less style, some substance

NYT #IsKindaClueless

lululogoToday Lulu makes its New York Times debut, page E1.

Lulu lets women review guys. Specifically their date-worthiness, rated out of 10, with tags calling out attributes like #DudeCanCook and #HygenicallyChallenged.

Similar ideas have been tried before but fizzled. Maybe it’s because we instinctively reject them, sensing the potential for disgusting acts of humanity — or maybe it’s just that no one has figured out the right way to do it yet.

Lulu may have cracked the nut. It claims to have a quarter of all college women (!) on board — its growth aided by its natural alignment with the sorority community — and it’s done so using a formula more refined than past attempts. It’s for ladies only, it’s playful, and its taglines promote ‘dating intel’, not spiteful dishing.

To prevent an otherwise inevitable flow of vitriol, the app restricts reviews to numerical ratings (for things like attractiveness and humor) and an array of pre-written cheeky hashtags, so there isn’t an opportunity to type anything out yourself. Most of the hashtags are amusing, but others have a decidedly nastier bent, like #50ShadesOfF**kedUp, #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, and #TotalF**kingDickhead.

The app has managed to raise $2.5 million, with investors including mega-rich Facebook investor Yuri Milner, Jawbone founder Hosain Rahman, and Path founder Dave Morin.

So. Where does this go?

Some guys rally their female friends to leave positive reviews. Some women use it to exact revenge on guys who did them wrong. It proves genuinely helpful for women anxious about dating complete strangers, but they throw some out with the bathwater. Some guys clean up — others have their inadequacies presented to them in bar-graph form. It totally wrecks a few of them.

If it sticks, it fundamentally changes dating. Early dates become even less authentic acts of performance art whose reviews last in perpetuity (perhaps alongside a tag of #ManChild, the souvenir of a messy breakup). Guys can request that their profile be removed, but the article notes that, already, “apparently many [men] believe it’s better to have been badly reviewed than never to have been reviewed.”

And, to state the obvious: now guys have an excuse to try using their own analogous app.

I’m not going to argue that Lulu is a bad idea, because it’s an idea we’re going to have to deal with. We’re so used to seeing ratings next to everything — including profiles on dating sites — that it feels inevitable, even if such services launch and die in a phoenix-like lifecycle.

And it isn’t all bad. One of the women quoted in the article says, “dating without a reference is the scariest thing you can do” —  the app helps ameliorate that. Surely much of the appeal has nothing to do with safety, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t helped some women avoid getting tangled in a scary situation.

Do the benefits outweigh the downsides? I don’t think so, not by a long shot, but I don’t hold much sway in the matter. People are starting to review each other, as people, and my hunch is we’ll be figuring out how to deal with it for a long time.

But that’s not my point.

My point is that the NYT article hardly tackles any of this. Most other publications prominently discuss the controversy around the app — but here, the tone is uncritical (if not oddly positive), we read that Lulu is “a sort of ‘Take Back the Internet’ moment for young women who have come of age in an era of revenge porn and anonymous, possibly ominous suitors”. It quotes the cofounder’s boyfriend as saying, “It inspires guys to be good and treat girls the way they should be treated. Like angels.”

The counter argument is the following muted discussion:

Not all men are so magnanimous about their presence on Lulu, of course. Last summer, Neel Shah, a comedy writer, was at a bar in Los Angeles on a date with a woman who pulled up his profile. “She started reading me these negative hashtags and I was like, ‘Uh, this is awkward,’ ” said Mr. Shah, 30, whose profile has been viewed 448 times and “favorite” eight times for an average score of 6.7. His hashtags include #TallDarkAndHandsome and #CleansUpGood, along with the less flattering #TemperTantrums and #WanderingEye.

“One of the comments was, ‘laughing at his jokes may take some effort,’ which I certainly thought was subjective,” Mr. Shah said. “I feel like if you’re using an app like Lulu, you’re probably not interested in nuanced analysis.”

Now, that chunk of text might be enough to cover the potential downsides if the article were about, say, Yelp. We’re all used to reviewing businesses, and even individuals, in a professional context. We’re also used to reading about how some of them get labeled with bad reviews that they don’t like and how it’s not fair.

But this is something different. People getting reviewed for their personality and appearance when they’re vulnerable — on dates, in relationships, not while they’re wearing a stethoscope or fixing the sink — by people they may have romantic feelings for.

I mean, hell — Mr. Shah sounds unfazed, but a woman he went on a date with left a review saying that he, a comedy writer, has a bad sense of humor. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. Looking further out, it’s not hard to imagine litigation and perhaps even attempts at legislation (particularly around the fact that men do not have to opt-in before they are reviewed).

Maybe this is all a moot point. The article appears on the front page of the NYT Fashion and Style section, where, perhaps, the bar is lower. Were this any average app I would be chuckling about the fact that it includes a self-effacing quip from Mike Isaac, a top tech journalist, without appearing to realize he is a tech journalist. But this isn’t an average app. And it’s my sense that the nation’s paper of record has a responsibility to flag it as the social quagmire it is, regardless of which page the article appears on.

