.

Hit and run comments are already prevalent enough on social networks, blogs and websites, where they slip through the cracks of posted protocol and rules of behavior. Unvarnished has painfully little regulation considering the firestorm it is inviting other than to implore users to check each other.

The San Francisco start-up that has been getting negative reviews from the cybernistas has a "wait list" for its beta site. A waiting list to humiliate others? Hmmm. Sounds like an anticipation-building gimmick to me.

Unvarnished co-founder Peter Kazanjy calls Unvarnished the "Yelp for people," encouraging web user to build, manage and research theirs and others' reputations. Hmm. Sounds like an invitation for defamation lawsuits to me.

Surprisingly, Facebook, the number one social networking site, is allowing itself to be party to the Unvarnished loose cannon, which registers "legitimate participants in the conversation" through Facebook Connect.

That is a hypocritical bid for legitimacy since users are allowed to participant in the nameless nastiness that so many other social networks and websites prohibit.

The social networking conversation will only become more deafening as mobile Internet devices become the universal control hub of computing and communications over the next five years, making anyone's destructive rant easier to magnify and transmit.

The anonymous damage Unvarnished will foster seems all the more misplaced in the context of recent deadly physical and cyber bullying incidents among US adolescents,

Businesses and career professionals urged by the likes of Forrester Research and eMarketer to embrace a social media strategy will need to include a damage control for dealing with toxic word-of-mouth on Unvarnished.

Social MediaSEO.com compares the potential devastation Unvarnished to the existing Ripoffreport. Craig's List founding owner Craig Newmark says he's optimistic about the site and considers it part of the shifting balance of power to trusted reputation systems.

New York Times tech reporter Brad Stone says Unvarnished is like "a public bathroom wall for everyone on the planet - then hands its users a big, anonymous Sharpie pen." TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington resigns that everything about each of us will eventually find its way to the Web anyway, and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage or control individual online reputations. but still labels it "a clean, well-lit place for defamation."

Travis Smith is one of the few souls already indirectly stung by Unvarnished this week when his nine-year-old web site of the same name experienced a 15,000 percent boost in traffic before he started redirecting the curious to getunvarnihed.com

In an interview with CNET's Molly Woods, Kazanjy says he's convinced the online community will moderate and edits its own. But, there is no example of that regularly occurring on the Web. (CNET and BNET are owned by CBS)

Kazanjy compares his new "reputation marketplace" to Amazon, where users review products and services - not people.

By creating their own profile, or claiming one that was created for them, professionals can take control of and build their professional reputation, Unvarnished instructs on its beta site.

That puts users on the defensive, since they are helpless to remove or edit nasty, personal or false remarks about them on Unvarnished. Anyone under attack can only rally friends and family to post in their defense. They also can resort to services like ReputationDefender that assists with monitoring and acting to correct erroneous or damaging information that shows up in Google searches.

Because Unvarnished appears to protect reviewers more than those being "reviewed" by sidestepping transparency, it has already stirred anxiety and anger among some cyber pundits.

Unvarnished obscures the identity of review authors to encourage candid, honest comments "without fear of repercussions." The ratings and reviews of comments are supposed to ensure high quality denigration.

Anyone writing online to impart information and a studied perspective knows what it is to fall subject to anonymous cruel, self-serving comments that often have more to do with readers than with the posted writing. At the other end of the spectrum is constructive, lively intellectual debate.

The problem Unvarnished creates is that it operates under the assumption that no one will get hurt and civility will rule. Even under the best of circumstances, physical and cyber bully crowds do not police themselves.

Just as big a problem is the business model Unvarnished can create. Will advertisers and consumers ever pay for crowdsourcing reputation-building or -demolition? Please tell me we have not sunk that low.

  • Diane Mermigas

    Diane Mermigas has been a contributing editor and columnist at Mediapost, The Hollywood Reporter and Crain Communications as well as writing for such sites as Seeking Alpha, TrueSlant and BNET. In addition to speaking and television appearances, Diane consults with companies in digital transition, and is completing a book on the future of media.