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Unvarnished, a new website that rates people, triggers controversy

March 31, 2010 |  1:34 pm

Unvarnished

Peter Kazanjy, 30, a little-known former product manager for a major software company, has just launched a new venture that has turned him into a very public and very controversial figure overnight.

Unvarnished, his new website, is like Yelp for people, a site where anyone can anonymously post reviews about anyone else. Kazanjy says the idea is to bring accountability and transparency to the workplace by encouraging more candid and nuanced feedback than might be seen on the professional networking site LinkedIn, where all recommendations have to be approved by the profile owner.

Kazanjy’s own Unvarnished profile boasts 42 reviews and an average five-star rating. He readily admits he was panned in one two-star rating by someone who contends he didn’t work well with others at VMware, a critique that he says is not completely undeserved.

“This is a case study that shows me that Unvarnished is working,” Kazanjy said. “Unlike a smear campaign in the offline world that I don’t hear about, on Unvarnished I can address it and have other people refute it.”

Early reviews of Kazanjy's venture have varied, but many have been negative. "Unvarnished lets you bitch about your colleagues," said one headline. "Unvarnished could cost you your next job," said another.

CNet was incensed:

Creating a "social network" dedicated to reviewing and rating people basically amplifies everything that's awful about the Web right now: anonymous, drive-by, ad hominem attacks that can't be erased or edited and that live in search forever. Regardless of how soon Unvarnished gets sued or gets somebody else sued, it's a seriously jerky idea for a business.

Kazanjy is not surprised by the blistering backlash in Silicon Valley, the birthplace of social media technologies that are stripping away the last layers of privacy and exposing more details about people’s lives to the world. Observers say this is a wake-up call to protect your online reputation since comments and opinions -- both positive and negative -- will be compiled in one searchable, central place.

"This is big and scary," said Kazanjy, who has had to develop a thicker skin himself over the last 24 hours.

Influential technology blogger Michael Arrington warned that people will just have to get used to living in a digital age that bares all:

The skeletons are coming out of the closet and onto the front porch. Today we have quick fire and semi- or completely anonymous attacks on people, brands, businesses and just about everything else. And it is becoming increasingly findable on the search engines. Twitter, Yelp, Facebook, etc. are the new printing presses, and absolutely everyone, even the random wingnuts, have access.

ReadWriteWeb had a different take.

Unvarnished could be positioned as a place you can anonymously slam your former bosses on or a place you've just got to visit in order to see what's been written about you. It could just as accurately be described as LinkedIn with teeth minus the sappy reviews people post to each others' profiles on that site. LinkedIn with teeth makes it seem more mundane, and that is the truth of the matter. Browse around a little and you'll calm down pretty quickly. Come back later when you're considering working with someone and you may find it useful.

Kazanjy is bootstrapping the San Francisco company with his two co-founders, Jason Heidema, a former group manager at EBay, and Danis Dayanov, a former LinkedIn employee. Their vision: a site with an open feedback system that provides incentive for professional behavior and allows people to uncover “unvarnished” information on prospective hires, bosses and business partners. The invitation-only site already counts hundreds of users, thousands of reviews and 400,000 plus professional profiles.

It operates on top of Facebook so you have to get a request to be reviewed from a Facebook friend to create an Unvarnished account. You have to show that you are an active user of Facebook to keep out folks who want to set up fake accounts to grind axes or settle scores.

That said, anyone can create an online profile about you and submit anonymous reviews. You can claim your profile but you have to accept every post and you cannot remove your profile. You can manage your reputation by posting updates or requesting reviews. Fellow users moderate reviews and report abuse.

Having some control -- but not total control --over one’s professional reputation online is better than the alternative and better than how it works offline, Kazanjy said.

He also points out that other review sites such as TheFunded.com, which allows people to rate venture capitalists, or TripAdvisor, which allows people to rate hotels and vacation spots, would be useless if the business owners could delete any review they wanted.

“The idea is to create a place, not where people only give F-minuses, but a place where people can feel comfortable to give B-pluses or A-minuses,” Kazanjy said. “Reviews then actually mean something.

“Our contention is that there is more to be gained by surfacing that,” he said. “We look out for the interests of the profile owners and balance that interest with the people consuming information about them.”

-- Jessica Guynn

Image: Unvarnished co-founder Peter Kazanjy's profile boasts 42 reviews.

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