This passage appears toward the end of the article, without qualification:

But Ms. Chong has the grand hope that Lulu will accomplish what generations of women have not been able to do: change the opposite sex.

“There’s an element of behavior modification that we’re hearing and seeing,” she said. “When we do sessions at colleges, we ask guys, ‘Have any of you changed since Lulu launched?’ Hands go up.”


Relevant links:

What’s He Really Like? Check the Lulu App – Deborah Schoeneman, The New York Times

Lulu

Reputation is Dead – Michael Arrington, TechCrunch

I actually found Mike’s post, published in 2010, after I’d written most of the above. He was writing about a different app (and references several even earlier attempts that dealt with reputation) but the concerns are very similar. His conclusion: we’re going to review ourselves until we don’t care about reviews any more. Definitely worth reading.


Correction, 11/23: Lulu uses asterisks in the word ‘Fuck’. Also, the tag is #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, not #F**kItAndChuckIt, though the thematically-similar ‘#HitItAndQuitIt’ is available.

10 Responses to NYT #IsKindaClueless

  1. Elaine Ellis says:

    Great take. But interesting that you feel bad for the restaurant owners on Yelp instead of women who’ve been objectified and rated for years. Objectification is shitty on both sides of the table.

    • Thanks. I don’t disagree — and I am lucky to not have to deal with being objectified in the way women do, but I think there’s a difference between society’s undercurrent of objectification and explicitly doing it with an app like this.

      The reason it reminded me of Yelp is that it and similar review sites have long used language about hoping the negative reviews get restaurants/professionals/etc. to improve, which feels bizarre in this context. (edit: I decided to remove that line — worried the similarity in messaging may be less obvious to most people. For those who are curious, the final line read, “I suddenly feel a lot worse for the restaurant owners on Yelp.” Probably better without it, anyway.)

      • “society’s undercurrent of objectification”

        I wouldn’t call it an undercurrent. If you think it’s hidden, which it isn’t, maybe undertow would be more accurate.

        I agree with your point about NYT and I am disturbed by the concept of rating humans as humans but:

        Men need to take more responsibility for their behavior in the world. On the whole we’re doing a shitty job with that.

        Rating humans is inevitable because Silicon Valley and digital entrepreneurs seem to have mostly internalized technological determinism and so, if it can be done (and there’s money to be made), it’s going to happen. That’s a problem mostly created by men.

        That said:

        I know women (and men) who have used gossip and community censure to control others and it’s rarely intended to improve anyone’s good behavior.

        And that said:

        This is just taking offline behavior and taking it through those changes of private to public we’re seeing with everything else. That’s why I think we’re mostly all to blame for the increasing surveillance state and we’re each just doing our part to bring it into every aspect of life.

        And given that those truly concerned about building a positive world beyond just web talk seem to be fairly incompetent these days (Occupy, for example), I don’t see the situation improving in the future.

        Hmmm, doomed as usual. Yay humans!

  2. A good piece Jason, thanks for taking the time to write. (I found it through a Twitter search of Lulu.)

    I too found the NYT’s lack of depth frustrating as was their decision to not do a deeper dive into a couple of areas.

    There does not seem to be a threshold for adding a damaging tag to someone’s profile. Maybe this is accounted for in their algorithm but what a guy is rated by only by a one date and it was a disaster (we’ve all been there) and she lights him up. We all know to toss out the best and the worst on TripAdvisor.

    And what woman is going to give a guy high marks if she’s still interested in him? Maybe I’m missing something here but is there not more of an incentive to burn someone here than to sing their praises? Fair warning, I guess but it just turns their app into a do-not-date list that one would check before agreeing to go out.

    …and now (of course) I’m curious if I have been assigned a number.

    • Thanks Steven. Some good points — they do encourage guys to get their female friends to leave reviews, so I’d guess that’s probably the primary source of the positives would come from.

  3. Really nice analysis, Jason. Also worth noting: the mainstream media, let alone the NYT, would lose its collective shit if a similar app were available to rate women. Equivalent hashtags would include #needstoloseafew and #pronetobitchiness…

    • Thanks Dave! Agreed, this would never play out this way if it were flipped, though some would argue that’s only because things already favor men so much (not that that means Lulu is a good idea).

  4. Paul Scoser says:

    Jason Kincaid. The greatest TechCrunch writer that ever was. TC CRIBS 4 life.

    I’m a dude. But I’d rate you well on Lulu. #ManAfterMyOwnHeart #BigHandsForWriting

  5. MickC says:

    Jason, good points. How about a collective “boycott” where every male opts out with a distinctively “take the high road” approach like “What? Lulu? What kind of Lulu-loser would allow himself to be subjected to that BS, good or bad”?

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